I Need a Noun, I’m Unemployed: Insecurity About Professional Labels in the Creative Age


Here we go again. Heathrow Customs.

Tired travelers line up like cattle and moooove my way to a counter to be asked, in the interest of national security: “Don’t you have a job? I see you left “Occupation” blank?”

I cringe.

“No. I’m unemployed.” The words form from practice but are still rough to articulate. Unemployed. I lack a noun.

“What are you doing here?” He doesn’t mean literally. “To live in a castle,” not accepted. Not appreciated.

I address the question he isn’t asking; ‘why should I let you into my country if you don’t work? You might be a terrorist and you will live off things I pay for with MY taxes? You bone-idle, terrorizing succubus.’ (This is all in his head, obviously).

“I live here. My husband has a job. We moved from the United States. We have visas. We just got here a few months ago. I am looking for work.” I can dance around the word unemployed pretty well by now. In the beginning, I emphasized the word just to make it sound like I had JUST stepped off the plane and had JUST started to unpack. But weeks became months and months became seasons. Now, I toss it casually. Like a crouton.

I considered adding “Ever since the fall of the Euro it is impossible to find work” but felt he’d see through my anti-federalism ass-kissing. “We love it here!” I threw him docile, cow eyes. He eyed me, then my Passport, then me. As if the answer to brand me as

1) a terrorist or

2) a harmless housewife, was written on one of these faces.

Me –passport – me – passport… Stamp! You’re in. Don’t fuck up. Go collect your luggage. You non-terrorist housewife!

Housewife. There’s a noun! Housewife is ok. Better than a terrorist. My mom was one (a housewife), my mother in-law, grandmother. But they have a noun I don’t: mother. I’m housewife AND not mother. Which in my book equals unemployed.

Adjective – unemployed – yes. Noun, no. I need a noun.

After the most-recent trip through the Customs corral, I had words with my husband. He filled in the occupation line with a splendid little noun that indicated:

1) contributor to economy,

2) not a terrorist

3) NOT house-husband.

I don’t begrudge him, his noun brought us here, land we love. But still, I felt like I was being slapped in the face each time, a world that wasn’t under my control. Noun, noun, NOUN.

I made a modest proposal to him: “From now on, I say I’m a writer.”

It was sort of true, I had aspirations. I was leaning in that direction, professionally. I was spending a lot of time doing it, at least. I was starting to call it a vocation “I am sick of getting harassed for not being employed.”

My husband appropriately tore me apart: “You think you get harassed? Ellen, you do NOT get harassed. You’re feeling insecure. Also, you’re not technically a writer?” He inverted his tone, offering an opinion, asking for approval. He was very gentle when he talked about serious things.

And he was right, technically. Sprinkling words online like pixie dust doesn’t mean “writer.” I’m not published. Or famous. Or making money.

Just the other day, in a particular bout of low productivity, I made a PowerPoint presentation on books I needed to buy so I could learn how to write like a writer. Three steps removed from being an actual writer.

What makes one a “writer”?

Announcing it to people? I told the maintenance guys “Sure, you can come back tomorrow to work on the roof, I’ll be home. I work at home. I’m a writer.” Did that do it? No, because then they asked me what I write and I had no real answer. What about telling ones parents? Nothing is real until you tell your parents. They are the gate between real and imagined.

When I told my parents I was going to write they reminded me of a poetry contest I won in 4th grade “We always knew you could write.” In the same ‘even I don’t believe what I’m saying’ voice they used for “Your brother didn’t mean to break your tennis racket when he slammed it against the ground.” But they were ostensibly supportive, that’s how they are. What if I announced it, town crier-style? ‘I’m a write-er-er-er-er-r-r-r-r-r’! Its echo would bounce off vast empty spaces in the bleak world of No One Cares.

I agreed with my husband.  I was not a writer. Not by UK Customs’ standards. “It’s just that if I say it, and someone else says it back, I’ll believe it.” “So it isn’t about Customs, is it?” “No.” “It’s about your insecurity being a writer. Let’s wait. Who knows what they’ll think if you put that on your form. You’d have to prove it, maybe.” And he was right. AGAIN.  What if they think I’m a journalist? And ask for credentials? What if a chatty official asks, “Have I read anything you’ve written?” Which leads to “Don’t know. Why don’t you list everything you’ve ever read and we’ll see?,” Rounded out by my short stint in jail for wasting customs officer’s time.

I remain noun-less. I need a noun.

“You’ll get there, Ellen.” In his ‘I believe what I’m saying and I’ll say it again until you believe it’ voice. I love his different loving voices.  Heathrow Customs aside, I have told people I want to write, even when I can’t.

I told a good friend, her reaction was mildly irritating; “You’d make a great writer. Do what you love. Besides, being a housewife is underrated these days. There is nothing wrong with it.” Huh? Housewife? That noun again. I wouldn’t mind being a housewife, I have respect for the profession, and certainly is a profession. Without holiday or sick leave or salary or usually gratitude. But that is not what I had said. I said W-R-I-T-E-R. Oh I get it. She thinks I’m going to cook and clean and bounce a kid on each hip and in between, write silly musings on marriage, bouncing kids and the endless machinations of the family pet.  And that would be fine, some of the best blogs get inspiration from that very life-style.

But that is not me.

I don’t write about family pets.  

I CERTAINLY don’t post photos of them.

Desperate for a noun, fearing “writer” would not take, I rummaged around and dug up a few old nouns, see if they still fit.

Hmmm…how about student? (I was once one). Lord no! Student was the worst. One poetry piece in 4th grade and then it was downhill like a toboggan run.

Government employee? (I dipped my toe in this water) Ha, not with the way the country is going, whom should I work for? And more importantly, how do I sleep at night?

Consultant? Yes, I flirted with this profession. And it ran like a Disney remake of Breaking Bad.

Long-distance hiker?  True, a wonderful experience. That is now over and done and not ongoing.

No, nothing in my past would work. They are all things I did. I need something that shows who I am, what I am doing. I remain noun-less.

‘Ellen Vrana, *blank*’ for now. Or more like ‘Ellen Vrana, three steps removed from being a writer but moving in that general direction.’

Unless I’m at Heathrow. At Heathrow I’ll settle for “unemployed” which hopefully (trust Democracy) means a Not a Terrorist. Today, Not a Terrorist. That will appease Customs. Maybe “writer” will too some day.

But will it ever appease me? I hope so.

  • Kernoodle

    Guess what… You’re a writer.

    Ya wanna know what my definition of writer is? Someone who writes stuff every day.
    Another solidifying factor is your words are available for others to absorb.
    Also, people might start stealing your words and plagiarizing you if they haven’t done so already, which sucks, but I think that definitely makes you a writer.

    I had a blog for three years. Posted 300 pages worth of stuff. Could never call myself a writer. Kept thinking I had to earn that title by having someone else assign it to me, like a publisher or someone in the upper echelons of the literary world.

    You know what happened? People started stealing what I thought was shitty writing. Copy and paste is what they did.

    So dammit… I’m a writer. You’re a writer. I refuse to go through all the work and frustration and continue to feel less than. Neither should you.

    You’re a writer.

    • Hi Carmen! thanks. You’ve nailed the essence of the difficulty: “Kept thinking I had to earn that title by having someone else assign it to me, like a publisher or someone in the upper echelons of the literary world.” This is so so true. Just for you, I’ll call myself a ‘writer’ today, perhaps tomorrow. You do the same, ok? 🙂 Take care!

  • CL

    I think that you are a writer, and a fine one at that. Your writing has not declined since 4th grade; I think that you are definitely one of the best writers on Quora. You always make me laugh.

    I’m actually an author myself. I learned that authors get better responses than writers, apparently.

    I only began to call myself an author a few weeks ago, after I quit my software job. When I’m not on the clock as an independent contractor, I’m part of the self-publishing movement. I also get to call myself the CEO of a one-person operation. 🙂 It sounds absurdly fancy for a girl writing thrillers, but I get to make the rules.

    • Cheers! You sure do make the rules, good for you. Thanks for linking your site, I’ll check it out. Best of luck!

  • Jesse Lashley

    I would actually really like to watch a Disney remake of Breaking Bad.

    • I mean, who wouldn’t!?

      • Jesse Lashley

        Hakuna Matata, bitch!

    • I agree I definitely would want Disney to produce this.

  • Kieran

    Hi Ellen!

    I think you’re a captivating writer with a simple yet vivid style. I read your first piece of writing on Quora and it left me in absolute stitches. (http://www.quora.com/What-are-the-ten-things-you-like-about-your-husband-wife)

    What was amazing was that without a single adjective describing how your husband looked, a vibrant image of him had been painted in my head by the time I was done reading.

    Have you heard of Elmore Leonard’s “10 rules of writing”? Concise and witty, the first time I read it I was left in absolute shock at how the author managed to bring me through those emotions in such a short time. The blank pages and cartoons really drove his point home and gave me time to contemplate his words.

    Do give it a read if you haven’t, I promise it’ll at least illuminate certain truths about writing that you may have discovered along the way!

    • Hi Kieran, thanks so much! I read Leonard a long time ago and completely forgot about it. I’ll get it immediately. Thank you!

  • Ellen, I can understand how you don’t want to attach a noun to yourself until you reach some chosen standard. I don’t think I would call myself a “photographer” unless I was doing it professionally. However, if anyone should say I wasn’t a filmmaker, that’s another story, and believe me, it’s far from a career for me, at least for now. It’s such a commitment to get a quality film done that it doesn’t even occur to me that someone who’s reached the finish line on even one of them cannot call himself a filmmaker.

    Did you reach such a standard as a writer? I would offer that your writing style is captivating, and impressively witty, going in directions with always amuse, sometimes bewilder, and usually impresses the reader. You’re clearly not following any formula. You’re a natural at it, and it’s an obvious passion of yours. On top of that you have quite a following already. People that look forward to the squawks of the silliest goose. So people certainly love your work.

    Okay, so you write a lot, and a lot of people read it, and it’s good. But you don’t consider self-publishing on a blog to be a valid conduit to writership. I think the noun “writer” suits you well, but if you are that stubborn, can you at least call yourself a blogger then? I mean, you own a blog. You write on it. The blog’s definitely not a ghost town. When I was at New York Magazine, working as a software developer, the software labeled the articles that the writers wrote, for online publishing, as “blog entries”. We were told not to refer to them as blogs publicly, because the magazine writers did not want to be known as “mere bloggers”. I think blogs are quite respectable, and some of them are quite influential. I’m proud to say I’m a blogger. Maybe you can use that noun?

    • What a thoughtful comment Scott. To be expected from someone who loves and animates cats like you do. I think “blogger” is perfectly reasonable and professional. I shy away from it because it conjures up constant activity, updates, timely things etc. and that is not my style. But if you remove that, yes, that is what I do. Nothing wrong with that. I’m trying out a few titles now, see how they feel. 🙂

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  • Suzan B

    You are a writer. Full stop.


    • Thanks Suzan, that always mean something to me, to hear. I think I agree, 85% of the time now. I leave this post up though because there are so many other people who ask me about what it means to be one, and when do they know, and I talk to them and then gently encourage patience and self-love, because we’ve all been through the doubt in such a nebulous profession.

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