On Being a Bum

Everyone in my family is sick.  My wife, my sister-in-law, two of my nieces, my little grandniece.  And I fear Pastor Mom may be coming down with it now.

It’s been a regular barf fest around here and our best friend is the big can of citrus-scented Lysol.  My poor wife was moaning all through the night because every bone in her body ached.  When she finally felt she might be able to hold something in her stomach, I made her a slice of peanut butter toast and read part of a novel aloud to her.  Honestly, I feel helpless.  There’s really nothing I can do other than dispense ibuprofen and sympathy.

Before I end up violently ill myself and blow this whole NaBloPoMo thing, I need to get something off my chest.  Something that’s been bothering me.

You see, I was flipping through Freshly Pressed when I had the misfortune of coming across Suzie81’s post Professional or Hobbyist? about who is entitled to call himself or herself a writer.  Apparently, Suzie, along with Caitlin Kelly of Broadside Blog, believe that the title “writer” rightfully belongs only to those “professionals” who are paid for their writing.

I am very pleased that I live in an age where the marketplace of ideas is on display daily in the blogosphere.  However, the idea expressed in Suzie’s post is one with which I must respectfully disagree.

Reading the comments to Suzi’s post, I see that I am in good company.  If the fact that I am not financially compensated for my writing disqualifies me from being a professional, then by all means, call me an unprofessional writer or a nonprofessional writer or some such drivel.  Calling me a “hobbyist” would be inaccurate, as this would imply that my primary occupation is something else.  But such is not the case.  This, my friends, is my primary occupation.  Is the fact that I don’t happen to get paid for it due cause for me to be drummed out of the writers’ corps?

This blog isn’t the only writing I do.  I’ve also been tap-tapping away at my childhood memoirs and I’ve been writing more than a few job application essays.  Checks, not so much.   (Unemployment will do that to you).

I realize that every blogger has his or her own way of approaching things.  As for myself, I spend four to seven hours a day reading, researching, writing drafts and editing before I hit the “publish” button.  Please don’t dismiss these efforts as “not work” or “a hobby.”  (Applying for jobs is my hobby.  I don’t get paid for that either.)

It isn’t as if I’ve always written for free.  I spent four years as a well-paid legal writer before being laid off and working for three years as a middle manager in government service and then being laid off again.  So feel free to call me a legal writer or a middle manager (or a typesetter or a telephone operator or any of a dozen other things I’ve done over the years) or whatever floats your boat.  I’m not doing any of those things now, so you may as well call me a pirate or a sculptor or a rock star, since I’m not currently doing any of those things either.

Suzi relates that she was nonplussed by the acquaintance who introduced himself as a photographer, a field he pursued with passion, when his paycheck was the result of his work as a bartender.  Suzi feels that he not only misrepresented himself, but also shortchanged the value of bartending by being too embarrassed to admit to it as his vocation.  As the old Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “Do You Know the Way to San José” reminds us, “all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas.”  And as every New Yorker knows, the friendly server at your favorite restaurant is really an actor or actress.

So I hear you, Suzi, but where I think your argument falls short is in failing to recognize that each of us is endowed with the inalienable right to self-identify in any way we please.

Now, I recognize that this is a double-edged sword.  I can call myself a two-toed tree sloth, but that doesn’t make me one (I just smell like one).  On the other hand, a photographer is one who takes photographs and a writer is one who writes.  As all the self-motivation seminars will tell you, you have to “see it to be it.”  I have experienced this phenomenon personally.  Back in the eighties, I was the only employee in our print shop who came to work in a jacket and tie.  I saw myself as a manager, and within two years I was one.  You have to believe in yourself!

As I wrote in a post earlier this week, I do what I do because I enjoy the process and take pride in the product.  Money has nothing to do with it.  Yes, it would be lovely to have someone value my work enough to pay me for it, but I don’t expect this to happen.  No matter.  I will keep at it for as long as I am able to compose a coherent argument and pound this keyboard.  When a reader clicks the “like” button, I feel that I have been richly rewarded for my efforts.

Oh, and what is this bullshit about being a “professional?”  As a teenager, my parents taught me that a professional is one who makes his or her own hours.  My mother and father were both teachers; they insisted that, no matter what anyone says, they are not professionals because they are required to work set hours.  By this definition, they should be proud of their son, the (unemployed) professional.  As a veteran of graveyard shifts, I mostly work in the middle of the night, but ultimately I can work whenever and wherever I feel so inclined.  The internet rocks!

And if you reject my parents’ definition and insist that a professional is one who is paid for his or her work, then I humbly submit that you have in a single stroke dismissed the value of the work of the unpaid homemaker, housewife, domestic goddess (gotta love Roseanne Barr) or whatever term you use for those women (and more than a few men) who, like my wife, engage in work more valuable than all the gold in Fort Knox.

Many of the commenters on Suzi’s post pointed out (correctly, in my opinion) that this whole labeling thing, determining who is and who is not a writer, is a fool’s errand.  Due to a combination of the way our brains work and the culture in which we live, we have a tendency to pigeonhole individuals into little boxes based on the type of work we do.  While this type of blatant stereotyping may be convenient for the snobs among us, it really tells us very little about a person’s hopes, dreams, experiences and the values he or she cherishes.

So if you choose not to call me a writer because I am not being paid for writing, be my guest.  In fact, you can just call me a bum, since no one is paying me to do anything at the moment.

To be more accurate, call me a professional bum, as State Unemployment is currently paying me to do nothing.

Unless, of course, you count blogging.