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?