Photo Credit: Write Work.com
BY ROBERT AYERS
"What do you do?"
The other evening at church someone asked me this question. It always makes me cringe a little. The question is the way men inaugurate acquaintances, the way they try and figure just exactly how they should think of the person they are speaking to. It’s a way to see how they measure up.
The answer isn't always easy to give. I range from blurting it out and letting the impressions lie where they fall – good or ill – to carefully explaining that while I am currently a server, I am hard at work in school to become something else, and that even though I am in school for such an unromantic occupation, I am really, really a writer.
I gave part of this answer the other night. I left off the part about being a writer and stuck to facts that I was willing to talk about, facts that I could control, that would give off the best possible impression.
It is something we all do. The sociologist Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life uses the terminology of the stage to analyze the ways in which people attempt to control how other people think of them. Everything and anything, it seems, is used as a prop, a setting, a script, or a costume. We are all, for good or ill, performing to an audience. When I first heard of Goffman's concept, it struck a chord. Why else do we dress the way we do, or say what we do to one group of people but not to another?
Artists, I suspect, are guilty of this more than other people. Is it wrong to obscure the peripheral aspects of your life - the work you do for a living, say - in order to emphasize what you believe to be important? I don't think so. When someone asks you what you do, what they mean is what do you do in order to live.
Not many artists make a living by being an artist. It is very rare that an artist is able to pursue art full-time to pay the bills. When asked what he did, T.S. Eliot would have had to say he was a bank manager. Wallace Stevens would have admitted to being the president of an insurance company (he admitted this to his writer friends, but never admitted being a poet to his insurance friends).
We make art from faith, hope and love. Faith, because the art we make expresses what we think about the world. Hope, because the art we make should be more about the future than the present. And love, because the art we make should be more about others than ourselves.
We work from necessity. We make art for so many other reasons. The chief of these is love. When someone asks you what you do, your answer should be what you love.