Writers have a tendency to tell everyone how much we are working on our writing. That’s because to the eyes of others it doesn’t really look like work. It looks like sitting, typing, playing on the internet (we call it research), and making stuff up. We can practically hear you in our heads saying, “Get a job, loser.” So, when you talk to a writer – even a friend or spouse – you are talking to someone who already feels defensive. Don’t make it worse by asking these common questions:
1. What’s your story about?
Professional writers all understand this basic equation: the more you talk about your story the less likely you are to write it. Why?
- If you spend all your time talking about it, you’re not spending enough time writing it.
- You defuse the power of the story in your mind. Just like an old married couple who tells the same “time I got stuck in the bathroom and missed my plane” tale, if you keep repeating your story it sounds old to your ears, and you lose the passion to write it.
- It becomes story by committee. Well meaning, horrible people say, “Well it would be cooler if instead of killing the guy, she thinks he’s dead but he’s really chef at the donut shop.” Soon people start putting their ideas into your soup until it’s a cauldron of slop.
If a writer wants to tell you the story, she will. But, in the early stages of the creation chances are she won’t. I don’t tell people the story I’m writing until principle writing (the first draft) is complete. Asking about it just makes that awkward.
2. How’s Your Book Going?
There are certain things everyone hates – nails on a chalkboard, speaking in public, Dick Cheney, and having someone look over their shoulder while they do something.
Although this question is usually asked to show you care about the writer’s life (what are you thinking?) it comes off like you’re checking to make sure the writer is making progress. It’s like your mom asking you if you washed your hands, if you used soap, then asking to see your hands and sniff them.
Progress in writing is different from other things, and often backwards. Progress usually means you did 10 today and will do 15 tomorrow. Progress in writing may mean you have added 300 words to your manuscript today and will take 1,200 out tomorrow. You can spend 2 weeks developing a character and writing a subplot, only to discover it doesn’t really add to the story and you spend three days pulling it out and changing all the references to it. Believe it or not, those three days of cussing, crying and re-writing are considered great progress because you made the story better.
Since it’s unlikely a non-writer understands the crazy world of progress, it’s just better not to ask.
3. Are you planning to get it published?
There is no way to phrase this so it doesn’t send your writer friend into Hulk Mode. If you were at a baseball game and you saw a player who had been struggling with the bat for months would you go up and say, “Do you plan to get a home run today?” OF COURSE he’s planning to get a home run! But, there are 9 guys on the field who are desperately trying to keep him from doing it, the odds are against him doing it, and you just added another layer of pressure to his already slumping shoulders.
Publishing is part of the process outside of the writer’s control. It depends on agents, publishers, the stars aligning, timing, and magical runes tossed into a fountain. Most writers want to share their work through publication – but – that’s not the goal of writing. The goal of writing is to tell a story.
When you say: Are you going to publish it?
- You’re really going to show this to other people?
- You think this has a chance?
- Do you think you’re Stephen King?
- How big are you planning to fail?
- If I don’t see it in Barnes and Nobles you wasted your time.
Even worse? Asking if the writer is going to self-publish the work if that isn’t the intention (It’s like asking someone overweight if they are pregnant). There’s not a thing wrong with self-publishing, if that’s what the writer wants. But – let the writer tell you that, don’t assume.
What you say: “Are you going to publish this yourself?”.
What writers hear? Too lame for REAL publishing.
I am a commissioned freelance novelist so most of my work is sold before I write it and I don’t have that pressure. However, when I told a friend I had written a novel of my own I was preparing to shop to agents she actually said to me, “Let me know when you put it on Amazon. I’ll buy a copy.”
Best bet: Don’t talk publishing. Period.
4. You’re working too hard. Don’t you think you should take a rest?
The creativity part of creative writing is like waves on an ocean. You can sail them, get energy to propel your ship from them, and net schools of fish within them. What can’t you do? Make them. Writers go through periods of high creativity where they have a million ideas, boundless energy and know exactly how the story should come out. Writers also go through the flat waters of low motivation, no ideas, and struggle to remember a character’s name. If those periods are long enough – we call them writer’s block.
Like a galleon at sea, when the waves are moving we want to ride them as far as they can take us – because we know they will stop and we will be stuck. Maybe for a day or a week or – a year. So – NO – if a writer is in a high creativity zone they DON’T want to take a break. They want to get every single word down. When the flat water comes – there is still work to do – editing, researching, query letters, scene planning, and there is plenty of time for rest.
People who are serious about writing write every single day. Sometimes it’s work on a story, sometimes it’s a blog, sometimes it’s a journal where you write long angry passages about how you can’t think of anything to write, but always there is writing. It’s the same principle as keeping the faucet dripping during a deep freeze. If you don’t want the creative pipes to freeze and burst, pouring your future writing into the uncaring ground – you have to write. Writers know when to ride the waves and when to put up a hammock and enjoy the sunset. It’s a process. Don’t interrupt it.
5. Come on! You don’t have 2 hours to watch TV/Movie/Netflix? You gotta see this!
Writing is made of time. Every person only gets 24 hours a day. Those hours, like money that runs a household, must be budgeted. There are necessary bills – eating, sleeping, driving, and family time. There are need to haves: writing time, re-writing time, making another pot of tea time. There are nice to haves: TV time, cat pictures time, computer game time. Writers who are successful balance and control their time. That means even if the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey decides to work in a French burlesque – it’s going to have to go on the DVR until later.
Don’t be offended when writers blow off, ignore or deny your suggestions for entertainment. Don’t accuse (“Well, you had time to go swimming, but not time to see one episode of The Killing?”) and don’t blackmail (“I thought this was something we could do together as friends, but I see you’re too busy.”). There are a number of reasons writers don’t get involved with entertainment during principle writing:
- Energy, like time, is a commodity in writing. A show that is going to drain me isn’t going to help me when I sit down to the page.
- That two hours I managed to squeeze out of the time budget needs to be used for other stuff like laundry, mowing the lawn, or a hundred other things I’ve put off.
- I don’t want anything interfering with my story. Whether we realize it or not – we absorb entertainment into our subconscious mind. Strong images or other stories then creep into our writing mind and come out in the story. If it comes out too clearly, it’s called plagiarism.
- I need something different than what you’re offering. If I’m writing a lovely romance and I decide I need a break, the last thing I want to see is a Katherine Heigl Rom-Com (well, that’s the last thing anyone wants to see, actually). I may want to see beefy Spartan men jab each other with spears for two hours, just to clear my head.
Writers are an isolative group who frequently complain about being alone. But, it’s the price we pay for the art we choose to make. We still need you, we still love you and we want to have a relationship with you. Your support is critical to us. But when it comes to writing – leave the questions to us.
What do we blame when we look at the spilled milk? The elbow that bumped it, the glass that broke,or the floor the glass broke upon? Why is that floor so hard anyway? Who was supposed to be in charge of that floor? What do we not blame? The real cause: gravity. It’s gravity that pulls the glass to the floor. In fact, gravity is the unrecognized, unindicted reason for all the spilled milk. Why don’t we blame gravity? It’s too big, it’s too formidable. It’s the law.
In response to the tragic death of Michael Brown, the riots that followed, and continued pain and persecution on both sides – we have found plenty to blame. The officer who shot an unarmed young man, the few protesters out of thousands who wanted to cause trouble, the overly militarized and poorly trained police, or (the vilest claim of all) the young man himself. In distillation, the blame coin has two sides: “criminal aggression” and “white privilege.” What are we not blaming? The real cause: Fear.
There is no doubt this is a case about white privilege and criminal aggression. But the unrecognized, unindicted cause is fear.
- What causes an armed police officer to shoot at an unarmed citizen? Fear.
- What causes the police department to hide his identity for a week? Fear.
- What causes people to assemble rocks and bottles to throw? Anger, brought on by fear.
- What causes you to bring a tank and war weapons to a protest of people carrying rocks and bottles? Fear. (Can you truly say a group that shows up in a tank armed for the apocalypse is NOT acting from fear?).
Like gravity – it goes deeper, deeper, and deeper.
- Why does a police department in a community of 20,000 HAVE a tank? Fear (the ridiculous fear of terrorism, no less. Not even a statistically likely fear).
- Why does a police department in a town nearly 70% African-American have a 94% white police department? Fear.
- Why does white privilege exist? Fear. As we get closer and closer to the day that white people are not the majority – we get closer to both a reckoning of our ancestor’s past bad actions, and a challenge to deal with the new majority, for whom we have left nothing but the example of oppression. Instead of building bridges, we make walls harder to climb.
Fear explains both the roots and the branches of this poison tree. One of the questions I see in the comments of articles (I know, I know – never read the comments) is – “How can the police not realize almost every person in the US has a video camera in their pocket?” Why would a police officer harass journalists and NOT expect it to get out? Why would a police officer answer the question “What is your name” with “Go F Yourself,” and think he wouldn’t be caught?
Fear. The wisest, most world building decisions we make as human beings come from love. The worst, stupidest actions we take come from fear.
So instead of conservative media lambasting that we must bow to authority, or liberal hand-wringing over being able to recognize the destruction caused by white privilege but not knowing what to do about it – here’s my thoughts:
Conservatives (looking at you, Fox News) – learn the difference between asking a question and making an attack. Questioning the actions of police in an event isn’t “lack of support” – it’s the presence of accountability. Only an idiot would suggest authority cannot be challenged when it is possible it is in the wrong.
Liberals (Looking at you, Think Progress) – Get off the cross. Stop being the martyrs to the issue of while privilege and whining that you have it, but don’t what it, and don’t know how to get rid of it. No one is blaming you, and no one cares if you feel blamed. Fight the fear and injustice around you. Speak of white privilege in terms of it’s wrongs – not that you have it. Do something real.
Minority Communities – Recognize the fear, anger, pain and frustration building among you and refuse to turn it on yourselves. Stand together, walk together. When a fellow member of your community lashes out – reach to him or her with a healing hand that knows the pain and an inspiring hand to make a difference. Challenge the wrong, not each other. Celebrate your courage.
Majority Community – Fight your fear and forego your addiction to power. Let others in. Be transparent, accountable, and responsible – whether you are a police officer, a store clerk or a journalist.
Here’s a thought: Since the police department clearly needs some racial balance – put a white officer and a black officer in every patrol car together. That way – no one is alone, no one is afraid, no one is in a “He said/He said” situation and fewer people get hurt. Don’t have the budget for that? I know of some tanks and weapons you can sell. You don’t need them or know how to use them anyway.
Gravity – we are stuck with (unless you’re with NASA). Fear is a choice. Only when we challenge the fear that comes packaged to us every day – the Big Mac Meal poisoning our souls – will we see the end of white privilege, criminal aggression, bad decisions and grieving communities.
An introvert to the core, I imagine talking about myself or what I’m doing to be like offering a refreshment to a friend. I pour a bit of myself out and hand it to them with a heart full of best thoughts. Lately though, I’ve noticed the following phenomenon:
“So, Rev. Kellie, what are you doing now?”
It’s an easy, innocent question. In the last twenty years I’ve been a computer technician, chaplain, minister, and HIV/AIDS counselor. Two years ago, that changed. I open myself up and fill the glass cheerfully.
“I’m working as a commissioned freelance writer.”
I thought I was handing them a glass of bubbly champagne about the job I really love. Turns out, it was a cup of lukewarm milk.
“You’re doing spiritual writing?”
“I write fiction novels that are paid for by a broker who sells them to publishers. I just finished writing a novel of my own I’m shopping to agents as well.”
“I see.” The milk swirls in their cup. They close their eyes and take a drink, just to be polite. “What kind of novels? Christian Fiction? Inspiring stories?”
“Mysteries, thrillers and romance.”
The milk is sour.
“Sooooo – How’s Cathy???”
Standing on the shoulders of writers, artists and creative people before me, I see the disparity of respect the general public seems to have about a career in the arts. The problem isn’t that they don’t value the written word – most my friends are readers, theater goers, and people who invest in art. Hell, I even hang out with deviants who like opera. And still, it’s always the downcast eyes of disappointment (or the open comments of derision) I encounter. For some reason, if a person isn’t involved in a “saving” profession his or her job is meaningless at best and a waste at worst. Why is that?
If my life had a FAQ page, it would read like this:
“Don’t you miss the ministry? I’m sure it was more rewarding.”
I made a choice to change vocations. Ministry didn’t leave me at a bus stop and promise to come back later. Oddly enough, ministry isn’t just a job I had. It is the life I live, the gifts of listening, wisdom and love I offer, and a part of me at the cellular level. I miss the pulpit sometimes, and it was rewarding. But so is living every day with gratitude, open to what’s in store.
“HIV/AIDS work burns so many people out. Are you doing this to refill the well?”
I didn’t burn out on HIV/AIDS work. I’m still very passionate about prevention, treatment and counseling. My agency closed. When that happened I had an opportunity to try something I loved and wanted to do. Not every career change is the result of desperation, depression or lack of personal spirit. Sometimes, a new door just opens.
By the way – working in the field of HIV/AIDS isn’t what burns people out. Working with a lack of resources due to poor community support and resistance to sexual education until you are banging your head against a wall with a brick you had to pay for yourself is what burns people out. If you think HIV/AIDS work is so rewarding and wonderful (it is!) FUND IT!
“I thought you enjoyed helping people.”
I hate people. No, wait. That’s just at parties. YES – I enjoy helping people. You know what helps people? Having an hour a day to turn off their brain, shut out the world and read a good story. That helps people. And, when I’m not giving them a break with a tale of corporate espionage or star-crossed lovers – I help them by continuing to pray, care, teach and talk to them.
“You probably love setting your own schedule. That way you can kayak whenever you want. It’s cool to take time to play while you’re still young enough to enjoy it.”
Here’s the thing: I work longer hours, with less time off, and less flexibility now than I ever did working in the church or non-profit sector. I have deadlines. I have word count requirements. I have to research, proofread, write, proofread, re-write, proofread, edit, proofread… (i.e. – writing is WORK). I balance my life with friends, family, exercise and daily meditation all of which is required to keep me on an even keel because I work so darn much.
“Wow. You’re a writer? That’s surprising. I never thought you’d be interested in a job like that.”
Really? REALLY?! You know that sermon you said taught you so much? I wrote it. The romantic wedding homily that made your mom cry and your dad hide the fact he was crying by claiming his allergies were bad? I wrote it. The soft, kind words I sent in cards and said in visits as a hospice chaplain – yep, I wrote that stuff. The curriculum for Sunday schools, church camps, and retreats? I wrote it. The speeches on behalf of people with HIV/AIDS –I wrote them. HIV prevention programs modified from CDC Evidence-based Interventions so they fit my HIV population – I wrote the modification, budget, work plan, evaluation AND epidemiology report. I’ve been writing my whole life.
That’s the point – writing (and the other arts) are all around you. They are part of your everyday life in ways you never see or imagine. I don’t have to be pulling someone out of a fire, sticking needles into cardiac patients or teaching children about sets and subsets to be making a difference, or to be satisfied in my career choice. I don’t need my job to validate my worth. Humanity – and the Humanities – is work enough.
It’s a good thing to appreciate and honor people who risk their life, their sanity, their bank account, or their being to save, help, or reach someone. It’s a better thing to appreciate and honor people just because they are people, worthy of love, respect and celebration in their own right.
The ways we invest in humanity vary from person to person. Some do it through work, some do it through play, and some doing it just by being. Find your path and follow it. Allow others to do the same.