Language, being so central to our humanity, does some interesting thing to people, and common greetings can frame a lot about a culture. In South Korea, the first question most people ask is “how old are you?” From a practical point of view, this bit of information serves as a shorthand to signal the use of particular grammatical niceties. But the more eldritch cultural narrative works thus: age is to be respected. Most Koreans would tell you that seniority is a big deal for them, so in some small way, the grammatical order mirrors the social.
But the notion of respecting one’s elders was seldom so straightforward. When I taught there, many of my students would complain of a deeply felt ageism. I remember once reading a newspaper story about a man who was beat to death by a colleague for using a diminutive rather than an honorific.
In the United States, the common question is “what do you do?” It to carries powerful suggestions. Its basic construction drives a host of assumptions that follow. Typically, I take this to be an inquiry into what I do for a living, that is, what I do for money. Others take different approaches – defaulting to callings or accolade. Editors occupy a strange space as well. Our principle calling is to aid writers, and we must be content with something of a backseat to the imaginations of our charges. I have also been fortunate enough to work with writers from across a range of experiences and backgrounds, and those encounters have taught me something: professionalism is something of a modern disease, and much of that is driven by our time-ordered grammar.
This expression a bit more complex than we we might think at first blush. “What do you do” is stative—it’s permanent. What we do begins to conflict with our sense of who we are just the moment the sentence is pronounced.
I feel it in my own work of course. Editing is a cultivated practice, and is something of an esoteric art. What qualifies one to do it is really a matter of educated opinion (and references—which I have on request!). Even so, I have often hesitated to use the label, excepting under the right circumstances. And for writers, the challenge is even greater. Is it the professional that makes the writer, or the writer that makes the professional?
Here’s my shorthand. First off, if your worried about this question you’re probably a writer. Secondly, there are two ways one becomes a writer—you decide to write for something, or you decide to write about something. At the end of the day, that “something” is the reader. Most people will find a reason to write in their lives, but the “professional” wants to show it off to someone. The professional has something to offer up. A writer is often the product of this act. Their identity is marked somewhere between what they thought they were doing, and what winds up done with their work. By handing it over, the writer loses control of that part and gives the privilege to the reader.
From this perspective, diarists who hide their work don’t count. If your writing isn’t public, it’s better to say that you “are writing.” A writer has already etched themselves into another mind. Their ideas have taken some measure of flight; the matrix has them. Only when the diarist leaves their journal in some forgotten wood to be stumbled upon have they become a writer. That’s when their words take on the same permanency as the question, “what do you do?”
For most of us, those accustomed to the steady drum beat of corporate life, professionalism isn’t really a question. The title does the job in most cases. After all, if we are what we do, then we are whatever it is we spend the most productive third of our lives doing. Whether or not you wear that title with pride is a matter of perspective…whether others agree, well that’s a question of ambition.
But for writers, the question is different. We come to the craft from so many places and perspectives, that any effort to label us seems hopeless. Novelists present the clearest case; but they come by their work out of their dreams, less out of their other passions. I find that most relax after the first few sales.
But this stress is for a good reason. Writers are rightly vaunted figures in our society. They occupy a space in our imagination simply because they are the ones keeping a record at all. Their thoughts and ideas inspire ours. The mountains of their leavings give shape to the giants we stand upon. Sure, some are financially successful and live wildly, but most keep day jobs while plugging away at blogs and books, letters and articles—Castle is a favorite among many of my writer friends, albeit seldom of the sympathetic kind.
Which brings us back to the question at hand and how grammar enslaves us to our confusion. English speakers lead horologically complex lives; we deal a lot with time. As such, our culture has built whole codes of behavior around implied duration and its applications. It’s really unsurprising to read studies on “business” as being an important measure of status in America today. After all, the question, “what do you do?” implies a certain permanency, a something to be referred back to at a later date. Writers, as they say, write. Sometimes they get paid as a result. As for what a writer does, that’s a question for the moment.