I was at a party, a friend’s wedding, and a friend’s husband who I haven’t seen for a while and I were chatting, and of course the question was asked: how was work going? Because work is always going, in some form or another; either well or poorly or as a search-for. A lot of people, judging from articles on the internet, hate “how’s work going” as a conversation starter, and I tend to avoid it myself, but only because I am terrible at small talk and the phrase “what’s keeping you interested these days” accomplishes the same aim but is far more open-ended and allows people to talk about what is actually interesting to them, in a way that work is not.

But it was me that was on the receiving end of “how’s work going these days” and it caused a mild stampede in my brain. Is he asking how the writing is going or the graphic design? Does he know that I am trying to write full-time?  I haven’t sold anything but I do make the odd bits of money designing–which one counts? Time ticked down and I panicked and talked about design work, because I didn’t want to open that can of worms at the party. I felt badly, afterward, as if I had lied through my teeth.

That would make the decision “what do I call myself these days” easier, but it isn’t. There is an unspoken rule, I have found, that defines the answers of “how is work going”: it only counts activities that make money. You’ll notice this yourself with people who skirt around the question. The hedging. The sidling, if the person in question is not full-time employed. I do it myself, because my writing doesn’t pay any bills yet, and for that fact I have (wince) once described myself as an intern. Because I work. I work very hard. But nothing monetary has come of it, yet, which makes me feel like apologizing whenever I describe it as my job. As though I am faking.

Once or twice I over the past year I tried introducing myself as an author/writer/novelist but each time I had to skitter backwards in defense because the questioner would follow-up with something along the lines of “Where can I buy your books?”. Then I have to sheepishly explain: nowhere.

I can’t stand the crestfallen expression on their faces.

So I decided I won’t introduce myself as a novelist until I have something sold. Perhaps that’s unfairly capitalist of me, but it’s the line that I’ve unconsciously drawn for myself. In the meantime, I suppose, I’ll keep calling myself a graphic designer, with a heavy sigh and an asterisk of disclaimer. As a designer, at least, I can just say I am “between projects” which is easier to understand at parties. But when the odd soul does ask “what’s keeping you busy/interested these days” I’ll give them the longer version.

Both sides are true. One is just more truer than the other.

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Victoria Feistner is a novelist, a graphic designer, and an artisan in equal parts, although some of those parts are more equal than others. She resides in Toronto with her husband and two fur children, also known as cats.

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