Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Writer, Air Guitarist, Father, Fraud

I was driving when I noticed a teenage boy standing on the corner of a busy intersection. He held a bright red sign advertising pizza. Headphones were attached to his head, leading to an iPod in his pocket, and the tunes were probably of a variety favored with bands like Black Sabbath or Metallica, as he was playing air guitar. With the sign.

He thrashed his hair in time with the music playing in his ears, his right hand strumming over bottom of the sign while his left did fretwork on the top. Ostensibly, he was advertising Little Caesar's. I gave him an Ozzie Osbourne "devil's salute" and he nodded upon seeing me, then went back to wailing on the sign.

This kid was getting paid to do this. I decided then and there I wanted that job.

Being that this was out of town and probably paid minimum wage, I don't think Wife will let me do this job. But short of being a field tester for "Guitar Hero," I can not think of any profession that would give me such satisfaction. You don't have to play guitar particularly well -- hell, you don't have to play guitar, period -- and the place of work ensures an audience of thousands a day. You can be a star without really working, kinda like putting up incontinence videos on YouTube.

The truth of my employment is far more prosaic. I am a writer by trade, but what I produce in the office is not something I would feel comfortable sharing with, say, anyone outside the office. I make my living through writing, even if it's not the type of writing I envisioned I would be earning money doing. Can I really call myself a fiction writer? An amateur ballroom dancer doesn't call herself a dancer; a recreational pianist doesn't call himself a musician. So what right do I have to call myself a novelist?

If a novel falls in the forest...

But really, the question is, one that I will have to answer one day to Baby (he will then be "Child"), can I truly call myself a fiction writer, fiction, if I do not earn any money doing it?

I can see the conversations Child will have with his compatriots:

"You think your Dad is so great? My father is a doctor and saves peoples lives!"

"Oh, yeah, my dad is an airplane pilot and won the Daytona 500 last year!"

"That's nothing!" Child says. "My father pretends that he is a novelist, and he pretends that he makes money doing it, and he plays air guitar with a pizza sign every night."

I hope we have Child enrolled in martial arts by then to avoid the inevitable beating he might receive after such a conversation.

But this goes beyond the mere satisfaction of bragging about your job to you son. Does it "count" if you're just flailing away at the typewriter?

White man's overbite

I was in a writing group in which one of the members was a nice young woman who seemed innocuous enough. One day, she gets a story published in a literary magazine, then e-mails everyone in the group the news. "Now I can tell people I'm a real writer!" she crowed.

Since my publishing credits were shorter than the number of men claiming to be the father of Anna Nicole Smith's baby, I wanted to print out the note, grasp it with both hands, and tear it asunder. She might have felt like a real writer, and I felt like a real fraud.

I go through this "writer/not a writer" bifurcation from time to time, and although it has not been a point of dispute of late, it is always petitioning the docket of my psyche. Too often, I'll give it a hearing, and the jury returns a few minutes later.

The verdict?