Go Ahead. Make My Day.
When I tell people I’m a writer, there are three questions they usually ask, which I will list in order from least annoying to most:
1) What do you write?
This question is generally not very annoying, except for the fact that I have to answer it all the time. They’re being polite, making small talk, and they probably won’t push the question much further because, who are we kidding, they’re more interested in telling me about themselves. I tell them I write fiction and that’s usually the end of it. They nod and tell me that’s nice and move on. Where it really gets annoying is when they push the subject, which leads me to the second most annoying question:
2) What’s your book about?
I know that, as a self-employed person who should be constantly trying to promote their work, I should take this question as an opportunity to try and sell the book. But this doesn’t really work for a few reasons.
First, I am not a good businesswoman. I would venture to say that most writers are not naturally geared toward business; that’s what makes them good artists. It’s a big struggle for the artistically inclined to see their work as a product to sell rather than as the result of blood, sweat, and tears. That’s why we have agents and managers and so on (if you can get them) — to help us hopeless artists with the business-y side of writing. While I’m trying to train myself to be more of a capitalist when it comes to my work, 90% of the time, I don’t see the point.
Because, again, most people are not really interested in helping you further your career or giving your novel to that guy they know at Random House — they’re just trying to make conversation. And since I am now working on other projects, I’m kind of over telling people all about my first novel. I think this must be sort of what child actors or one-hit wonders go through every day; talking about that one thing they did a long time ago. Yes, I am proud of my novel. No, I don’t want to tell you all about it. And you probably don’t want to hear it, either.
Note: If you do want to give my novel to that guy you know at Random House, I will tell you about my novel until you tape my mouth shut.
3) Are you published?
Any questions about my published status automatically make me want to hit the asker. This is mostly a result of my frustration with not being published (except for that one short story years ago), but it’s also just a rude question. It’s like asking a childless person why they don’t have kids or asking a stranger how much money they make. It’s a sore subject, I’d venture to say, for most writers.
And the ones for whom it is not a sore subject probably are published, in which case, trust me, you won’t have to ask them whether they’ve got a book out there that you can buy. It’ll be the first thing they say to you on the subject.
There’s also the fact that this question suggests that the writer’s worth is being judged based on whether or not they’ve been published. Not only is this unfair, but it makes them feel like a failure when you bring up the subject. You are reminding them that nobody has valued their work enough yet to print and distribute them, and you are bringing up all their insecurities about their career.
I know this stuff probably makes me look cranky, but I don’t care. I bring it up here because I’m not exactly sure why these questions irk me so much.
Perhaps it’s because, to me, writing is very personal. I don’t like making casual small talk about it in the same way I don’t talk to strangers about my sex life or my political views or my spiritual beliefs. It just feels too intimate, to close to who I am at the core.
Maybe this is unprofessional; I don’t know. Do stock brokers hate talking Wall Street with people who don’t invest? Do veterinarians want to talk mange with the checkout lady at the supermarket? Maybe I don’t like talking about writing with strangers because most strangers don’t know the first thing about writing. They don’t read, they don’t write, and they don’t really want to.
I have no problem talking about writing with my friends (although I’m sure they wish I would stop sometimes). And I have already talked about my love of talking books with strangers who know about books — it’s one of the highlights of my day when it happens. Does this make me a snob? Probably. And I know I could avoid people asking me these questions by neglecting to mention my being a writer at all. But wouldn’t that be a betrayal of who I am? A denial of my dreams? And shouldn’t I allow for the possibility that these well-meaning strangers do have something valid to offer on the subject?
Because, as annoying as the questions can be, they do open up a whole world of discussion that might very well make my day a good one. If I can just bring myself to give people a chance.