Monday, April 19, 2010

Author's Angst

Sometimes writing feels a lot like me hiding in my basement making stuff up. Okay, if I'm honest, most of the time writing feels that way. It almost never feels like I'm creating art.

Maybe that's because of the split personality of being perceived as a writer - on the one hand people admire writers; stand shyly in line in order to have their copy scribbled on by the author. On the other hand they say, "Oh yeah, I'm going to write a book too one of these days." As if it's something anyone with a computer and a few months off work could do. I've been thinking about that dichotomy lately. How we both privilege the author and yet dismiss the work as something anyone could accomplish.

At least, that's what it seems people are saying.

In The New Book of Lists, Margaret Atwood illustrates my insecurity well in her list: 10 Annoying things to Say to Writers. (and I must say, it is heartening to discover my own neurosis is found inside authors profoundly more accomplished than I)

What to say

What Writers Hear

1. I always wait for your books to come in at the library.

I wouldn’t pay money for that trash.

2. I had to take you in school.

Against my will. Or: And I certainly haven’t read any of it since! Or: So why aren’t you dead?

3. You don’t look at all like your picture.

    Much worse.

4. You’re so prolific!

You write too much, and are repetitive and sloppy.

5. I’m going to write a book too, when I can find the time.

What you do is trivial, and can be done by an idiot.

6. I only read the classics

And you aren’t one of them.

7. Why don’t you write about _______?

Unlike the boring stuff you do write about.

8. That book by _______ (add name of other writer) is selling like hotcakes!

Unlike yours.

9. So, do you teach?

Because writing isn’t real work, and you can’t possibly be supporting yourself at it.

10 That story of MY LIFE - now THAT would make a good novel.

Unlike yours.

What would you add to the author's angst? What lines have you heard when you've told people you're a writer (or are working on a novel, trying to become published, etc)?


Charmaine Clancy said...

I find the few times I've told people I'm writing, they manifest an unedited handwritten manuscript that I should edit for them. It seems to be like when I used to make quilts, people would give me their pants to hem.

Anonymous said...

This started when my first book was published when I was 27:

(I say-- after it's dragged out of me or pointed out by someone else or in response to a direct question I can't wiggle out of): Yes, I write books.

(Men say): Oh, do you write children's books?

(Men in ministry say): I have a manuscript I'd like to have published. (What they mean: if a blathering blonde like you can get a book in print, the publishing world would be grateful to get mine.) --Apologies to Steve Grove who is not like that, though.

A bit of exaggeration here -- but as my family will tell you, not much. Has helped sharpen my sense of humor, for sure.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I've gotten the children's book comment before.

It's my guess most authors are sensitive folk, which means we see things that others might miss, we have a keen sense of the world around us, we watch a conversation and understand a whole relationship...

Sensitivity also accounts for all those other feelings, like those in that list. Yee ha! ;)

~ Wendy

Lisa Karon Richardson said...

I kept my writing a closely guarded secret for a couple years. SInce I'm still not published the question I get the most is: "When is your book coming out?" As if it's really easy, and my writing must be slop if no one is willing to publish it. Or even better: "Are you still trying to get published."

Just kill me now!!

Although that's probably my own insecurity talking. I would have preferred no one know anything about it until it was fait accompli!

Anonymous said...

As a reader, some of us can't afford to buy every book they hear about, so we have to wait til the library has it. It has nothing to do with the quality of your book.

If I heard of someone who was writing, I'd want to know what, how did they do the research, etc. It can be scary, though, as there are two categories I do not like--doesn't mean the author is a bad writer, though.

Just some encouragement. Hope it helps.

Patti Hill said...

I can top the "Is it a children's book" comment. When told by my mother that I was a published author, a man asked me directly, "Is it a cookbook?" What I heard? "Honey, you look smart enough to bake muffins but little else."


I used to get upset about the library comment until I learned what a huge market libraries represent. There are many, many libraries in North America. I would be quite happy to have each and every one of them as a customer.

The comment that hurts most is this: "I bought your book used." I heard: "It wasn't worth paying full price for your book." I know this isn't what they're saying at all. I know my readers are having tough times right now. I don't begrudge them saving money. And they can't know that authors see no royalties from those sales.

Kathleen Popa said...

I've heard most of these (even, with two novels, the one about my being prolific!). But one I haven't heard is that my books are required reading in school. I'm surprised to learn that's not literary Nirvana.

Anonymous commenter, thanks for the encouragement. I think most authors completely understand budgetary restraints, since they have so many of their own. I'm thrilled when library carries my books. I love knowing they are being read - because being read is close to literary Nirvana.

But the very Biblical, very Ecclesiastes truth is that nothing makes you happy for very long - not even publication, and not even hitting the best seller lists - if you aren't already happy doing the work and communing with God. (I wouldn't know about the best-seller lists, but Donald Miller does, and he says it just becomes the new normal. Figures.) The good news is that even unpublished authors can do the work and commune with God. No?

Teri Dawn Smith said...

I sometimes rue the day I told anyone I was writing.

From one relative: When can we read your book?
Me: It's not published yet.
The relative: Well, you can send it to us by e-mail.
Me: Silence. (Inside: You seriously just said that?)

From an older relative: You should write a book about me...and the older relative proceeds to tell me about the living through the depression.
Me: (Nodding politely...inside I think) I write contemporary fiction.

Oh yes, I can identify.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Thanks for posting this, Bonnie. It's especially hard when someone comes to you because they or their mom/sister/friend had a horrible life experience and want to write a book about it. How do you encourage without discouraging?

I was on a writing retreat at a Catholic center and a priest asked what I wrote. His reaction was tepid (or worse) when I answered that I wrote fiction, until I mentioned that Moody had published it. He was apparently a fan of Moody and his entire demeanor changed, for which I was grateful. But would it have killed him to be nice in the first place?

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Patti, I'm with you about the libraries. A

And it used to bug me when people said they passed my book along to their friends or family. I heard 'so they didn't have to spend money on it' but now I encourage them. Gaining a new reader - perhaps outside of my target audience - is extremely valuable.

Stephanie Reed said...

Wait a sec, I *do* write children's books. What's the implication here, huh? Huh? ;-)

I've heard #5 a lot. For me, the implication is more like, "If *you* can get a book published, *I* can certainly get a book published."

As for #1 and the anonymous response, I love libraries! They buy multiple copies of my books.

One I've heard is, "Oh, your books are religious." Unspoken: "No wonder I've never heard of them."

Sigh. Back to writing.

Bonnie Grove said...

Charmaine: I know what you mean. I've been verbally accosted on planes, in backyards, at schoolhouse meetings - it seems everywhere there is someone with a manuscript. Love the comment about quilting. Made me laugh.

Latayne: I've shared with you some of the lovely responses I've had from people in ministry. When I say "fiction" they tsk and tell me they prefer 'serious reading'.

Wendy: Excellent point. Thanks for that.

Lisa: I agree, talking about the writing is one thing, but trying to explain the agonizingly slow and difficult publishing process is worse. But, at least you have people interested in your stuff! That's a good thing!

Anonymous: YES! Your encouragement helps a great deal! And I agree, as much as I love reading and books, I need the public library - and make good use of it. I'm so thankful we have a great library system that helps me get my hands on books - and gets my books into people's hands! Thanks so much for commenting today.

Bonnie Grove said...

Patti: Children's books and cook books comments say so much about the role of women - this is who we are supposed to be talking to, right? What they miss is how very difficult it is to write children's books. I'm in awe of great kids books (my gaffers are 7 and 9, so we are in kids books up to our eyeballs). There is nothing more satisfying to me than watching my kids pick up a book and devour the story, giggling or wide-eyed or reading aloud.

Katy: Great comment! Keep first loves first - that keeps our minds and writing fresh, no matter what anyone says to us.

Teri: Oh my - and it's so much more difficult when it comes from a relative. You handled those situations very well. Sometimes silence is the best answer - lets the person hear their own questions bounce back into their ears.

Debbie: Oh dear. A grumpy priest. I had a similar experience with a woman in my denomination. I told her I wrote fiction and she sniffed her disapproval. Then I mentioned my non-fiction title and she became animated and interested. "Well, I'm glad you're doing SOMETHING worthwhile, then."

Bonnie Grove said...

Stephanie: Oh! See my comment to Patti about how difficult I think it is to write good children's books. I admire so many children's book authors! (I know Patti does too).

I LOVE your comment about writing religious work and the "oh, no wonder I've never heard of you." All the stereotypes and bias come out when people hear that.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes when I encounter a fellow Christian with that all-too-common outlook of "if it isn't non-fiction, it isn't worth my time", I like to ask them if they therefore think the parables Jesus told were all just a bunch of rubbish. Reactions can be pretty entertaining.

I think it's a significant failure of our society at large that it often doesn't quite know what to do with literature, with truth represented through fiction/myth, and maybe that aggravates the author's angst to some extent.

Laura S. said...

I identify with #9! If I had a nickel for the number of times I've heard that when I tell people I was an English Writing major in college...

I agree with Anonymous about #1. Now I feel bad for telling authors I've added their books to my library list. It's supposed to be a compliment, but I guess people don't take it that way. :( I wish I could buy every book!!! But these days I have to rely on the library.

Anonymous said...

oh oh I have one!

"If I were a writer, I'd do better than you are doing, because I'm more self-disciplined."

My answer? "Well my guess is that you would just have a different barricade between you and the page."

Sarah Forgrave said...

Another one I hear is, "Oh, my great-aunt Bertha just published her own book, and she's sold 10 copies already." As in, "Publishing books is easy. Why haven't you done it yet?" Um, I guess I want a larger audience than 10 readers.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention how i answer when people ask if I write children's books--

Because I did publish one (The Dream Quilt, Waterbrook, under the pen name Celeste Ryan.) So if someone asks me if I write children's books, I say, yes!

It gives people such satisfaction to see that they have pegged me on the first try. :)

Mary Witzl said...

The one that gets me is, "What an interesting hobby you have!" Which makes me feel like I'm pottering around with coins and stamps.

Anonymous said...

I don't have anything new to add to the list you're pulling together here. I've experienced almost all of the same comments, which leads me to believe that people are the same everywhere. I guess that's why, after more than 20 years at writing, I'm stil hesitant to declare myself a writer. We're a secret society, aren't we? Like the Masons :|

Marian said...

I think people say annoying things to writers like Margaret Atwood and Bonnie Grove because they are so enthralled at being in the mere presence of such distinguished beings (who have such unique and creative ways of expressing life), that their brains temporarily stop. They actually go home and kick themselves for wasting the opportunity. Been there, done that.

I also think writers are an insecure bunch and I think this is partly because the whole field of writing doesn't get the economic respect it deserves.

Kathleen Popa said...

People don't ask me if I write children's books. Maybe I don't look like the type.

But if they did, I might tell them I'm not good enough yet, taking the stance of Madeleine L'Engle who said,"...if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."

I love children's books, and I have favorites that I loved at 8, and at 18, and at 48... It's quite the challenge to produce a story that people of all ages can love.

Judy Gann said...

Patti beat me to it, but you Novel Matters ladies know I can't let #1 one on the list--libraries--go by. :-)

I promise I won't give my whole workshop in this post (LOL), but Laura, never feel bad when you tell writers you have their books on your library list. Libraries reach an audience who never enter bookstores. Plus libraries purchase multiple copies. To top it off, Christian fiction is "hot" in public libraries. Christians and seekers are eager to read books with a message of hope.

As for reactions from others: Last Friday I saw my pastor in the library. He's been a terrific promoter of my nonfiction book. He asked me what I'm working on now. I could see the disappointment in his face and hear it in his voice when I told him I was writing a novel. As though nonfiction has more value than fiction. Excuse me, wasn't Jesus the supreme storyteller? Plus I believe in my story and it's message, and have had much affirmation that I'm on the right track.

BTW, I went home and worked on my novel. :-)

Patti Hill said...

On writing children's literature. I read The Miraculous Adventure of Edward Tulane By Kate DiCamillo on the flight home from Grand Rapids yesterday. (She spoke at the Festival on Faith and Writing I attended with Latayne.) I closed the cover and looked down at the snowy Rockies to pray, "Lord, if you can trust me with a story as beautiful as this for children, please plunk it into my brain. Amen." I really want him to answer that prayer.

beka said...

Ah, I have to say I do use the library quite a bit. And mostly these days I journal and blog; no fiction-writing lately.
But goodness, that library! It helps when I can't buy any book I like off the shelf/from Amazon, but then I put my favorites on a Buy list. ;) Like Talking to the Dead. :)

Bonnie Grove said...

Laura: PLEASE don't feel bad about adding authors to your library list. I'm always thrilled to hear someone has read my novel - I don't care where they got it from. In fact, if someone has checked me out of the library, or read it because someone lent it to them, I'm THRILLED. I know that goes for MANY writers. Keep checking those books out! (I haunt our local libraries).

Anonymous: You said: "I think it's a significant failure of our society at large that it often doesn't quite know what to do with literature, with truth represented through fiction/myth, and maybe that aggravates the author's angst to some extent."

Brilliant. I'm having T-shirts made with that on the back.

Accidental Poet: Susan, you handled that comment with dignity, and not a left hook. Nicely done. See you Saturday.

Sarah: Oh the whole "My Aunt Fanny published her fifteenth book just yesterday" comments make me blink and stutter. There is NO way you can say anything about Aunt Fanny and her self-published books without sounding like 1) and elitist, or 2) sour grapes. I usually nod and say, "Fifteen books! Wow wee."

Mary: Ah, yes.... hobby. If it were a hobby, I would have more hair left stuck in my head. I would not nearly scalp myself in frustration and effort for a mere hobby. How have you managed to answer that one, Mary?? Share!

Bonnie Grove said...

Sharon: We should work out a handshake. :)

Marian: You, my dear, have made my day! If we should meet, let's do coffee, okay? And yes, I suspect you're right on both counts.

Katy: Yes! Everything you said about children's books. Steve and I both hold close those books we loved as children and teens, and we are passing them onto our kids.

Judy: You are the hero of librarians and readers everywhere! Thank you for setting the record straight. Libraries help authors and readers connect and stay connected.

Patti: I'm praying that with you, girl. :)

Beka: Amen to that. And I'm grateful for your kind words. Thank so much.

Anonymous said...

Bonnie, a handshake -- and a screenplay. We could call it something like National Treasu--- Wait, that's already been done. Ah, Continental Treasure. How 'bout that?

Anonymous said...

I recommend books for the library to purchase. If I like it, many others will like it too. The library is one of my favourite places to go, along with bookstores, fabric stores and garden centres.

Steve G said...

Bonnie and Sharon - wreaths are in. You could give each other a Laurel AND Hardy handshake.

Maybe sometimes we need to take stock first of what we feel our strengths and gifts are, and root our identity in that. To me that is empowering; and it helps me understand myself better. To know who I am before God, and why He grabbed hold of me, is significant. I am a pastor. Am I that because of 6 years post secondary training, or because I read the Bible a lot, or etc? Or is it because that is fundamentally what Jesus wants me to do, what He has called me to do?

Maybe some of the angst out there would dissipate if we had that confidence not just of calling, but the freedom to be creative before a creative God. Does God have angst? Here He is the Creator of the ends of the earth, the Creator of the universe, the Creator of humans, and His critics are everywhere. They don't just complain about the wastefulness of creation (billions of galaxies? Just how many do we need? And why are they so awesome? And what about this dark matter- why not make just one kind, really, it seems over the top... And they don't just criticize the universe, they criticize themselves. Why did God make me this way? Why can't I be like that guy? How come I wasn't born into a billionaire's family (or in a Mexico city slum)?

Consider your work like that of a prophet. You are telling people a story - a story God wants them to hear. Most prophets were questioned about those messages they carried. Even Jesus heard "What good could come from Nazareth". Look at your writing as a strength and a gift, and go forward into great things.

There once was a writer with angst
Who grew up in the town of Dansk
He sold his first book,
When an agent to a look,
And laughs all the way to the banks.

Jane Hoppe said...

On returning from a jam-packed writers conference, I am asked, "How was your vacation?"
Jane Hoppe

Carla Gade said...

When are you going to get that book published?

I'm working on it.

Just go ahead and send it in. What's stopping you?

Well, I've been busy learning the craft of writing, about the publishing industry, trying to build my platform and network in preparation for marketing. And then I'm trying to write and revise in my spare time. Did I mention I have a family and a job?

Bonnie Grove said...

Steve: You're so smart. Makes my brain hurt.

AquaJane: I love your user name! How fun. Is swimming your superpower? You're so right - writer's conferences are work! Most come home exhausted and filled to the brim with ideas and goals. Not for the feeble.

Carla: Excellent point! Writing is a journey and there is SO much to learn. I've said before that my learning curve feels vertical. And there are marketing and promotion aspects that begin long before a book is published. Great stuff!