Are You The Noun, Or The Verb?

Image by Alexander Lesnitsky from Pixabay

When someone asks, “What do you do?” how do you answer?

Most day-job people answer with their job title. Creatives also tend to respond with a noun: “I’m a writer,” “I’m a painter,” “I’m a gardener,” etc. We’re conditioned to crave labels, rather than focus on the action (or specific values) of someone’s efforts. Labels are a lazy way people measure your worth, assess your value to them (isn’t this the ulterior motive of the ask?), and conveniently file you in a mental file with similarly labeled people.

Labels can mean stagnation to those of us writing, painting, sculpting, decorating, woodworking, etc. Telling yourself “I’m a writer” does not get the work done. Sitting down to WRITE every day produces the work. Focusing on the verb embraces and inspires action, not the noun which too easily defers to another day.

What does “I’m a writer” tell anyone? You wrote something cool 20 years ago? Last month? A few years back? Are you writing now? Hard to tell. There’s very little commitment to this noun label, whereas saying “I write” is not only clearer but internally reminding what you’re supposed to be doing… every day.

Tell anyone “I’m a writer” and the usual response is “Are you famous? Have I read any of your books?” “How many have you published?” Say instead “I write short essays and articles” and you’re likely to get a more useful response if the asker is interested. Tell them you write for your own enjoyment and skill improvement, and you’ve set up the other unfortunate association: If not mainstream published or in well-known magazines, then you’re really not an “author,” are you? Have lost track of how many times upon hearing I wasn’t an author turned the conversation cold and dry.

We seem conditioned to connect any well-done creative effort with economics. Austin Kleon wrote about this noun/verb dilemma, relaying a story of two friends attending a party. One brought an elaborate, beautifully decorated cake, to which someone remarked, “That’s gorgeous! You should open up a bakery.” The other brought an exotic, non-flower, floral arrangement he’d made, which elicited, “Awesome! You should open up an Etsy shop!” Such remarks unfortunately keep alive the adage “You must sell your creation or you’re not really an artist (or writer, sculptor, gardener, home decorator, etc.).”

What can happen when our avocation becomes our vocation is well documented. This conversion can be challenging, and more often than not, the vocation smothers the original passion for the avocation. I’ve done this more than once (love of books? -> sell books online; love of stationery? -> open an online stationery shop; love of writing? -> put too many hours into launching a monetized newsletter). In each case, my passion faded once play became work.  

With the online stationery shop, I tried to stay small and part-time, but selling anything at some point becomes like a growing teenager: they need constant feeding and frequent ever-bigger new clothes. These days everyone seems to have a side-hustle (talk about a passion-less phrase!). Nothing wrong with anyone’s creation efforts bringing in extra cash, but more about the spin you’re telling yourself and how it affects your passion.

My writing passion is about the verb “to write.” I have no illusions my work will become a primary income, nor trying to time the market, write to perceived market gaps, etc. A relative suggested a few years ago that I become an “expert” at keyword analysis, then write content for those keywords. That’s not my definition of success (or even enjoyable writing), and I recall shivering in revulsion from the idea. I spent years of corporate writing waiting for retirement when I could write what I wanted, rather than what others (or the market) wanted.

The essence of this long-winded post is “don't be the noun, do verb.” We all create every day, in big and small ways, for different audiences, but ultimately for ourselves. Hopefully, we enjoy the creation process and involve lots of play and experimentation. When we do so, isn’t that our best approach to create anything?

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