Labels: You Only Get Three

Hot Under The Collar: This past Wednesday was Independence Day in the U.S. For the resort area I live in, this is a high holiday—the highest day of the high season. Urbanites and suburbanites from nearby Chicago flock to the area to sun themselves, light off dangerous fireworks, and generally eat, drink and make merry. It’s like Christmas in July for our area business people.

I’ve shared quite a bit about the background of my writing journey in the past, most recently in the fun-tastic interview conducted by my friend Lara Schiffbauer for Motivation for Creation. But all you need to know for this post is that I started writing nine years ago, I shared that I was writing with very few others, and that I finished a draft of my epic fantasy trilogy in June of ’09. I have long struggled with publicly embracing my writer status. Since ’09, through beta readers and my online activity, most who know me have come to know of my writing life.

Which leads me to why I get uncomfortable on the Fourth of July. We have a neighborhood parade culminating in a party every year. Neighbors, friends, my wife’s clients, friends of friends, all come. It’s a pretty big deal. The kids decorate their bikes, dogs wear flag bandanas; we’ve had fire trucks, ponies, convertibles with waving Forest Springs queens, floats, etcetera. Like Christmas, it’s a time of the year when I am confronted with seeing quite a few folks I only see once or twice a year. And I’ve grown to dislike it. 

So, What Do You Do?  It’s an unavoidable question. Behind the weather, asking an acquaintance how they occupy themselves is one of the oldest and simplest forms of initiating social small talk. In the earliest days of people finding out you are a writer, you get a variety of reactions: eye rolls, feigned interest, flight, questions about whether you want it made into a movie, questions about what you think of the most recent hot book (in case you’ve been living under a rock, it’s currently 50 Shades of Gray), and so on. I was just beginning to get used to this variety, although it took me a while to openly admit I was writing epic fantasy (people immediately go to dragons and hobbits when they hear the two words used together). Then I finally crafted a quick summary of my work that most find acceptable if not interesting.

But time marches on, and as I said, most now know of my writing. So what’s the problem, right? Well, it’s sort of hard to describe, but I have a feeling many of you writerly types out there will get it. So please bear with me while I set this up.

You Only Get Three Things: A very good friend of mine was my first beta-reader outside of family. After he finished the trilogy, we spent a whole day discussing the books. It was wonderful. He was one of the first to make me realize this writing thing was serious shit—like my life’s calling. During that discussion, I was bemoaning the aforementioned reactions to telling people socially (eye rolls, et al), and he said, “you’ve got to make it one of your three things.” I raised my brows and made one of those inquiring Scooby Doo noises.

My friend went on to explain his theory about how your social image is a reflection of you viewed through the prism of three, and only three, labels—if you’re lucky. Some folks only get one or two. To demonstrate, he gave me his and mine. His were: 1) Gay with Longtime Partner (always a powerhouse, as far as labels go); 2) Stewardess (his own name for his paying gig of airline attendant); and 3) Jewelry Guy (he’s actually a talented jewelry designer, but since his family is in the jewelry biz, he only gets ‘guy,’ and not ‘designer’).

He said mine at the time were: 1) Mo’s Husband (in our social circle my wife has, and always will have, the better and more visible image); 2) Carpenter (I have a pretty good rep here); and 3) Lumber Guy (even though we previously ran a business that did more than just sell lumber, this is what sticks—this guy knows about, and can procure, lumber). My friend insisted, beyond the closest circle of friends and family, these three are all the labels society is willing to allocate. Trying to add a fourth is impossible. To add new one, an old one has to go.

So the idea is to use what little influence you have on your own labels to make at least one of your three into what really describes your heart’s desire. I started telling people I was a WRITER, dammit–actively seeking to make it one of my three (hoping Lumber Guy would drop away, which it pretty much has). And I actually did it! Over time, and with some effort, I am now known as a writer.  In most of my circles, it’s pretty much become one of my three (if not number one). Again, you might ask: What’s the problem?

The Well-Meaning Inquisition: Let’s get back to the Fourth of July. Here came the folks I only see once or twice a year. They see me, sort through the labels they recall, find the one they feel is most interesting (or meaningful to me if not interesting to them), and say, “So, how’s the book coming?”

Don’t think I don’t appreciate the effort. It really is well-intentioned, and I’m glad it’s become the most prominent of my three. But am I really supposed to tell them I just finished a third revision of my book three, and that I’m excited by some of the rejection feedback I’ve recently gotten on book one, and am gearing up for yet another rewrite of the opening? Or that I have been getting some pretty good feedback from betas on my fourth manuscript, which is a prequel to the trilogy they’re probably uninterested in?

They want me to tell them the book is done, and soon to be published! And, since I finished a draft in June of ’09, they’ve heard me talk about how I’m still plugging away for four Fourths now (you don’t often get to say, “for four Fourths,” and have it make sense, btw). I understand they don’t really want details, and anything I tell them culminates in “still not published.” Then they give me sad eyes. Or phrases like, “Well, hang in there,” or “At least you still have carpentry, right?”

What Do They Know? That’s just it. They know one, two, or three of my labels. It’s very superficial, but it’s not their fault. I only know one, two, or three of their labels, too. They can’t know that my writing journey has been the greatest of my life, and that the past year has been one of my proudest. They don’t know how close the work is finally getting to being ready, how I now have a column in the Writer Unboxed newsletter, or how prestigious WU is. They don’t know I’ve met so many wonderful friends in the writing community, how I feel so appreciated and supported. They can’t know that my gut is finally telling me this trilogy might really find an appreciative audience—that it might not only be enjoyed by readers, but will affect some of them, leaving them moved and thinking big thoughts after reading the final page.

And since I can’t find a way to easily explain all of this in the allotted time—at least not without their eyes glazing over—when they ask, “So, how’s the book coming?” my answer is a smile and a simple, “It’s coming along. Thanks for asking!” Then I ask them if I can refill their drink or fetch them another beer, and I get the hell outta there.

How about you guys? What are your three things? Is WRITER one of them? How do you handle, “So, how’s the book coming?”

33 comments on “Labels: You Only Get Three

  1. First things first – as a huge introvert, I would probably dread this annual get-together that you have at your place and would undoubtedly try and finagle my way out of it. Ha!

    Ok – now on to the post itself. Since I have been writing since around sixth grade, was the assistant editor and editor of the high school newspaper, and went to a small high school (my graduate class had only around 35 people in it) EVERYONE knew/knows that I was/am a writer. My entire town (population 1,600) probably knows, too. So on one hand, writer is definitely one of my three labels. And I’ve been lucky enough to be published in nonfiction and with a few short stories. BUT, the BIG one, the BOOK being published…well, that hasn’t happened yet, and when people ask me, I usually go, “Well, still working at it.” If they are at all interested and I know them well, I will MAYBE continue the conversation. If not, I don’t. The crazy thing? My 20 year high school reunion is coming up next year. I want SO BADLY to have a book contract in hand before it hits. I am dreading the question that will inevitably be asked by all those classmates (some whom I really don’t even want to see): “Is your book published yet?” I really don’t want to tell them no.

    Anyway. I like your response – short and to the point.

    I guess my three labels would be: wife/mother, writer, history nut. Technically that may be FOUR labels, but I tend to lump the wife/mother together because, well, they just GO together.

    Vaughn, I’m glad I met you in the writing community and I am positive that great things are headed your way.

    Enjoy your weekend!


    • I can totally see wanting that contract before the reunion, since your HS friends had WRITER as one of your 3 things. It’s perfectly natural. And, as much as I know I should give you platitudes about how it doesn’t matter, how your writing journey is about so much more than a contract, I really want it for you!

      And I think wife/mother is acceptable, under the 3 things rule. I think of you as my go-to WW2 historian, so that one has even followed you into the writing community. And in my book, it’s an awesome one!

      Whether you make your goal before the reunion or not, I know the same thing about you, Melissa, that great things are headed your way. Thanks for reading and for the awesome comment!


  2. deedetarsio says:

    Vaughn, what a great post! I always feel “clunky” telling people what I do and I love ur 3 labels descriptor–brilliant.

    XOXO, (Porter, I’m winking at you!)

    -Indentured servant, kitty litter cleaner, madly, passionately in love with my Roomba
    (You are right, no room for #4!)


    • Thanks, Dee! Love your three, but I wonder if you oughta add flip-flop model. After all, if the Roomba’s doing its job, you should forget all about it–hence your passion might wither.

      (PS – I doubt Porter reads my little musings, so I think we can XO each other all we want. Isn’t that fab?)


  3. If I get only three… 1) Grandmother. That’s the most important thing, 2) Mother. To my son and his wife, 3) Writer. Writer comes last in the three because my family is more important to me than anything else.


    • Hmmm, I don’t know why, but you went into moderation, Karen. Anyway, thanks for reading. I can only imagine just how powerful your numbers one and two are. Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂


  4. I get three? Easy. 1) Grandchildren. 2) Son and his wife. 3) Everything else.


  5. liz says:

    It’s definitely a challenge, Vaughn. Our culture spends so much time sussing out what people DO, as opposed to who we are, that it can be a bit disheartening sometimes. When I’ve travelled to other places, my job or occupation rarely seems to come up – people are more interested in other aspects of life. That said, most of the people who ask are just trying to make conversation, so I think your response is perfect! Hope your fourth was happy and that summer is a great time for you.

    Liz — wife, mom, and writer


    • That’s an interesting observation, Liz, that part of my three label thing has to do with our cultural emphasis on vocation. It makes sense. Kind of like how so many of our universities focus on it, rather than the total life experience and outlook. I know you’re right, that it’s often just a conversation starter. But a lot of people really want to hang those labels, too.

      Thanks, and back atcha–hope your summer’s going swimmingly!


  6. Stacy S. Jensen says:

    I love the three labels idea and most likely true as I mentally go through my friends. As you expand your cirlce, the new people often know you by different titles. I know you first as a writer (who says online friends don’t serve a great purpose?). With the memoir, I typically get, “So, what happened with that book?” since I began writing in four years ago. Now, I can say, I’m revising thanks to my efforts to rewrite the entire manuscript earlier this year. With the children’s picture books, I get, “Those are quick to write, right?” Most days I grin, roll my eyes and smile. As for my labels, hmm professionally one might say Writer-Reporter-Designer (I’m a design student in my spare time) and personally one might say wife, mother and the old one. That’s the gem I picked up at a neighborhood Fourth of July gathering, I serve the niche as “the old lady,” so one of my neighbors can feel young. 🙂 When my sister is around, I’m the “good twin,” not to be confused with the “evil twin.”


    • I’m so glad the good twin stopped by and chimed in! 🙂 Thanks for making WRITER my #1. I find people aren’t usually too satisfied by the concepts of rewriting and revising. In my experience it tends to produce some furrowed brows. Funny how most of us writers have come to realize the first draft is just the beginning.

      I like compartmentalizing it, so you get three professional labels and three family/community ones. Hard to believe anyone considers you old. I must be serving that niche for my neighborhood and the whole writing community, eh? 😉

      Thanks for reading and sharing your labels, Stacy!


  7. Nicole L. Bates says:

    These are really good questions Vaughn. It’s interesting for me to think about the three labels because that is something that I’ve been struggling with for a couple of months now. For the last year they have been, without question, 1) Mom 2) Runner 3) Writer. Now I’m adding Speech Therapist back to the list, so which one has to go? I don’t feel like I can, or want to, let go of any of them. As to the last question, most people have stopped asking about the book. I’m sure the reason is that it’s been too long and they no doubt assume that when I do get published, they’ll hear about it, which is true. 🙂 Great post!


    • Maybe, just for a while, one of them has to be shelved for the addition of Speech Therapist (congrats on that, btw), but you can still be just as passionate about it. Last night I had dinner with the friend I mention above, and I’d sent him the post beforehand. He HATES that he is pigeonholed into the three things. He said just reading the post make him feel yucky. Not that he doesn’t believe it’s true anymore, just that it sucks.

      In the end, I think it matters very little. We know what matters, as do those who love us best. Rock on with your four, Nicole, and let the labels fall where they may. 🙂 Thanks so much for reading and for the great comment!


  8. This is interesting, because I just read a book on sports psychology, and the writer urged people to articulate three lifetime priorities. I can see how it would help to craft goals, but when it comes to people and perception, I hope there’s room for nuance! Otherwise I’m sunk.

    I know friends who feel self-conscious about their as-yet unachieved writing goals. For some reason, I don’t feel this way in front of non-writers, because it’s impossible for them to understand how long it can take, or what goes into it the process. It’s like medicine in that everyone knows about doctors, but they have zero idea what the lifestyle involves.

    It’s when I’m with other writers, who seem to have done so much more than I in the allotted time. That’s when I get tongue-tied. I assume that they’re judging me, when the truth is, they might as easily be feeling the same way. Ah. Lovely projection, huh?


    • I think my friend’s theory is mostly a critique of society’s lack of ability to appreciate nuance. I think what keeps us afloat is how we gravitate towards those who appreciate the particular strain of nuance we exude.

      It’s very zen of you, and not surprising, that you can put the ignorance of non-writers aside and thereby remain unaffected. It probably is your medical background that gave you that gift. I can only imagine how difficult this is going to be the day I end up in a room full of other writers I admire comes around. If there ever is a WU retreat, can I hang by you? We could project together, and jointly find our way from our collective tongue-tiedness. 😛

      Thanks, as always, Jan, for reading and for your thoughtful contribution to the discussion.


  9. I would say my three are family woman/social worker/writer, in no particular order. Most people who know me are from work, but I began letting my workmates know I write a year or so ago.

    What I appreciate most about your post is that you point out that there are tons of little things that happen in the writer’s life that non-writers just don’t get, without some lengthy explanation. That’s how you know you found someone really interested – they start asking questions.

    And thanks for the link! 😉


    • The little things can’t be known until you live them, can they, Lara? I mean, during the first draft, when I started reading about all the revision work, the ups and downs of critiques and submissions, etc, I still couldn’t comprehend what I was in for.

      I met another writer socially several years ago, just before I finished the first draft. He was asking me about my process and what I had done, submissions wise, and all the while he had this bemused look on his face. I thought it was odd then, but now I know he was just enjoying seeing the process through the wide, innocent eyes of a total newbie.

      You’re right, there are always those who are earnestly interested. And I’m always happy to oblige when those questions arise. It’s fun to talk about the process with someone who cares.

      My pleasure on the link. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and for commenting, my friend!


  10. Of course since I live near Chicago, I’m just itching to know where you live. I just visited St. Joseph, Michigan for the first time and it won’t be the last. I’m scheming a way to get back soon. Anyway, when I read your post I thought of three things immediately – writer, single/divorced mom, great friend. I’m definitely known as all three – with the first two being the more outspoken and public parts of me. But there’s plenty left out — like daughter. Not sure how to reconcile that one! Great thoughts, Vaughn. Thanks for sharing. ~ Amy


    • Thanks, Amy! I live about 15 miles south of St. Joe, along the lake, in a little town called Harbert. You drove right by me when you went up there. 🙂 If you’re ever driving up again, stop at the Sawyer exit, turn left, go to the first business over the tracks–a craft brewery called Greenbush–give me a shout, and I’ll come over and buy you one of the best beers you’ve ever had (or whatever else you partake in–the owner’s a friend).

      Being a great friend is a wonderful one, and having that as your third label is admirable! There are always so many other things that define us. It’s up to us to push for the best three with the world at large. I think writer, mom, friend is an awesome trio! 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by!


  11. I have to have a bit of a think about my three things. Depending on who you ask about me, you might get different things — myself, it’s likely: 1. Cat person 2. Writer 3. Bisexual girl. Ask my parents, and you’ll likely get: 1. Daughter 2. Creative 3. Cat person. (I can only guess.) 🙂


    • It’s funny how it varies by your various social circles. I hadn’t thought about what my mom might say my three are. I think my sisters would both put writer in there, but I doubt my mom would. Dog owner/lover would be one several of my neighbors would put on me. Many only interact with me while I’m walking the dog. 🙂 Thanks for reading and for commenting, Alyssa!


  12. Elizabeth Campbell Frey says:

    This just simply resonated with me … besides the eye rolling, telling me to hang in there, and sharing with me their own great American novel that has been backburnered for a number of years, my favorite is always … thank goodness you have a hobby you can enjoy. So many people just don’t have anything that can keep them occupied. I will have to remember, “It’s coming along! Thanks for asking!” It’s perfect.


  13. Most of my little bios have some variation of “Mama/Writer” as the lead. I squash them together because I’m not sure how to separate them — I’m equally fierce in both. I’m pretty sure that’s how other people see me too, but who can tell? A good friend once told me, “What other people think of you is none of your business.” Interesting twist!

    I love how you describe this classic writer dilemma. I finished my novel two years ago and when well-meaning friends ask about “the book”, I do sometimes cringe. On my better days, I just say I’m working on it.

    Great post! Thanks 🙂


    • I LOVE the equally-fierce Mama/Writer squash, Lisa! And if you’re diligent in squashing, I’m sure you pull it off, making it one of your labels.

      I so love your friend’s quote. One to remember and use. 🙂 Thanks so much for reading and adding to the conversation! (And for sharing on Twitter!)


  14. I shared my ambition to write with the people I am closest to- I think it helps keep me accountable-and I have amazing people who believe in me and kick my ass when I need it. It works out well and when I hear that inevitable question, I grin and say, “It’s coming.” I think of the process as a pleasant secret. Only my immediate family and I know about the late nights, early mornings, red ink, and self-doubts.

    At a recent family reunion, a distant relative asked what I did, I sucked it up and said, “I’m a writer.”
    He gave me the funniest look and edged away as if I had cooties. I laugh about it.

    So, to distant relatives and people who don’t know me well, I am: mother/wife/kook

    To those who love and support me: mother/ wife/ writer.

    Although, I have many days I wonder if kook and writer are interchangeable.

    Had a blast reading this, Vaughn. Let’s shred these labels. 🙂


    • I have a few ‘real life folks’ support/offer needed ass-kicking. But it’s something so few non-artists can identify with, so most of that level of support comes from you guys in my online tribe.

      The sidling away is so classic–adult-grade cootie fear is a perfect description. 🙂
      I’m so glad it was a fun read, and so agree we should strive for label-shredding, my awesome mother/wife/kook friend! 😉 For me, writer will always be your #1.Thanks, Tonia!


  15. kimbullock says:

    My labels would be wife, mother and writer. I may have had more trouble narrowing it down back when I worked in the corporate world, but the children have simplified my life!

    I just realized I’ve probably been right through Harbert! I went on a field trip to Warren Dunes State Park as a teenager!

    I think I may be hanging out with you and Jan at a WU retreat. I always feel like sinking into the floor when I admit how long I’ve been working on The Oak Lovers!


    • OMG, Kim! Warren Dunes is three miles from me! We’ve walked there via the beach. In ’04, I gutted, remodeled, and flipped a house so close to the state park, I could hear the life-guards scolding swimmers on their bullhorns as I worked.

      I think it’s cool that motherhood has simplifed your life and labels. Sounds like we’re getting a special table going for writing retreats. If we’re not careful, the cool kids will think we’re the ones being cliquey. 😉 Thanks for stopping by, my friend!


  16. ddfalvo says:

    “So, how’s the book coming?” Hahaha! Most unwelcome question ever, that only a non-writer would ask.

    Labels? Dislike. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy fb so much. You have to accept peeps for whatever they put out there and most of the time, it’s not the job, rank and roll call RL pays attention to. I have no idea what half my fb friends do to earn a paycheck, but I am familiar with their dreams–and more intimately than those of my local neighbors.

    When I first began to write, I didn’t tell anyone. My husband noticed that something was consuming my time. When I told I was writing a novel, I got the ”look”– you know, the one filled with half-pity, half-skepticism for an unreachable ambition. But I will never forget how that look changed after he read my first draft. It was like he was seeing me as someone different from the ordinary wife, mom and artsy dabbler (my 3) that he knew. That was when I knew I could do it. I won over a few family members, and now the whole tribe gives me support b/c those few have backed me up. My family’s opinions won’t get my books published, but their support keeps me focused.

    I subscribe to if you ”build” it, it will come. If you believe in your dream enough to define as a priority, then you force the world at large to look at you differently, and that’s your cornerstone.

    I look forward to the day you post your triumph in the feed, Vaughn. But you are already successful, you are already an author–four times over, and you already have a strong following. The ”what next” is just waiting for you to reach out and take it.

    (We’ve chatted about this already, but I wanted to put my comment with the others, where it belongs. 🙂 )


    • And I’ll say again how wise and astute your observation about fb is. I feel like I know my online acquaintances better than my ‘real life’ ones because here online ‘they’ get to pick which of their ‘labels’ they put forth.

      I will also tell all who stray by what I told you before, that you choked me up, that I think you’re so awesome–a rising star in the writerly community. You’re doing all the right things, D! And it’s going to pay big dividends. We’re reaching for that ‘what’s next’ together, my friend!

      Thanks for being my rock, and such a wonderfully wise old SOUL. 😉


  17. Nina Badzin says:

    Wonderful post. And oh, isn’t “How’s the book coming?” the most dreadful question of all? Sort of our fault for telling people about the book in the first place. It IS interesting how within the writing commenting there are certain creds (like WU) that are meaningful, but mean little to our non-writing friends. I think that’s normal, and frankly, feeling legit within the community is the first step to feeling it outside. Of course it would be nice not need anyone’s approval for the “writer” label, but I live in the real world . . . and in the real world we all need a few pats on the back now and then.


    • You make a great point, Nina. Feeling legit inside the community goes a long way toward embracing who we really want to be and presenting ourselves as such outside it. It’s a huge step.

      Here’s to acceptance and not needing so much approval to embrace our own labels for ourselves, but also to still getting a few pats on the back now and then. So great to have you here. Thanks for stopping by, reading and commenting!


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