What is my job? This is something I’ve been asking myself a lot recently. I have work enough to fill my days and the last year has been my most positive to date in purely financial terms. But when asked by a friendly, curious stranger what I do, I get stuck. I usually mumble something about podcasts and use that as a conversational escape route into a new subject — people either want to know what a podcast is, or they want recommendations of new ones to listen to — and thus I avoid answering the question properly.
It’s not a real problem, this lingering lack of definition, especially compared to everything else happening in the world. It doesn’t stop me sending in invoices or buying food. I feel awkward even articulating this, because 2019 has been a good year for me. My first book came out and received good reviews. My podcast won an award. I get asked to be on Radio 4 more regularly now.
Yet it has been niggling away at me, the feeling growing stronger in the months after the book was published. I kept having to provide my bio for events I was doing, and every time I proofread what I had written before I sent it I thought: this doesn’t make any sense. In these short summations of myself for festivals and museums I instinctively don’t include any reference to most of the work that pays my bills (that is, writing about podcasts for an industry focused newsletter and editing audio). If I only did the stuff listed — book reviewing, freelance journalism, occasional broadcasting — I would be going hungry. But my other work just doesn’t seem literary enough to mention.
A very wise friend of mine who I consulted before leaving my magazine staff job in 2017 to go freelance warned me about this. When you have a full time position at a publication people have heard of, she said, it’s so easy to explain what you do that you don’t even think about it. But once you become self-employed and put together the work you want to do from lots of different disciplines and outlets, you have to come up with your own job title. In one way it’s incredibly freeing, but it can also feel like a chunk is missing from your sense of identity. If you’re someone who gives work an important place in your life (and I am, to a fault) not being able to easily say what you are can feel like you’ve failed.
For the first two years of my freelance existence, I think I was so busy writing a book and learning how to earn money that I had no time to think about what I might call myself if anyone were to ask. Now, things have slowed down a bit, in a good way, meaning that there’s suddenly time for these doubts to float to the surface.
There are plenty of books, podcasts and other media out there aimed at freelancers. A lot of it puts a positive spin on my question. Choice is freedom! Embrace the many hyphens in your job title! I don’t begrudge any of these things their cheeriness. Self-employment is at its highest since records began; it’s a label that now applies to nearly 5 million people in the UK. There’s no need to treat it like some shameful fallback option. It’s right that commentators are pushing towards a new and positive way of thinking about work.
Exploring this topic further made me realise that I was asking myself the wrong question. When I say “what is my job?” I think what I really mean is “am I a writer?”. That’s a title with fluid and shifting boundaries. Is it a label a person can choose, or does it have to be awarded externally? In a general sense, I really don’t think there should be any objective criteria for saying that you are one; deciding what is and isn’t “writing” feels like an impending horror show of elitism and tone policing. And yet I still feel like it’s not something I can say about myself.
I’ve got my own internal idea of who a writer is, which I’m constantly measuring myself against. A writer is someone who makes their living from publishing books that are critically acclaimed and/or bestselling as well as clever articles that a lot of people read. The writer publicly performs the role of “writer”, whether that’s by deliberate reclusiveness or by publicly sharing iterative details of their work online.
For this reason, this article about “the journalist as influencer” and the image management now necessary to be considered a successful writer in the age of the internet really spoke to me. I realised just how many of my own assumptions come from years of consuming the carefully curated writerly personas of people who are better than me at social media.
“One must have a persona on the persona-based internet, but the persona must be honest, or at least maintain the appearance of honesty,” the author of the article, Allegra Hobbs, says. She admits that she lacks the “effortless knack at existing online” that makes this possible; I do too. I’m not temperamentally suited to condensing anecdotes about my writing work into clever gobbets for other people to enjoy. I have far too much self doubt for that.
Later in that piece, Hobbs points out how gendered this feeling is, and how the question mark never seems to appear after the word writer when it’s being applied to a man. “The question of how to optimally present oneself online feels distinctly feminine, and this feels unfair even as the skill is somewhat advantageous, but mostly it feels inevitable. We are socialized to be highly attuned to making ourselves palatable for an audience, to be pleasing to the eye and the ear,” she says.
This made me think of all the years I spent as an editor, making other people’s work sing and ensuring that it got the widest possible readership online. During that time, I saw a lot of confident, mostly young, men sail straight past me and into the officially-sanctioned role of writer. Remembering that now, I don’t think they were worrying about whether or not to post a screenshot of their work in progress on Instagram.
Hobbs concludes by pointing out that it’s delusional to think that one can opt out of this structure. The self-appointed gurus who advocate leaving social media and swapping your laptop for a typewriter don’t exist in the same reality as me. I can no more escape the writing on the internet publicity machine than I can the more material inequalities that come with being a woman. Writing is not just writing anymore, if it ever was. The way writers are remunerated is set up to reward those who are good at inhabiting the role of writer as well as at doing the work.
Research repeatedly shows that that the average author in the UK makes less than the minimum wage from their books. Unless you have a private income (and let’s not ignore the fact that some of the extremely self confident writers out there do) then doing other work, whether it’s the kind of more commercial writing and editing that I do, or something completely different, is a necessity. Yet author bios and social media profiles suggest otherwise; it’s a rare person who advertises that they are an author but also a receptionist, or a teacher, or a barista.
Whenever I do see a Twitter bio that encompasses the full range of what that person does for a living, my heart lifts a little. I love reading about authors from the past who were open about their other jobs, like Dorothy L. Sayers with her decade as an advertising executive, or Anthony Trollope at the Post Office. Knowing this feels like a small way of resisting the fantasy construct of literary writing as a lucrative profession.
This week, I’ve written about 5,000 words in exchange for money, but the proposal for a new book that I’m supposed to be working on has remained untouched. That’s why I’m sending this to you now, because these corrosive questions have started to get in the way of me exploring what I might do next.
I still don’t know if I’ll ever say “yes, I am a writer” when someone asks what I do, but I can at least get better at feeling comfortable in the cracks in between all the different things I might be.
I’m well aware that this kind of self regarding essay is not what you subscribed to this newsletter for. Therefore, I won’t mind (much) if you make use of the unsubscribe option at the bottom of this email.
To explain what’s happened: I stopped doing the original No Complaints earlier this year because that kind of curation no longer fit easily into the pattern of my days. When I was an editor at a magazine, I read the internet voraciously and found plenty of choice nuggets to send to you. These days I do more writing and listening than I do editing, and it became a struggle to fill that template. What had been a fun thing to send out for free became a worry and a chore.
Now that I’m exploring a different path, I want to do more writing and less linking in this newsletter. I really enjoy the way people like Anne Helen Peterson, Ann Friedman, Helen Lewis and others do their emails, and I’m going to try moving more in that direction myself.
My first book was partially a memoir, but as one reviewer pointed out it was “intriguingly light on [my] own biography”. What I’m considering writing next will be more straightforwardly about me, and I think I need to practise putting myself on the page in order to get better at it.
So, in the future you can expect some chunky pars of my thoughts at the top and then some links down below. I hope you find at least some part of this useful or enjoyable.
Things to read and listen to:
There are a few other places on the internet where you can find me: I do daily podcast recommendations at The Listener, I write weekly podcast industry reports for Hot Pod, I make a fortnightly podcast called Shedunnit and I’m sometimes on Twitter.