In the spectrum of small-talk, there is nothing I dread more than, “What do you do?”
Firstly, this question (incorrectly) implies something about your job. What do I do? Oh, I eat and sleep and sometimes I check to see if there is anything living inside my mailbox! Oh, I also do pushups and draw pictures of monsters with mushrooms growing on their scaly hides (seriously).
Secondly, it always seems to require a long winded explanation that I don’t want to give, and no one wants to hear. My job isn’t as simple as, “I make tacos in the food court at the mall” or “I sell bird seed at the zoo;” it gives almost no context clues as both of the words that make up my title are misleading.
It’s not that I don’t like my job, or am ashamed of it. I am a technical writer. It’s either more or less complicated than it sounds. I write lots of things, some far more abstract and odd than one might expect from a writer who just so happens to also be technical.
It’s arguable that some of what I do isn’t even writing, not by the classical definition at least. But when you’re using a keyboard to write words, sentences, paragraphs, and ideas – regardless of format – isn’t that writing? Some (me) might even call it an sub-art; a painting brought to life in Visio, Excel, and PowerPoint. Others might think I’m insane. I would love if Mark Z. Danielewski would chime in right about now.
At times, it’s more technical than writing. I’ll spend more than half my day reviewing a program or test case for consistency and errors. Other times it’s more writing than technical. Processes have to be written, reviewed, and edited, and training materials have to be worked over thoroughly to remove coma-inducing elements. Every once in a very rare while, I even get tasked to write something creative or clever!
So when someone asks me what I do, I very briefly and uncharacteristically flounder. Do I say I’m a writer, or do I say I’m a tech guy? Do I deal with the queries of what I’ve published, or the queries about fixing someone’s computer? Do I face the embarrassment and rigmarole of explaining why I don’t have a best-seller, or risk someone coaxing me over to fix their virus riddled porn-box? Being so awesomely multi-faced is confusing and exhausting.
But because I am a (technical)writer, and writers by their nature are odd and verbose, I cannot resist the urge to explain what I do. I try my best to use one and two syllable words, never straying far from my trustworthy and hackneyed “computers are like…” analogies.
It’s amazing how often you can relate computer systems to a car, a neighborhood, a house, a family, a country, human organs, or a flock of birds. I once explained a network diagram I was working on as a “chivalric fiefdom.” Even I’m not sure what I meant, but the person asking seemed to understand (or was sufficiently confused to decide that walking away was a good idea).
Eventually, people either tire of my explanation, or they gather enough information to signal they’ve had enough. I have yet to make anyone spontaneously fall unconscious or stagger back begging for respite, but I’ve got time, I’m still young. It’s a life goal.
I often wonder if other people dread being asked the “what do you!?” question, or if it’s my overanalyzed reaction to what is just a way to avoid an awkward silence.