Thursday, April 26, 2012

Work in Progress: How to Chat Up a Writer

Out in the real world of the happy hour/reception/party/wedding/holiday gathering, there are plenty of people who don’t care that you’re a writer:

“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh. Did you try that crab dip?”

I don’t worry about those people one bit.  Nor do I worry about the people who instantly pepper me with a thousand enthusiastic questions about writing: 

“A writer!  What do you write?”
“What kind?  Mysteries?  Or fiction novels?”
Sigh. “Yes.  ‘Fiction novels.’”
And off we go on to where I get my ideas from and whether or not I write on a computer.  These questions amuse me, and I’m happy to do my small part on educating the world on the writing life.  

The real world people who make me tense are the ones whose spines suddenly stiffen when they hear I’m a writer:  they’re either intimidated to speak to a writer, or they want to impress me in some ill-defined way.  Combine that with an overall DC quality of fear of not knowing-it-all (okay, guilty!) and a general East Coast aggression, and you’ve got a much more uncomfortable and irritating conversation from my perspective.  Friends, relatives, and total strangers:  here are some helpful hints on what NOT to say to a writer.


“A writer? Are you published?”
This is a punch to the gut to any writer not published, or not published much.  It’s a big, bold step for most of us to call ourselves a “writer.”  If we weren’t a “writer,” we would have called ourselves something else.  We’re writers, published or not.  And what we’re thinking is:  You’re a lawyer? Have you won any Supreme Court cases?
Try instead:  What do you write?

“So you’ve published two books?  Have I heard of them?”
Another punch to the gut, because while I want to say, Depends on how well-read you are, I usually bumble out something like, Probably not, with a horrible, false laugh that replays in my head all night long when I can’t sleep.
Try instead:  What are they about?

“How much money do you make?”
Hmmm…how much do you make?
Try NOT asking about money at all, which is exactly what I do when you tell me that you’re a K Street lawyer and I know you want me to know that you make a lot of money.

“I should write a book.  I have a great idea.”
Please do.  And I should go open a medical practice tomorrow.  I think I’ll specialize in heart transplants.
Try instead:  “I’ve thought about writing a book, but it seems so hard.  Do you know of any classes that might be right for me?”

“I don’t read.”
Thank you for giving me a reason to head off to the bar for another drink…excuse me.
Try instead:  “Are there any great books you love to recommend to people who may not read much?”


“So, have you found a publisher for that novel yet?”
Obviously not, because do you think I would keep this information a secret if I had?
Try asking:  How’s your writing going?  [This is an open-ended question that the writer can easily take any number of directions, depending on how fragile they’re feeling.]

“You know who’s a great writer: Jonathan Franzen*.  I sure love him.  He’s a genius.  Wasn’t he on the cover of Time magazine?”
*Insert whichever writer’s name is most annoying at this exact moment.
In hearing this statement, the only possible conclusion I can draw is that you think that I am NOT a genius.
Try instead:  What are you reading?
Try instead:  Have you read XX?  

I know, I know…the world will not follow the script I write for it.  But isn’t it pretty to think so?


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.