Who do you think you are?

“So you’re a writer, then.”

Five words, spoken to me six months ago, by one total stranger. A simple observation that’s been nagging me ever since.

Nag, nag, nag.

Let’s back up a little. First of all, I’m a little jealous of people with straightforward job titles that need zero explanation. Salespeople, accountants, web designers, scientists, and so on – I’m talking to you. Public health is messy, and most people don’t even know what the field is. What’s more, my title makes absolutely no sense to people who don’t know the field well. I know, I know – this is not a problem exclusive to public health. I’ve come to adapt my explanation to my audience, drawing out the most relatable aspects of my blended position. At a tech event? I play up what I do on the web. At a do-gooder event? I talk about social determinants. If the tailored approach isn’t an option, I mention the field and the specific disease area I work in. Most of the people I come across at happy hours are just looking for points of similarity, so that usually does it.  But not this one fateful December evening.

Here’s what happened. I attended a general interest networking/happy hour event. When another attendee drummed up a conversation at the bar, I planned on pulling my usual “I work in public health” line, followed by a quick turn of conversation. This woman was not familiar with public health, but she sure had a lot of questions. What exactly was public health? What did my agency do? Did we provide direct services? And so on, until she asked what my typical day looked like. (Ha!) I related the wide variety of my work activities.

That’s when she came back with,

“Oh! So you’re a writer, then.”

“What?”

“You’re a writer.”

*blink*

*blink*

I’m reasonably confident that this woman has no idea what she did to my psyche with that sentence. As Hemingway wrote, “All things truly wicked start from innocence.” And really, she didn’t make an inaccurate statement. I write here. I write at work. I write all over the place. But could I call myself a writer? Would I call myself a writer? If no, why not?

Technically, I’ve pretty much always written. As a kid, I played with new vocabulary words by working them into poems. This continued through my teens. The influx of adolescent emotions resulted in some horrifying poetry. (I have left this poetry on the internet as a reminder to never take myself too seriously. I will not supply you with the username it’s published under.) My later development of self-awareness didn’t stop me from writing; it just stopped me from thinking that I should post everything I wrote in public. I shifted toward writing when I had something to say. Over the past few years, I’ve had an increasing number of things to say about public health.

I wish that we had a word in the English language that served as the public health equivalent of “writer” or “artist” or the more general “creative”. We don’t have a word that speaks to both the occupation and the impetus that goes along with it. Our job-related vocabulary doesn’t allow for that kind of nuance for non-traditionally creative professions. Nicole wrote before that we are all artists. We are also healers and fixers and community builders and many other things. (Or maybe that’s just us INFPs.)

But the question remains: Am I a writer?

More recently, I had dinner with someone who casually asked me what I would do with myself if we managed to fix all the public health problems. My answer wasn’t that I’d write, or plan, or make things for the internet. Instead, I’d find another inequality and find a new way of tackling that problem. The what isn’t nearly as important as the why or the how. We are all rebels with causes.

So yes, I guess I am a writer – but only until we get a set of words that truly captures this creative public health movement.

I’m open to suggestions.

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4 thoughts on “Who do you think you are?

  1. Yeah, but you’re a writer AND all the other things you are. You can’t be a monolith… Well, not an actual stone monolith set up in a far away island as a totem to some unseen demigod. More like a monolith in the figurative sense, someone who does only one thing and one thing alone. Very few of us in public health are monolithic. We have a wide variety of abilities and — dare I say? — superpowers.

    Me? I get it in my head that something needs to be done, and I learn how to do it. I’ve been an epidemiologist, a lab tech, a database programmer, a web designer, a writer, a baker, and a candlestick maker. It comes with the job. You’ll find yourself needing to write and being rewarded in one way or another for it. Ta-da! You’re a writer. Then you turn around and have to fix that old jeep you bought for a pair of jeans in Lesotho. Ta-da! You’re a car mechanic.

    Don’t be a monolith, big headed and stone cold.

    • Baker?? Does that mean you’re going to bake me something?

      Really, though, doing a good job in public health means doing – and learning – a lot of different things. I’ve had a post on how public health is interdisciplinary floating around in the back of my head for a long while. This isn’t just a public health problem, but I think we suffer from failure to acknowledge ourselves as creatives. That’s really what it’s all about, though. To be effective, we have to come up with new ways of doing things (since the old ones aren’t working and the world is moving on without us) while dealing with a whole lot of systemic constraints and reporting requirements with limited staff and resources. We *have* to be creative – but somehow, celebration of creativity isn’t a public health cultural norm. We want the end result of a successful, innovative program, but we don’t want to risk the failed pilots it takes to get us there.

      So, it’s not just that we have to do a lot of things, and that we have to learn a lot of things, but also that we have to try a lot of things – even if no one instructed us to try them.

      • Agreed and very well put. I just finished TAing a class in public health surveillance, and it turned into a career advice class on one of the slow days. I showed the class an article about “health pods” at Walmart and walgreens and how they should go knock on their doors and tell them that they can process the data and make it meaningful. We have thousands of people checking their blood pressure, but nothing is being done with that from a public health perspective. Same with all the motion trackers. Can you imagine if we tapped into that to see if and how people respond to public health messaging and interventions? Did we see a spike in activity when the First Lady told us all to get out and move? The sky is the limit, and I’m excited to be here right now.

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