A Living vs. A Life

Earlier today I was having a conversation with a new acquaintance about writing.  He asked me, “Do you write?”  A seemingly simple and straightforward question.  But I found this to be interesting for what he didn’t ask…

He didn’t ask, “Are you a writer?”  These two questions are different forms of the ubiquitous, “What do you do?”  The first questions action, the second questions identity.

Somewhere along the way “What do you do?” became a question of identity rather than a question of action.  We started responding, “I’m an actor,” “I’m a lawyer,” “I’m a data entry processor.”  But none of these really capture our true selves, nor do they suggest anything more outside of vocation.  We let ourselves be confined to one dimension.

What if “What do you do?” became a literal question.  If it’s true that actions speak louder than words, then reflecting on this question might paint a more interesting and detailed image of ourselves.  We are multidimensional creatures.  We are more than our vocation.  We are depth that cannot be captured in a single word or sentence.

“Are you a writer?” implies a confining definition, whereas “Do you write?” leaves room for a more intricate, multifaceted identity.  “Are you a writer?” is a box to contain, and “Do you write?” is one part of a greater whole.  When we identify ourselves as something, that’s usually where it ends.  We’ve limited ourselves to that definition.

I had a college writing professor who encouraged us not to limit our identity to being writers, but place writing alongside other aspects of our whole selves.  It involved placing less emphasis on what we do–or want to do–for a living, and more on what we do to live.  “I’m a fisherman who practices law.” “I’m a coffee-enthusiast who teaches high school.”  “I’m a father who writes poetry.”  Being a writer (or anything else, for that matter) need not be a confining, limiting identity; it can be an additive one.

So when asked a broad question of identity such as,
“Are you a writer?” or “What do you do?”

I would challenge us to respond:
“I’m a ___ who ___.”

What do you see are the differences between “Do you write?” and “Are you a writer?”

How would you define yourself differently than you may have been defining yourself in the past?

How does changing the way we define ourselves to others change the way we see ourselves?


18 thoughts on “A Living vs. A Life

  1. Exactly. If we can look past the definition of writer, there’s less pressure to produce and SUCCEED obsessively just so others can look at us and also agree with the label of “writer.” Instead I can call myself a traveler who writes or a human rights advocate who pens stories, and then I don’t have to have a story in The New Yorker for others to agree with me.

    Love your blog!

  2. So fun to think about. I would say that I am a wife who teaches composition and watches a 6-yr-old boy and waits tables and last-but-certainly-not-least writes whenever I am so inspired and have time. Saying I’m a “waitress” or “professor” or “nanny” or “writer” or “wife” certainly doesn’t explain everything everything about my active identity. Each of those things isn’t one thing in itself, and totally depends on the others for that identity to exist in the way that it does in my life. If I really think about it, I often think of myself as an “experience-creator” (writing creates an experience for the reader, waitressing does the same for the patron, nannying for the child, teaching for the student, and wife for the husband/family). Each aspect of my identity has taught me something about creating an experience for others: detail, loyalty, service, truth, sharing insight, fun/play and love.

    Hope that doesn’t sound corny. 🙂

    • Not corny at all. I think it’s beautiful the way they all work together–definitely paints a cooler picture than any one of those words on their own would suggest. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Lauren!

  3. So you do write! I greatly enjoy your style and voice!

    What’s under the surface here is a classic tension: doing vs. being. What we do drives who we are and become. And who we are (or think we are) drives what we do.

    So which leads?

    I think doing leads. What we do, over time, defines us as (human) beings. Our actions don’t just speak louder than words. They are words. Unspoken ones, right?

    Our identity is a collection of the things we do, like a recipe. As we add ingredients, the flavor changes. Hopefully for the better!

    Awesome post!

    • Hahaha, little did you know the way you phrased your question would be such a big deal, huh? I totally agree with you about doing leading the being, and I love the idea about our actions being unspoken words. A great thought.

      Here’s to building an excellent recipe (says the girl who doesn’t cook)! Thanks so much for your eloquent comment, Keith!

  4. Great point, Allison.

    This last year I’ve had this horrible urge to stab those who pose the question “what do you do?” to people they’ve just met, especially when that person was me. Because the answer changed pretty rapidly, as I was dropping jobs like flies–and none of the answers seemed to define me the way I wanted them to.

    My solution was to tell people I was a bum. Or a vagabond. Or a couch surfer. And then I would add “and sometimes Target lets me cashier.” Or “and occasionally, I make sandwiches for people at Subway.” Or “sometimes people trust me with their children.” Sometimes I would just respond with what I had done that day–what do I do? Well today, I read a book on the bus, wrote some e-mails and made tacos, what did you do?

    If we all adopted the habit of asking “do you write?” instead of “are you a writer?” I think we’d all be able to understand each other a little better.

  5. To me, the statement “I’m a writer” is more about ego than it is about work. Real writers don’t have to assert themselves at a cocktail party with some title that may or may impress others. Real writers write.

    And they do a lot of other things, too.

    Great post, Allison. You’ve got a gift.

  6. Pingback: Ask Ms. Dorothy: Reflecting on "What I do"

  7. Pingback: 3 Thoughts on Putting Myself in a Box | The Get-a-Life Project

  8. Pingback: Get a Life vs. Get a Job | The Get-a-Life Project

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