I'm trying to explain to my Taiwanese grandparents what I do for a living. "I'm a writer," I keep saying, as I vigorously pantomime typing, since all intergenerational conversations must include charades. My grandparents look confused. "Writer," I try again, this time doing the writing-with-a-pen hand motion, which also resembles conducting-a-symphony or salting-a-large-piece-of-meat. "For television." I point at the TV, and my grandpa looks to me, bemused, everything lost in translation: "You sell TVs?"
It's hard to describe the livelihood of a writer. Whenever I tell people that I write sitcoms for a living, they immediately want me to tell them a joke. It's the downside of having a job in which people need you to "prove it": like any time I meet someone who's a doctor, I ask her to diagnose my latest, grossest ailment. Oh, you're a doctor? Look at this fleshy growth on my hip. Oh, you're a comedy writer? Say something funny. Oh, you're a stripper? ...Cool.
Strippers are lucky--they never have to provide evidence that they are, indeed, strippers. Plus, everyone already understands the function of their job. But what does a writer really do? It sounds rather mundane, a simple verb-turned-occupation, not unlike a driver or farmer or, hey, stripper. And there are all different kinds of writers, of course. But I'm often loath to describe what I do to other people. I don't want my grandparents, or even my friends, to dig in and see how neurotic I really am. 'Cause if you take anything away from this, it's that writers be crazy, y'all.
I don't want my family to know that as a writer, I'm never off the clock. That like a schizophrenic, I spend countless hours mining my psyche for bits of inspiration. That my day-to-day consists of observing, consuming, digesting, and then crapping out prose. Oftentimes crappy prose.
I don't want to tell my friends that there are some days when I feel like a genius wielding a pen, ready to churn out Art & Culture & Enlightenment for all. That there are other days when I feel like a failure, something that never quite lived up to the hype, like acid rain or JaMarcus Russell. I don't want to acknowledge the truth that, as a writer, success does not necessarily come with riches, and respect may not come at all, and that one day I might have to live in (gasp) Brooklyn.
I don't want to admit to my loved ones that I'm often worried about being smart enough/profound enough/funny enough for an audience that will never be wholly satisfied. That I slave over word choice and act breaks and storylines for work that I may never even put out there. That I'm constantly editing and re-editing, second-guessing my second-guesses (is that JaMarcus Russell reference too obscure?), and pulling avada kedavras on my computer in fits of verb-induced rage. CTRL-A-Delete. CTRL-A-Delete. CTRL-A-Delete.
But then there are those moments when, amidst the haze of bad days and rejected drafts, something amazing happens. The dark cloud floats away, taking with it the paralyzing neuroses and the banal dialogue and the unnecessary plot twists. The sky opens up. The story becomes strangely clear. Suddenly I'm left with something that, despite all its previous pockmarks, actually seems... good. And I truly believe, that after all this time, after littering an imaginary wastebasket with incomprehensible garbage, I've finally managed to produce something that can be considered great -- nay, brilliant.
And then I wake up the next morning and WHAT THE HELL?! It's crap. It's all crap. CTRL-A-Delete. CTRL-A-Delete. CTRL-A-Effin'-Delete.