It’s high time I faced it: As an aspiring novelist, sometimes I feel like I’m a bit of a joke. Sometimes I feel that other people think I’m a joke.
What do you do, people ask when we first meet.
I’m a novel writer, I respond, and brace myself.
I mean what do you really do, I wait for them to say.
Seriously, I respond. Writing novels is what I really do. Or, what I aspire to do.
Therein lies the rub: I’m an aspiring novel writer. I aspire to have my first novel published. Every insecurity I have as a writer is embedded in that one word and its variations.
Now in my late 20s, having completed my first manuscript and having survived my first slew of rejections from literary agents, I find myself questioning my career choice almost daily.
I toy regularly with the idea of going back to school. All my friends are getting their MBAs, I lament. Maybe I should get one of those.
I consider, too, returning to the advertising agency where I worked for a couple of years after graduating from university. Sure, it was long hours and low pay. But why not? A small paycheque is better than no paycheque and, when last I checked, my career as an aspiring novelist hadn’t even earned me enough to pay a cable bill.
With career choices such as those comes the privilege of being able to answer the dreaded question: What do you for a living?
Why, I’m doing my MBA. Aren’t you?
Oh, me? I work in advertising. It’s extremely glamorous.
Neat, tidy, conventional. Never once followed by an awkward silence and then the inevitable, Oh, I mean, what do you really do?
Recently my husband and I were sitting in our lawyer’s office, preparing to sign the papers for the house we were buying. As I signed on dotted line after dotted line and listened to the legal jargon I had to struggle to understand, I thought, This is not a joke.
I watched my husband, his face slightly pale and his lips pressed into a firm line, the stress visible even in the way he gripped his pen. This is not a joke.
So this is your first home purchase, the lawyer wanted to confirm.
Yes, we responded.
And why did you decide to move?
Well, we’re expecting our first baby in May, we told him. This is definitely not a joke.
Congratulations, the lawyer said, and I rubbed my belly, pleased.
Don’t eat too much McDonald’s, the lawyer – a 70-year-old-man – advised me.
I won’t, I assured him, and covered my belly with my sweater.
My husband and I signed a half-dozen other documents. We listened while the lawyer outlined the amendments he had made to our mortgage agreement; we waited while he made photocopies of our drivers’ licences and passports. We signed the document confirming that the faces on our licences and passports were, in fact, ours, and filled in the necessary blanks on the form.
Name. Address. Phone number. Occupation.
Occupation. My least favourite fill-in-the-blank question.
Its unexpected presence jolted me from the world of lawyers and real estate brokers, from the world that required me to have a consistent signature – not just lazily scribbled initials – on important, legally binding documents to which my husband and I were expected to adhere.
Aspiring novel writer, I scrawled, and handed the form back to the lawyer.
He glanced at it. Oh! he exclaimed. A writer! How wonderful. I don’t read much, he said, but I respect people who do, and people who write, even more so.
I smiled, thankful for his kind words, but preparing myself for the questions that would undoubtedly come next.
So you work from home, the lawyer observed, and when I nodded he made a note. And your business phone line is the same as your personal line?
Yes, sir. It is.
It must be nice working from home, the lawyer said.
Yes, I confirmed. Very much so.
And then, the question I’d been waiting for, delivered by our lawyer with concern in his voice and with his pen poised over my answer, ready to strike it out and make yet another amendment to our paperwork.
And what is it that you really do?
My hands returned to my baby bump, and when our lawyer had left the room to make photocopies I told my husband that I’d like to have McDonald’s for lunch.
Lisa Shoemaker lives in Oakville, Ont.