How Can I Explain?

What do you do, the lady from the insurance company asked. Simple enough question. I'm a writer, I said. She was filling out an application for house insurance, a renewal actually, and, as she explained, the insurer needs to understand its potential liabilities.  Since there was nothing in my file that had  identified me as a writer before, she wanted to know what kind of writer I was, a journalist?  Someone who might be sued for libel? No, a writer of books and plays, mostly fiction. So you produce a book about once a year? Oh, no, it takes much longer for me. Perhaps an average of three years per book. Maybe longer. What kind of books? Literary fiction. And how would you describe that, she continued. Given that she was trying to imagine my writing "business," I used a comparison. If I were seriously in the business of writing, I would write romance novels, or inspirational books, or fantasy, because those genres are the most likely to find a paying readership. Literary fiction is something one writes for the sake of the work itself; art and craft values are more important than the work's commercial value.

Oh yes, I see, she went on. You used to be a teacher but now you're at a point in life where you want to do something for enjoyment.

Um, it's not exactly like that... I've been a writer my whole life, since well before teaching. That I had published books of short stories won me the teaching job in the first place. It's not so much for enjoyment that I write, though I do enjoy it in a complicated way; it's what I do, who I am.

I was tempted to invoke literary superstars whose names she might know, whose books she might have read. But of course it would be hubristic to put myself in the same category as Faulkner, or  Tennessee Williams, or Alice Munro, even if we all probably started from the same place.

Still, if you make any money at it - and I make some - it's a business, she concluded, despite my arguments about what I do being art more than business. Not that I would not like to earn more from what my tax form lists as a "story writing" business; not that some literary fiction writers do not do extremely well for themselves. In my case, though, it is more a life I have made than a living.

The issue has come up before, and I usually find myself depressed after trying to explain to a businessman (to whom I was applying for project support), or an accountant, or, now, the insurance company representative, why I would persist in something so obviously unprofitable. It's hardly a good business plan. The thing is, in my opinion, to make my "business" profitable I need a broader vision, sharper scene development, better sentences, more patience to wait for just the right word. These are the things that will make my writing better. Better writing might attract more attention, I might sell more books. In theory, the possibilities are boundless. Yet, if I could buy the qualities I need to invest in my work, and write them off as business expenses, would the insurance company cover me for losses... of concentration, originality, perseverance, brilliance? We all know the answer to that one. There are immensely valuable things that money can't buy and insurance can't cover, no matter how the corporate world tries to manipulate definitions.