Wednesday, 18 September 2013

When you say, "I'm a writer."

"What do you do?" he asks.
I'm at the pub with my notebook, waiting for my partner, and have given up trying to write in the face of the next table's friendliness.  So that's fine, I'll chat instead and it could be interesting.
"I'm a writer," I say.
"Are you successful?"

Uh - whut?  "I... don't know.  What counts as a successful writer for you?"
"I mean, is it just a hobby?"
"No."  My hobbies are cooking (in a farmhousey homely way), playing guitar (badly), painting vines on walls.  They're things I do for fun, not things I build my existence on and my life around.  Also, I have never yet met someone who, asked what they do, cites a hobby.  "It's - my reason for living."
"Do you actually do it full-time, though?"
"No, I write two days a week."
"So what do you do full-time?"
"Um - there isn't actually full-time left.  But I teach writing courses, and -"
"Oh, right."  A deeply sceptical, problem-solved oh-right.  Unlike artists, who're allowed to pursue their art and teach it, writing classes are often seen as a dodgy pyramid scheme, a view which holds largely true if you discount any intrinsic value to the writing.  "So you don't actually make any money from writing."
"I make a little, but most of my earning comes from teaching fiction and coaching business writers..."
I don't feel like explaining that for years my income came wholly from writing, but I quit that to have space to work on my main project.  Novels take time to write, especially working part-time on them, and you don't get paid until a year or two after they're finished, if you're lucky.  Something has to fill that financial gap, so the writer does other stuff, too.  This has been the case for almost every contemporary writer you've ever read, including the pub-interrogator's go-to example, JK Rowling.
"So you're not really a writer."
I blink at the notion that I could teach fiction courses and help people write books without being a writer.
"If you're a successful writer," he explains, "that's how you make your living."
"So... TS Eliot wasn't a successful writer?"  I could give a thousand examples here, but thinking about "proper jobs" makes me think of banks, which makes me think of Eliot.
He laughs, because apparently I've made a joke, and I smile because I've had enough.
"So what do you do?" I ask, to change the topic.
"I'm an accountant."
"I'm actually job-hunting at the moment.  You know... recession."

I could pursue that, very, very hard, but I don't want to.  Being unemployed is bad enough without someone tearing strips off your identity about it to make a point.  And contrary to everything the conversation suggests, this guy is not actually a dick.  It's a bog-standard line of inquisition for anyone to whom one has the nerve to say, "I'm a writer."  At least I can answer "Yes" to "Are you published?" though I'm damned if I can guess whether he'll have read anything I've written.  There's a shedload of books out there and even lifetime-devoted readers can't get through each year's output, never mind the several hundred years of catch-up.  As for "Should I have heard of you?" no, no-one should have heard of anyone.  I might think you should've heard of Neil Gaiman and AS Byatt, but they might not be your bag.  You might think I should've heard of the Kardashians before last week, but I live under a rock.

However hostile the line of questioning feels, most people are honestly just trying to make conversation and I'm sure every profession comes with its Q&A horrors.  A doctor or lawyer might be jealous that no-one asks me to dash off a quick story over drinks.  A banker might envy how I'm not held personally responsibile for the economic crisis.  Unlike an immunopathologist, I don't have to explain macrophages every time I meet someone new.

We're all really just trying to make conversation.  So these are the best questions I know to ask a writer, and the best ways I know to avoid the Spanish inquisition.

Ask a writer: What kind of stuff do you write?  What are you working on at the moment?  Who are your favourite authors?

Deflect the inquisition: To any yes-but-are-you-really question, "It's the thing I care most about, and I'd love to get to the point where I can do that most of the time. [Assuming that's true.] What about you, do you like reading?" And if they don't, "And what do you do?"  And then we can try not to ask the dick questions ourselves, and ask lots of interested questions, and listen really carefully to the answers, because a novelist always needs jobs for their characters, so other people's are a treasure trove. And it might be interesting.

Feel free to add your own best and worst questions in the comments...

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