“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.”
“You’re a writer.”
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.