by Steve Bivans
“What do you do?”
This is the standard question on meeting someone new. We all ask it. We all have to answer it. When I really examine it, I hate that question. It’s so loaded.
I want to say, “Whatever the fuck I want!” But I don’t. I give them some sort of half apologetically, half ashamed answer, the truth, “I’m a writer.” I’m not really ashamed, now that I have actually published my first book–that I can point to on Amazon–to answer the second, obvious question, “Oh really? WHAT do you write?”
It doesn’t always sound so smart-assy when people ask it.
They’re usually very intrigued, I think, or they fake it really well, one or the other. No, they usually seem genuinely intrigued, probably up until the moment they realize I’m Stephen BIVANS, and not KING.
Hey, I’m a fan of King Stephen as well, so I get it. I’d love to meet the old guy myself. Personally I think he’d probably enjoy my ramblings and my love of all things hobbity. He’s a huge Tolkien geek, too.
To be honest, I’m fairly sure that no one has ever really mistaken me for Mr. King. I look much more like James Hetfield of Metalica, and seriously, I’m waaaay prettier than either one of them, and about 20 years younger than King, and I’m damned sure I could take’em both in arm wrestling—the true measure of manliness, if not talent. Of course, King’s written and sold shit-tons of books, and James has sold millions of albums of kick ass rock n roll. I’ve written one book, recorded exactly one album, and sold a handful of copies, mostly to my mother, who says it’s a very good book and the music’s wonderful and that she’s very proud of me. So there you have it! Mrs. Bivans says to “buy Steve’s book! It’s very good!” What else do you need anyway? Mother knows best after-all.
Once this person at the bar, or party realizes that I’m not THAT Stephen, or James, they’re probably not really as interested in my next answer, but hey, they asked right? So now they’re obligated to hear my answer out. “I just published a book on…” This is where I really get stuck. I know I’m supposed to have this great ’30 second’ speech ready, but I don’t. Personally I think that’s a bunch of crap anyway. I hate when people try to find ‘one solution’ to a particular problem, like “what do you say when someone asks you what you do.”
Most of the professionals–and how does one become a professional at answering that question?–say that you should be able to give the ‘elevator answer’–i.e. a sales pitch short enough for the average elevator ride, or barroom conversation. But what they fail to take into account is that the passenger on the elevator with you might be the girl you’re in love with–who, admittedly, should already know the answer anyway–and that you want to push the ‘stop’ button so you can ravish her like the lyrics in the Aerosmith tune, or conversely, they might be the banker who refused to approve the ‘short’ sale on your house thereby forcing you into foreclosure. I’m thinkin’ my answer to “What do you do?” might just vary in accordance with the asker, you know, from “Hey baby, let’s do it right here!” to “Muthafucker” followed by the sound of a snapping neck. How’s THAT for an elevator speech?! Sorry, that was my inner Gimli speaking. Sometimes I’m a bit more dwarvish than hobbity. I apologize. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in, breathe out.
So I tend to tailor my response to the interviewer, right? There can be no standard response. I don’t think so. Yeah, some elements of it are copy-pasteable, like the meat of my book–once I get to that part–but the introduction is always different. It depends on with whom I’m talking. I know some people are just being polite, so I don’t give them much. I’ll say, “I write on food, environmentalism, government corruption…” I try to stop short in there somewhere before they either fall asleep, or I end up saying, “I write about every damned subject on Earth because there are so many problems that need solving and I think I’m smarter than you and know the answers to all of it.” Sometimes I feel so pompous. “Oh yeahhhhh! I know every fuckin’ thing! Move over peasant! Let me ‘splain the world to ya!” Sometimes I want to punch myself in the face, and say, “Shut the fuck up, man.” But I don’t, and I keep talking. Just ask my friends.
Well, that was quite the digression. You know what I do? I digress. Seriously, I just realized that. I LOVE digressing! I’m fuckin’ GOOD at it, too! So put THAT in yer pipe n smoke it! I love to follow my brain wherever it leads, as I’m demonstrating once again as I digress about digressing. I should write a book entitled, The Digressions of a Digress-or, or something like that. Hmmm. Not a bad idea actually. Now I’m contemplating my next book, while trying to explain to you how I explain my first book to someone–who really doesn’t want to know–and really meant to say, “pass the chips” and is now embroiled in a conversation with an unknown, non-Stephen Kingy-James Hetfieldy looking writer who’s blabbering on about global warming, the world’s food supply, and how he digresses on digressing. I’m either a genius, or insane. Take your pick.
My real answer to the question should be something like, “I’m a student, and a teacher.” But I’m being somewhat metaphorical when I say that, so I’d end up ‘splaining that one, too, which means more digressing, which rhymes with salad dressing–something I don’t like. Why? Because I hate salads. Shit! Damn it! I’m digressing again.
I am a student. Always have been. I remember a friend of mine, many years ago asking me, “What do you want to DO?” Which is a related question to “what do you do?” The ‘want’ part suggests that I wasn’t actually ‘doing’ very much at the time, which is probably true, well, maybe not. I was doing a lot of things, they just didn’t make any money–kind of like writing about digressing I suppose. I mean, I was sitting in a bar drinking beer in the middle of the afternoon when the question was posed. I gave the question some thought for a second and responded, “I want to know everything there is to know.”
“About what?” she asked.
“About every fuckin thing! Seriously, everything! I want to know everything there is to know. I want to be om-fuckin-niscient!”
“Really.” she said with some concern, some disbelief, and some interest. “That’s not really possible.”
“Hell, I’m smart enough to know that!” I said. “But you asked, and that’s what I want. Mind ya, somethings are more interesting to me than others, but basically there’s nothing I don’t want to know.”
I love to learn new stuff. It gets me off. It’s almost as good as Crying Tiger, or beer, or chocolate, or my BBQ, and all those things must be learned anyway, so I get to write them down as ‘lessons learned.’ I’ve learned all kinds of lessons, of course, that didn’t fall in the chocolate-covered category. But I still love learning it, or at least I love ‘knowing’ it. Sometimes learning is just plain painful, like learning about divorce, or death, but it’s still knowledge and once you get past the pain, wisdom, I hope.
“But what good is knowing everything? What purpose does it serve?”
“I dunknow” I said, while slamming the rest of my beer and ordering another one. “I guess I like passing along the stuff I learn. I reckon I’m a teacher.”
“I suspect you’re right.” she said. “Maybe you should be a teacher” meaning I should go to college and get a degree so I could teach little rug rats or teenage punks their ABCs.
“Hell no! There’s too much bureaucracy in the school system. Too much politics, and they’d tell me what I could teach, how to teach it, how to evaluate it, and on and on. I don’t much cotton to being told what and how to do something.”
So my answer to that person on the elevator–if they’re unlucky enough to be there with me and fall somewhere in between the girl in the hot dress and the banker–should be “I’m a student, and a teacher.” How’s that for a short answer. At least I’d have the opening line. The problem is they’re then gonna ask, “What do you study?” or “What do you teach?” or “Where do you teach?”
“Every fuckin’ thing” and “Every fuckin’ where.”
I don’t like being tied down to one thing or another, so that pretty much makes me a writer. I write because I love to learn stuff, and because I think someone out there will enjoy reading about it, or at least reading about me trying to explain what I do. I’ve always loved learning stuff. I’d pull apart my ball point pen to see how it worked, or burn rolly pollies with my magnifying glass, which isn’t the most humane thing to do, I know, but hey, I was like 10, and I wanted to see what would happen. As it turns out, they burst into flames after about 20 seconds or so, and they smell like chicken. I don’t know if they also ‘taste’ like chicken or not. I didn’t try it; I’m not Andrew Zimmern.
I’ve spent years in the library, and that’s probably not an exaggeration. Now, of course, I can just download books into my Kindle, or read countless articles online, but it used to be that I had to actually go to a library, or bookstore, and get actual books to read. Back in the day, I had to use a card catalog. If you don’t know what that is, that means you’re really young and I’m as old as Treebeard. I’ve read a thousand or more books. I really don’t know how many, but probably a thousand, on just about everything. Even science. I can’t stop. I take breaks, sometimes for months when I don’t read much. But I always pick it up again and then I go on a tear where I’ll read 50 books in a row, as fast as I can devour them. I still don’t know everything, don’t tell anyone I said that, by the way. I know now that I won’t, and that’s okay. It won’t keep me from attempting it.
I don’t really care about knowing everything anymore, anyway. I was arrogant and a cocky little bastard when I said that originally, that day in the bar. But even then I knew it was bullshit. No one can know it all. But deep down there is still a drive to attempt it. In the end, I don’t know if it’s what we do that matters, as much as it is the doing, and why. What we should really ask people is ‘why’ they exist. Now there’s a tough question, man. But much more interesting and important than ‘what do they do.’ If you want to know why I do what I do, you can read my article ‘Shireness to the Earth: What the Hell Does That Mean?’ Unless you’re ready to get off this damned elevator and run like hell the other direction. I wouldn’t blame ya, I don’t reckon.