Monday, April 19, 2010

Who Do You Write For?

When my college alumni magazine arrives, I flip quickly through the articles about new construction and advancing technology on campus and head straight for the alumni notes. You know, the good stuff – who’s married who and who’s had kids and who has what degree. I’ve never contributed anyway myself – mainly since I don’t have much to report, and those things I do share go in my snarky status updates on Facebook.

But after three emails and two postcards entreating me to update my information for a new alumni publication, I finally caved and called the 800 number to reach the private company handling the printing.

The woman who answered had a slight Southern drawl and somehow managed to sound homey and robotic at once. “Spell your name for me, honey?”

I complied.

“Can you confirm this is your address?”

I confirmed.

“And what is your occupation?”

I hesitated. I could picture her on the other end of the phone, a headset growing out of one ear, her fingers poised above the keyboard. (But what to say? I’m a former teacher… I substitute teach when there are bills to pay… right now I’m rating written exams for California State University… this summer I’m doing my last [I hope] stint as a summer school teacher… No. I am none of those things.)

I took a deep breath. “I’m a writer.”

“You’re a writer?”

“Yes. I’m a writer.”

I was expecting a follow-up question, something along the lines of what do you write? Fiction? Memoir? Poetry? Textbooks? News articles? Film scripts? Ad copy? Little notes to yourself in the margin? Postcards to your grandparents?

Instead she asked, “Who do you write for?”

“Um, what? I don’t really…” Well. Now this was an interesting question. Who do I write for – other than myself and the handful of family members who more or less have to read my musings? Who exactly is my reading public? Who is my target audience? I would love to say “Everyone!” but of course that isn’t true. Not everyone reads. Some people read only biographies, others only vampire romances. My students, I often suspected, only read the books being shoved down their throats.

This is not, of course, what the woman on the other end of the phone meant. She was asking, do you write for a company? Do you have an employer? Do you get paid? Do you want your fellow alumni to think you have achieved any sort of legitimacy? I tried again. “I’m a fiction writer, actually. Short stories, novels.” (I was crossing my fingers behind my back on this one – being ¾ of the way through one novel certainly does not mean I’ve written novels.)

“Okay,” the woman said, with a forced cheerfulness. This is probably when she realized I wouldn’t be forking over $110 for the alumni publication. “Should I say novelist, then? For your occupation?”

No. Not yet. One day.

“No, I think just writer,” I said. After all, I could always call back with another update.

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