General: These questions and comments come from a rather frustrating family reunion I recently attended. I have been on the receiving end of each of these statements at least once, if not many times more.
DISCLAIMER: I’m not saying that the questions/comments above should NEVER EVER EVER be asked of/said to a creative writer; some of them (#s6, 10) have their definite place and time. Some of them (#s 1, 2, 3, 9) do not. It also depends on how well you know the writer and how open they are about their work. I also recognize that when comments like these are made, they are not typically meant to injure.
Also: I drew up this list after seeing a similar list aimed at things you are not supposed to say to visual artists, so I can’t say the format of this list (or the concept of “things you don’t say” lists) is terribly original. Just figured I’d disclaim my inspiration!
PITHY RESPONSES (from me):
#1— Yes, I’m still writing my “little” book. No, my work is not less important or less gratifying than your “real” job. No, I will not be giving up my dreams for a “real” job anytime soon. Thank you.
#2—Must be nice not taking my work seriously.
#3—The amount of hair I’ve torn out while writing my novel would suggest otherwise.
#4— I would sell my soul to be able to write books in my spare time, you ignorant hick.
#5— My creative writing degree is from an accredited university and/or college. Thank you.
#6—If YES: “Oh god, you haven’t heard of me, I’m a failure!” If NO: “Oh god, I haven’t been published yet, I’m a failure!”
#8—Use it in your own book, please.
#10—Firstly: I can and will talk for ten hours straight on the subject of my book so don’t go there unless you’re actually interested. Secondly: Don’t start telling me how much you think my story sounds like that one book your cousin told you about six months ago after only six seconds of explanation. Thirdly: I have no intention of making use of your “helpful tips.” Fourthly: If you steal my plot I swear to the dearly departed ghost of Ray Bradbury that I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN AND GUT YOU LIKE A FISH.
SINCERE EXPLANATIONS (from me):
#1—My book project isn’t a “little” thing to me. Please don’t patronize my work. I followed my passions and I love what I do. Creative work is just as legitimate as technical work. After all, somebody had to WRITE the script of your favorite TV show, the one you come home and watch to de-stress after a hard day working at your "real" job.
#2—My job comes with all the demands of a “real” job. Deadlines, time crunches, pleasing coworkers and superiors (editors, agents, publishers), dealing with fallout/backlash from consumers, and eyestrain from staring too long at a computer screen. Also carpal tunnel and a sore neck. That’ll kill ya dead.
#3—Writing is extremely difficult. If it wasn’t, everyone would have a book published and publishers wouldn’t reject thousands of manuscripts a year. There’s also an immense drain on the self when you write; creativity is not, as some assume, an easily tapped substance.
#4—Again: If I could write a good novel in my spare time, I’d be filthy rich. I wouldn’t be laboring over a project for years on end. Writing takes time and dedication, not a few weekends and on a whim.
#5—Creative Writing degrees are indeed real; I’m a year away from getting mine and I plan on doing quite a lot with it. There are, perhaps surprisingly for some of you, many ways to use a CW degree! Fun Fact: Many of us go into law.
#6—This is (usually) a perfectly innocent inquiry, but writers (like all artists) seem to be particularly prone to self-doubt. Self-esteem is a fragile thing. Not being published can be a big deal to a writer who hasn't caught their break yet, and if you haven’t heard of us and we ARE published… well. Whoops.
#7—Unless my work is nonfiction, I don’t base characters on real people. Characters should and do take on lives of their own; branding them as “COMPLETELY BASED ON PERSON #464” limits their natural ability to grow and change in the context of their story. Taking some inspiration from real life is wonderful, but I will never base a fictional character completely on a friend or family member. Besides: Imagine if someone you base a character on were to complain that they aren’t “pretty enough” or something. It’s hard enough to write creative nonfiction and not offend people without adding fictional characters into the mix—because in a fictional character you can eliminate flaws or other character devices your model deems unfit to be a part of their portrayal, which ruins the authenticity of the character. It's like when an artist paints a portrait of a picky customer who wants all their perfections erased, even if that means the end result won't look a damn thing like them.
#8—If you have an idea, go write it down. Your ideas do not fit into my story. You are trying to change my story into a story of your own, a DIFFERENT story, the story you think my story should be—but my story is mine, not yours. Write what you want to read. Don’t expect me to do it for you.
#9—I have met several people who’ve asked “Aren’t novelists just professional liars?” Their logic is that liars tell stories, novelists tell stories, and therefore novelists are just liars who get publicity. I’ve also had people say that I must be an excellent liar as a direct result of being a writer, and that they don’t trust me on instinct since I “must be really really good at lying to people" since my “job is all about making stuff up.” I imagine some actors must get this as well. “Are you being sincere or are you just playing a part?”
#10—I can talk about my novel for hours on end, but I can tell that some people get bored within five seconds and were only asking about my work to be polite. Tip for Writers: Prepare a very short description of your work to recite when asked about your projects (think of it as practice for writing the back of your book jacket!). If a person truly wants to know more, they’ll make specific inquiries. Furthermore, sometimes my nonfiction work can be highly personal; I don’t feel it’s appropriate to discuss such stories when asked after by strangers. And then there are always those people who steal ideas... I recently confided a story idea to someone only to have one of their works suspiciously resemble my proposed idea. It was an absolutely devastating experience.