05 April, 2011

Dana's Dojo: Conversations With Non-Writers About Writing

Today in the Dojo: Wherein I ask a bunch of writerly friends about answering thorny questions raised by non-writerly folk.

Either a writer doesn't want to talk about his work, or he talks about it more than you want.
- Anatole Broyard

People who find out I'm writing a novel tend to ask, either immediately or at inconvenient moments a long time later, "What's your book about?"  I choke, stammer, and look desperately for a distraction, like "ZOMG look it's a UFO!!!"  I hate that question.  There's no simple answer to it that doesn't sound bloody stupid.

That's not the only question that throws me.  But it's among the hardest to deal with.

Once, after hearing that Dreaded Inquiry for the billionth time, I began thinking: How do we answer such questions?  So I sent out a list to my compatriots from the sadly deceased Death thread, and got fascinating results, including a few snappy comebacks I intend to usurp one of these days.

And so, I give you Conversations With Non-Writers About Writing:

1.  How do most non-writers react when they find out you want to be a writer? Is their response different than other writers'?

Nikki:  Usually when I tell people I am or am going to be a writer, I get the "that's nice" smile and a nod. Sometimes they ask me what I'm going to write, but usually because they expect me to say nonfiction. Sorry, folks. I'm going to make up stories for a living, sleeping 'til noon, staring out the window for inspiration, taking coffee breaks whenever I want....yep...I'm going to be a loafer for a living. Don't get the wrong impression--my family and friends are incredibly supportive, but I know that even my academic advisor hopes I have something to fall back on, just in case. Some people assume I'm going to teach writing. (Nicole bursts into manic laughter.) Yeah. Right.

Garrett:  The most often question I get asked is a three-parter: Are you published? When will you be published? Do you even WANT to be published? The third is added in a fit of pique when my answers to the first two are, "No, not yet," and "I'm not sure; I'm still putting stuff together." Sometimes non-writers will look at me with a vague sense of awe, which bewilders me to no end. I wouldn't wish writing on my worst enemy, most days, except of course now I can't live without it.

The one or two writers I do talk with are encouraging and sympathetic. We give each other spot checks to make sure this is still what we want to do/are compelled to do. Sometimes it feels like an unspoken or unofficial support group; we're here for each other, keeping each other strong. Mind you, that's because I'm actually FRIENDS with the writers I know ....

Simon:  Most non-writers, when I tell them I'm a writer, generally say something like: "I've always wanted to write a book. How do you find the time?" I tell them you have to make time. A book is not something that is going to write itself. Either you sit down and do it, or you don't. The choice is yours.

William:  I feel much more comfortable talking to other writers. Too often non-writers consider me crazy or a lazy bum who doesn't want to get a real job. Both of which are true, but I prefer to share my affliction with fellow sufferers.

Jim:  The single most common reaction is one of disbelief. Some hide it better than others, but my problem is I don't look like a writer is supposed to. Not that I'm entirely sure what the standard is, but I don't fit it either way. Frequently, people find out I'm a writer because they find out my focus in school was creative writing. Now, instead of saying "oh you're a writer" they say "oh, so are you planning on teaching?" No, I tell them, I'm planning on writing. To be sure, I have settled on teaching in order to pay bills, but the moment anyone thinks that's the reason I sat through courses on rhetoric and endless workshops, they are very wrong. Most often when I meet other writers, the reaction is a mixed one, guarded and sympathetic. Not so much a verbal response as that look in the eyes of someone who knows your pain, but also is not going to let you gain the advantage.

Glynis:  I get two reactions from non-writers: 1. They smile politely and shrug. 2. They're genuinely interested because they have read a book or two. Writers tend to go straight for the meatier questions: What genre? Shorts or novels? But it always boils down to: Have you published yet? When I say no, a subtle smirk crosses their face that says, "Oh, okay, so you want to write but you suck."

Dana:  Since I simply state "I am a writer," non-writers get that starry-eyed expression people get upon meeting some sort of celebrity.  Those thinking about writing something swallow hard and get that "How do I get her to help me?" expression that has me thinking awshit where's the exit???  Writers themselves either express delight or an "Oh God, not ANOTHER one!" thought process.

2.  What kinds of questions do non-writers ask you about your writing?  How do you answer?

Nikki:  Sometimes I get the typical "Where do you get your ideas?" questions, but once I got asked about my personal writing process. A friend and former English lit. major wanted to know how I go about writing a piece of fiction. Another time someone asked me why I decided to go into writing. In no uncertain terms, I told him I didn't decide. I said I've always been a writer. Someone even once asked me about my writing environment, which I thought was a thoughtful inquiry. I told her I write whenever, however, wherever I can, and someday, I'll have a beautiful roll top desk to clutter. That seemed a satisfying answer to her.

Garrett:  "What kind of stories do you write?" That's what it alll boils down to. At least I don't get the dreaded "Where do you get your ideas from?" question.  How do I answer?  "I write about a lady who is part of an organization that can best be described as 'Men in Black' meets 'Harry Potter.'" I then pray to God Almighty they know those references because if they don't that means more explaining.

Simon:  The two most popular questions I get asked are "Where do you find the time?" and "How do you get published?"  See above for answer to first question. As to the question, "How do you get published?" . . . I tell them the best thing one can do is find an agent to represent the work. Publishing houses, for the most part, do no accept unsolicited manuscripts. Warning: Landing an agent can be just as hard as landing a publishing contract.

William:  Stupid ones, usually. Most think fiction writing is a trade, like bricklaying. While we know it's art -- don't we?  How do I answer?  With sarcasm and derision. The best defense is a good offense.

Jim:  Well, first there are the common civillian questions. People ask "have you been published" yet. Then of course they want to know where or by whom. Sometimes people ask pretty straightforward questions that aren't, for me at least, so easily answered. "What kind of writing do you do?" comes up a lot, as people have a need for easy categorizations. "What are you working on now?" is usually followed by "What's it about?" And perhaps my least favorite yet most telling question is "Why do you write?" Yes, I've gotten that from the civillians.  How do I answer?  The "have you been published?" question is easy, as I have been published, but nowhere the average person is going to be familliar with. These are genre publications that folded years ago. As far as what kind of writing I do, you can pretty much divide it between fiction and creative non-fiction, as I like to mix it up between the wildly speculative and painfully honest, and sometimes I freely mix and match. Other writers might understand this concept, but I've seen the confusion happening on the faces of the non-writers. Of course, they want to know the genre of the fiction. Is it horror, romance, western, techno-thiller? It sounds elitist, but I hate having to break down into such a specific label. I'm a bit of a genre whore, after all, why should I have to stick with one? So I usually answer something along the lines of "literary magical realist urban fantasy with Lovecraftian-esque cyberpunk horror influenced by the writings of graphic novel and wuxia fantasy films and toned by cynical, and often black humor." Not surprisingly, that answer is frequently a conversation ender. To the "What's it about?" question, I've actually been trying to find quick and easy answers, as I know it's a skill I have to master to pitch a story or novel to a publisher. But it's hard to summarize existential quandries colored by situational madness in twenty words or less. If I think the person is really interested I'll respond honestly. "This story is about an Elvis impersonator who works in a donut shop and whose life takes a dramatic turn when, upon failing to commit suicide, he ends up with the voice of a dead pop-star in his head urging him out of his self-constructed misery." For everyone else, I tend to answer "stuff." As for why I write, the answer is zen, and if you don't get it, you likely won't. "I write because I have to, because I can't NOT write."

Glynis:  "When do you do it?"  "Where do you get your ideas?"  "How many books have you published?"  "When are you going to publish your manuscript?"  How do I answer these questions? Pretty much this way: "When do you do it?" Whenever I can. "Where do you get your ideas?" From my brain. "How many books have you published?" None. This is where I slip into defensive mode and snootily state that I have finished writing a novel. "When are you going to publish your manuscript?" When someone buys it. "How does that happen?" I send out letters and samples. If I send out enough odd are someone may believe in the story and give me money. "So you haven't found anyone who believes in it?" No. This leads to an embarrassing silence. My conversation partner gives me an all too familiar subtle smirk.

Dana:  Absolute tops: 1. What kind of stuff do you write?  2. Are you writing something now?  3. Is it a novel or a short story?  4. Can I read it???  Not quite as often is "5. Have you been published anywhere?"  6. And the really brilliant ones ask if it's hard.  How do I answer?  1.  "Um.... it's complicated."  If pressed, I can usually shut them up with "It's speculative fiction," or if I'm in a really nasty mood, "It's a sort of urban-fantasy-slash-sci-fi kind of mixed with psychological thriller, mystery, and high fantasy - pretty complicated."  Their eyes usually glaze over at this point and I'm free to go.  2.  "Yes."  3.  "Depends on my mood.  And I do a bog, too.  It actually has a few readers."  4.  "Yes, please.  Report back what you hated about it, as well.  But only if you read speculative fiction."  If the follow-up question is "What's that?" I shop elsewhere for wise readers.  5.  "Not yet.  Publication requires submissions.  I've been too busy trying to write something that doesn't suck so badly it won't get published.  Maybe in a year or two."  6.  [Hysterical laughter]  "Oh, you betcha.  Hard doesn't even begin to cover it."

3.  Do you have a hard time talking about your writing, even though you want to share it with the world?

Nikki:  Yes, I do. My veins are thick with ink. But it's so personal to me that for all the stories, sketches, and ideas I have, it's hard to express my writing, especially to those who don't share that passion. My way of sharing it with the world is by writing.

Garrett:  Oh dear GOD, yes. I'd much rather be in the position of "let me show you instead of telling you." I think that's why I've let so many folks read my early work. While it most likely isn't ready to be published, it gives the people I actually care about an idea about what it is I try to convey. Besides, letting people read my stuff makes me feel less like a poseur.

Simon:  I sometimes feel self-conscious about it because I don't want to come across as bragging. However, I don't mind talking about it if people are asking me questions and show a genuine interest.

William:  All I really want to share with the world is my actual writing. I don't get much satsifaction from discussing how I did it, what I think of it, etc. The writing should speak for itself. The author should be an enigma -- for his own good. (I belong to the J. D. Salinger school of mysterious writers.)

Jim:  I do. Not because it's too personal to share, or because I'm afraid I'll be laughed at by getting into it. Talking about writing is frustrating for a few reasons. With non-writers, it either seems like I'm talking a different language, these are people who really don't understand how this works and see it much like something you just do quickly and yay, it's done. Often it can seem like too much bravado i.e. "yay look at me, I'm so cool I write." This might just be a result of too much self-consciousness on my part, yet I find unless people ask, I never bring up my writing. And unless they really show interest, it tends to be a pretty quick conversation. With other writers, it depends. We can be a fickle bunch, and sometimes the realization that two people are writers turns pretty feral, I get the feeling we're sizing each other up, questions turn guarded as though revealing too much will expose weakness, and often we end up quickly wanting to talk about something else. At the end of the day, I want my writing to speak for itself.

Glynis:  It's a lot like talking about kids. I can talk about it for hours if someone is willing to listen. It's difficult to be enthusiastic when you notice eyes glazing over when you bring the subject up.

Dana:  Yes, I do have a hard time discussing it.  I didn't used to.  But now that the concepts and ideas are pretty much sorted, I'm not as prone to burble for hours.  Now, people ask me detailed questions, and I'm prone to evasive answers that only take a few seconds' time.  I do want to talk about it.  But I'd much rather just write it.

5.  Extraneous comments on the whole bloody subject?

Nikki:  Not at the moment, but if I think of something clever, I'll get back to you.

Garrett:  Since I finally know who my main protagonist is, at least in this phase of my writing, my writing has gotten a whole lot more focused. I don't know if it'll ever be easier, but my protagonist has helped me see that writing is one of the things I'm meant to be doing with my life. For that, I owe her pretty much everything, and the best way I can think to pay her back is to craft the very best stories I can tell.

Simon:  . . . blah! Where's my million-dollar contract?!

William:  You're going to hate this, but I think telling someone how to write is like telling a young couple how to have sex. Both are learned by trial and error, much groping in the dark, embarrassing failures from time to time, and persistence. Writing like love-making is a passionate affair that doesn't lend itself well to logic or self-consciousness, which can ruin the atmosphere.

Jim:  The single most annoying thing related to the questions and conversations about writing are when those people who don't write with passion, obsession, or need but somehow think it would be a fun way to kill a weekend start talking about this novel they want to write. We all know the type. They'll find out you're a writer and go "oh yeah, I've been thinking about writing this novel 'cause I have this great idea about aliens and pizza delivery. I just never have time to write it but I think when Christmas comes I'll do it. What do you think?"  Trust me, I want to tell them, you don't want to know what I think.

Glynis:  Writing is interesting to writers. If it was interesting to anyone else, the local bookstore would be stocked with stories about writers writing stories.

Dana:  If your plot can't be summarized in two sentences or less, I've discovered it's easy to get people to stop asking about it by saying, "There's this guy, and he does some stuff, and the world kinda implodes or something - it's a good book, everybody dies."  And I wish people would stop asking me about my writing when I'm sitting at the lunch table trying to work.... there should be a law that states that interrupting a writer during writing is one of the justifiables in "justifiable homicide."

I hope you guys had as much fun with all of this as I did.  It means a lot to me that you all took the time away from your writing and your lives to send the answers to those questions.  It just reinforces my opinion that we are some of the coolest writers writing today - so where's our multi-million dollar publishing contracts?  Eh?


Michael said...

There's a story that I've always liked about Peter Cook, the English satyrist and comedian. It's said that he encountered an acquaintance in a pub one day and asked what he was doing; the acquaintance declared that he was writing a novel. "Oh," Cook responded, "That's interesting - neither am I."

Michael said...

Oops - Peter Cook may well have been a satyrist, but my knowledge only extends to his skills as a satirist.

Freudian slip, senior moment....

Karen said...

Oddly enough, I'm often shy about asking questions of a writer. I tend to hold you all in high regard, because I've written a fair amount of fiction myself, it's awful, and I greatly admire those who can do it well.

So, talking to writers about writing feels like chatting up one of the great scientists in my own field: this person I'm talking to is great and I'm nothing.

Woozle said...

I keep finding that writing and programming seem to have a lot in common.

* They both involve a lot of sitting at a keyboard typing wodges of text and then deleting most of what you just typed.
* Interrupting a writer or a programmer deep in the throes of a complicated bit of plotting is likely to get your head bitten off.
* Explaining what you're working on is difficult when there's so much background you'd have to explain first before you can get to the part about "and here's what I'm working on today".
* Trying to explain the intended final result can be almost impossible; you just have to finish the damn thing so you can show it. And even then...

There are probably more, but that's what came to mind.