The Interview

13 Dec

“I am a writer.”

Those were my first words to the audience when I gave a talk the other day about The Writing Life. Occasionally, we writers are invited to speak in front of groups of people who want to know about what we do. We eventually get into the intricacies of choosing what topic to write about, of zeroing in on the most precise words to use, of baring your soul on a piece of paper or smart phone screen. But I wanted to start with the basics.

My audience seemed to appreciate that. The room fell silent, every eye fixed on me. I decided to draw these people in even more. “What I do,” I intoned with unconcealed gravity, “is something each of you does every day of your life.” I allowed my gaze to move from face to face. “We’re all writers.”

There were nods all around. A hand shot up.

“Question?”

The questioner shifted in his seat, brought a sheet of paper up from his lap to right in front of his face, and began reading. “What . . . do . . . you . . . do . . . for . . . your . . . job?”

There were giggles around the room. Five-year-olds aren’t subtle when they think you weren’t paying attention or otherwise have messed up. “Well,” I said, pausing while trying to think up a new way of saying the same thing I had just said. My kindergartener daughter, who had invited me to her classroom to talk about what I do and was sitting on the floor beside me, stood up and broke the silence. “You’re a writer,” she said in a reassuring tone, as if I hadn’t thought of that.

“Yes, I’m a writer,” I said to the group. “Any other questions?”

Papers began shuffling in little hands.

“Where . . . do . . . you . . . do . . . your . . . job?”

“Anywhere there’s a pencil and paper,” I said, drawing some wide-eyed looks as little imaginations conjured up images of me, with pencil and paper in hand, sitting—I don’t know—on a bench outside a candy store, maybe. Or, more befitting their wild minds, the kids probably dreamed up images of me scribbling away while standing in the middle of a busy intersection or while crouching on the wing of an airplane. “If I had a pencil and paper right now, I could write while I’m sitting right here. But I’d rather be talking to you.” They weren’t so wowed by that image.

“What . . . do . . . you . . . use . . . to . . . do . . . your . . . job?”

“A pencil and paper,” I said quickly in a haven’t-we-covered-this-already? tone. Then, thinking that pat answer made me come across as a wiseass, I added, “Or a computer. Who knows what a computer is?” Every hand in the room shot up. Of course every kid, no matter how young, knows about computers in this day and age. Dumb question, dinosaur dad.

But the kids let me off the hook, keeping their focus on the page of questions the teacher had given them beforehand. They weren’t required to ask questions from the paper. It was just there to help them if they needed it. But every last one of them stuck to the script.

“What . . . time . . . of . . . day . . . do . . . you . . . work?

“Do you travel?” (Some kids were more fluid with their reading. Or they practiced their question beforehand.)

“Where . . . do . . . you . . . do . . . your . . . job?” Giggles all around the room again. The questioner didn’t seem to understand why. I just went ahead and gave the same answer I’d given earlier.

My answers weren’t really the point. This exercise, which is repeated each week with a parent of a kid in the class, is about reading and listening and social skills and curiosity. Whatever the job a grownup has come in to talk about, it’s an opportunity for the children to interact outside the confines of their daily lessons. These visits always leave their mark.

A week earlier, my girl had come home from school excited to tell me about how one of her classmates’ moms had come in to talk about her work. “Cool,” I said. “What does she do?” Whereupon my jazzed-up kindergartener replied, “I don’t remember.”

Knowing that this is what I was dealing with, I tried to keep my visit only quasi-serious. I took any opportunity to go for a laugh.

“Do . . . you . . . wear . . . a uniform?”

“Yes, I have to get very dressed up to do my job,” I said. “In fact, I’m dressed for work right now.” There was a burst of giggles, because I had on faded, torn jeans and an ancient, threadbare sweatshirt. “What? This isn’t dressed up?” I lifted my foot to show off one of my purple Chuck Taylors. More giggles.

I was killing in front of this crowd and I could have gone on, but I had to make room for the morning’s other guest. It had been smart of me to insist on going first, because next to me sat my wife the flute virtuoso, with her instrument at the ready. She was going to talk and play for the kids. No way I was going to follow that act.

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One Response to “The Interview”

  1. Anonymous December 14, 2010 at 2:46 am #

    This made me laugh. I really enjoyed this piece. Five year olds are a tough crowd!

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