So, What Do You Do?

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I am no longer a model. This has not, however, kept me from lying about it for the better part of a year.

Okay, I’m still a model—kinda. As you probably know, I’ve been focusing more and more on my writing. By the end of last year, I was to the point where I spent the majority of my working time writing rather than modeling.

I mean sure, “once a model, always a model.” I’m still modeling for select shoots on a regular basis, both with old friends and new photographers. The biggest difference is that I won’t be traveling nearly as much. But I still want to make art with my body, and show its beauty as it changes and ages.

To prepare for this shift, I put my financial house in order. I saved up, because I knew it would take time to transfer income sources. I figured I was being responsible, and had planned for possible future problems. But oh boy, was I wrong.

I found out the depths of my mistake at a holiday party I attended with one of my partners last year. I met lots of new people that night, and I swear every last one of them asked me my least favorite question in the whole world:

So, what do you do? 

I’ve been a full-time model for the past seven years. I’ve developed a patter, a spiel to explain to people exactly what it is that I do. I bring up the nudity when it’s not too shocking; I emphasize freelancing so people don’ t think I strut along catwalks.

But I didn’t have a spiel for what I’m doing now. People asked me that question, and I just started gasping like a fish out of water. Worse, I was younger than most of the people I was talking to. As I stumbled around, trying to explain a new possibility, I realized that I sounded immature to them. I sounded like I didn’t have my shit together, that I wasn’t responsible.

I was mortified. So I found myself falling back on describing myself solely as a model, because it was comfortable and familiar. I had a body of work in my portfolio I could use to “prove” it. And I could easily explain the basic economics of the industry to a casual questioner. (Whenever someone finds out I’m an artist of any type, the next question is always how I make a living at it. Always).

I went home from that party feeling frustrated and disconnected and like a liar. I decided that I was going to figure out a good answer to that damn question, even if it was the end of me.

So over the next several months, I tried out a bunch of different answers. Most of them…didn’t go over so well.

 

So, what do you do?

I’m a writer!

You can make a living writing? I didn’t think that was possible.

Well… *cue a very confused and meandering explanation of the three arts I pursue and how they fit into my income until the person’s eyes glaze over*

Wait, so what do you do?

 

So, what do you do?

I work in the arts.

I didn’t ask philosophically. How do you make a living?

*cue another very awkward and personal conversation about my finances that I really didn’t want to have*

So, what do you do?

I spend most of my time writing, but I also model and play the piano.

So, what does your partner do to support you?

*cue incoherent rage*

The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t satisfactorily describe my career path. After all, I’ve been doing things with my life for a while now that often require some explanation. What was really bugging me was the fact that I felt like I no longer had an identity.

In our culture, so much of our self-worth and definition is tied up in how we make money. It’s not in how we spend our time or what we care about. I was doing well as a new writer: I was making sales, and I was putting my butt in the chair. But I wasn’t earning enough to support myself from writing alone. To be honest, I may never get there. But that shouldn’t be the point! I was never planning on quitting modeling completely, or giving up piano. Nor should it matter if I was supplementing my income from different sources. What should have mattered was what I was producing.  

But despite the fact that I could point to this blog, or published articles, or my first sci fi short story sale, I didn’t feel like a “real” writer. I felt like a liar. So I covered it up with more lies about being just a model, and felt even more like a failure.

That’s when my best friend stepped in. There are a couple things that you need to know about her. First, she’s my writing cheerleader. If I ever need encouragement about what I’m doing, I go to her. Second, she takes a perverse delight in motivating me by quoting me back at myself—bonus points if I don’t realize what she’s doing until it’s too late. Seriously; she gets this mischievous smirk whenever she manages to pull one over on me.  

So one day while I’m griping to her about this problem, she mentioned that it shouldn’t matter how you make a living; what matters is what you do with your time. And that party conversations would be a lot more interesting if we focused on what people were trying to accomplish, rather than what was on their tax returns.

I liked the sound of that.

It’s a good idea, she agreed. I read it on this blog that I follow religiously…

Smirk.

Oh, goddamnit.

It gave me permission to redirect conversations back to what I do, not what I earn.

That singular conversation didn’t solve all my problems, but it certainly gave me a place to start. And more importantly, it gave me permission to redirect conversations back to what I do, not what I earn. Because that, I still believe, is what really matters.

Over the next few months, I developed a new patter with those principles in mind. I now tell people that I work in the arts—specifically, I write, model, and teach piano lessons. The answer is complex enough that it seems to head off most questions about finances and lets us get straight to better conversation.

I’m not the first person to come up with the idea of owning a complicated identity. Brené Brown talks about it in her work, calling them “slash” careers—in my case, model/musician/writer. She encourages people to embrace all the things they do with their time so that they can claim their own meaningful work, and not try to reduce themselves down to a single, socially acceptable career title that can miss what really matters.  

Being able to explain what I do gave me back a sense of identity. Or rather, it helped me expand it. I wasn’t just a model any more, but I didn’t have to give that up completely either.

And more importantly, I found that when I started talking about all the things I do, I did have a lot better conversations at parties. I think this was both because I had a lot more topics to connect to people on, and because people seemed more comfortable opening up about the projects and passions that really mattered to them, not just their careers. I guess that blogger really did have a point.  

So I’d like to encourage you to try the same thing, even if you aren’t having an identity crisis or changing careers. I think the more we start talking about what we actually do, not just where we work, the more we break away from the idea that our self-worth derives from our income, and that our identity comes from our jobs. And that seems like a worthwhile change to try and make.

So no, I’m no longer just a model. And maybe, I never really was to begin with.