I LIKE that answer. I like the look on the person's face when I give it. It's perverse of me, I admit. But the alternatives are either too boring or too complicated. What the person means, of course, is what sort of job do you have? How do I categorize you? Are you one of mine, or theirs, or whose? Should I envy you, feel sorry for you, look down at you? Perhaps that is why I prefer not to give them this satisfaction. The person asking the question is not asking a question but seeking the proper response
to an answer. It would do just as well if I said, m a jewel thief." But that might cause problems. It's simpler my way. And more succinct. And I can count on the shock - the look of disbelief.
Do I hear you object? After all, you say, everyone does something: feeds pigeons, waits on table, stands in lines. No one does nothing. Ah, but that's precisely the point. Now we're getting to the nittygritty. If I tell you what I do, it will be regarded as nothing. So why not say, "Nothing," and make an end of it? Let me explain, then you decide.
At 6:30, 7:00, or 7:30, I get out of bed and go downstairs, put some breakfast together on a tray, and bring the tray back up for my wife and me to enjoy. My wife and I, the two cats and the dog, that is. Then I take a walk with the dog. If it's winter, I've already started up the wood stove. If it isn't, I may have fed the birds. After our walk, I may putter about for 10 minutes or so - bring in some wood, take out the garbage. Then I go to my study. I sit down at my desk and read what I've written the day before, throw it away or make changes in it or, occasionally, nod or smile in approval. Then I proceed with the day's writing.
"Oh? Then you're a writer."
And that's how we get into it. I tell the person, "Yes. I suppose so. I write, mainly. That's what I do."
"So what have you written? Have I read any of your things?"
So I tell him or her. They're impressed. But also puzzled. Do I make my living writing then? Well, not really. "Oh. Then you're retired." That's when I could simply say, "Yes." And that would be the end of it. We could go on to talk about baseball or politics or flower gardens or something. But instead, usually what I say is, "No. I'm not retired. I'm a writer. It's just that I don't make much money at it."
The puzzled look returns. Whether it's expressed in words or not, what it means is, "Then why do you write?" If I make the mistake of going on, the puzzlement either deepens or resolves itself into contempt. "I write because I enjoy it." Amusement or pity, as if talking to a child. "I write to avoid unnurturing thoughts." Confusion. Apprehension. "I write because when I flap my arms I don't fly."
"Cart this man away!"
It can't be explained. It's much better for everyone that I not even try. So whenever a person screws up his face and asks, "And what is it that you do?" I just say, "Nothing!" It's not only simpler that way. It gives me more time to write.