Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Preconceptions: What People Think of Writers

I think there is a propensity among professionals in general to believe their profession is among the noblest, most difficult and most incomprehensible to others - and for the most part, I don't think we writers are any different*. Sure, we understand the necessity devoting time, energy, money, blood, sweat and tears to our passion, but try explaining it to someone else. Not easy.

I've only recently started allowing myself to tell people I'm a writer. A strange feeling comes over me, like somehow I'm tricking them, like a beauty school student telling people s/he's a professional stylist, like I'm not a real writer yet. I know this is ridiculous, since I've been a real writer, heart and soul, since I was about four (the first time, to anyone's recollection, that I proclaimed "I have to write this down" - and without any further explanation, allowed the crayons and colouring book I was holding to fall to the floor and promptly disappeared into my bedroom) and a published (and indeed selling) writer for almost a year. But it still feels weird.

I know how many writers feel about this glorious, insane, impossible, wonderful profession, and how many of us feel about ourselves. What I'm interested in (for the purposes of this article), is what other people think about us - and how their preconceptions (or lack thereof) change ours.

When I tell people I'm a writer, one of the first things they (almost) always ask is, "Anything I'd know?" It's a good question, it shows interest, but I still fear it because I know the answer is no. Not even probably not, just, no. From there, their reactions can go anywhere.

Pleasantly, a lot of people seem to have the That's Amazing reaction, the one where they tell me they could never write and that they're fascinated by people who can, then proceed to ask me a million questions about my writing, my process, my whateverelsetheycanthinkof - which I am only too happy to answer. These people usually insist that I'll be famous soon, too, which I like, even if it is a baseless assertion.

Almost as many people (possibly more and I just trick myself into mentally fudging the numbers a little) have the Stunned Silence and Change the Subject reaction, where they say "Oh," or "Ah," or contrive to make an even less committal noise, then start talking about their cold or their dog or the exhaust pipe they need to have fixed on their car. It always makes me feel a little judged.

And of course, there is always the myriad of reactions we get from our family and friends when they find out we plan to make a career out of this thing called writing. In my experience, they have just as wide of a range as those of strangers and casual acquaintances.

There is the Go For It! reaction. It involves words of encouragement, help with writer's block, help with brainstorming and editing - and the understanding that when we are typing, completely ignoring what they're trying to tell us, it's not personal.

There's Go For It, But Be Careful. Supportive, cautionary, still overall not a bad reaction to have.

Then there's the Fall Back, the reaction basically suggests that eventually, you'll grow out of this phase and want to settle down and get a real job - and you should prepare for that eventuality, you know, just in case.

And, of course, there's the rare (although never rare enough) Why Don't You Get a Real Job? reaction. The one that can make you want to scream, throw things or just shake your head in bemused disgust. I'm happy to say that this is one reaction that I can't seem to get my head around, and as a result, I never take it seriously.

Have I missed any? I'm not certain what brought on this little catalogue of reactions, but I'd like it to be as complete as possible. I'm nothing, if not thorough.

*Of course, in our case, it's true ;)


E said...

:| For years I got the 'fall back' response, and it got to the point where I would tell people I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and I would figure it out after I went to university, because I got the same response only it was more supportive. It's weird, because just recently (just after this NaNo, actually - it did quite a lot for me writing-self-wise) I've actually started referring to myself as a writer and talking about how I want to write young adult novels and how I'm aware of the challenges but I wnat to give it a shot anyway, without feeling horribly judged and persecuted and terrified. I caught myself mentioning it casually the other day, and I was really surprised, because even last year I was still pretending whenver the subject came up that I didn't really know what I wanted to do.

It's weird too though, because now that I'm owning up to it the 'fall back' responses have mostly shifted to cautious encouragement. It's to the point where my own mother, the second biggest proponent of the 'fall back' approach while I was in high school, advised me to switch out of a course on business that I didn't want to take, because it wasn't about marketing and what I really wanted was a leg up on marketing for when my novel comes out. (If I must self-publish, then self-publish I shall. That sucker is going to get published by hook or by crook.) It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, actually.

And my friends all basically have the same reaction whether you tell them you're going to be a writer or a dentist or the man who drives the garbage truck. I'm actually really lucky, because I don't have anyone actively trying to stop me or brign me down.

(teal deering a bit here? I think so. But hey, you asked. :D)

Athena said...

I think part of it is a confidence thing. I didn't realize it until you said it, but I've been getting less of the 'fall back' since I started refering to myself as a writer too. I think maybe it's like a mental block, if you say you are a writer, then that's what you are, and it doesn't occur to people to try to talk you out of it, because it's already happened.

Also, long comments are great! The whole point of DevCo is to talk about writing, so teal deer away :)