Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Garage Band Writer - "I'm kind of a big deal"

It’s a weird experience, telling people you’re a writer. Like a real writer. It’s strange how few people really get it or believe you. This became clear again this last Sunday after church. I was having dinner with a group of people from my church and talking to someone new. She asked me what I did and I told her I was a writer. I don’t think it clicked, but that doesn’t really matter to me. It was only when a friend from across the table spoke up that I remembered just how hard it is to grasp what I do.

He looked at me and laughed. “You know,” he said, both sincere and incapable of keeping a straight face, “When I first met you, you said you were a writer, and I was like ‘oh, like people in garage bands say they’re ‘musicians’. It was only after I heard an ad on the radio for your books that I thought ‘OH! He’s a real writer’’”.

I get that a lot. And it makes sense, I suppose. We all know one of those ‘writers’ or ‘musicians’ or ‘artists’. Typically it’s the people who are most vocal about the fact that they’re writers. The person with a t-shirt that says ‘WRITER AT WORK’, the bumper sticker that says ‘Be nice to me, or I’ll make you a character in my next book’, or even say it to our faces. It’s like having a vegan at a dinner party; you don’t have to ask about it, they’ll be certain to let everyone know.

“So, you’re a writer?” We ask.

“Oh yes, I’m a writer, I just make my living doing (fill in the blank).” We’re sad now, realizing that it isn’t what they do in the same sense of what most of us think when asked that question.

“Really? Do you have anything published?” We’re usually setting the bar low here, thinking magazine or local paper.

“Nothing yet. But I will. You’ll see me on the bestseller’s table at Barnes & Noble soon enough.”

“What do you write?”

“Oh, everything. Mostly poetry and Science Fiction. And I’m working on a romance novel about a person exactly like me who finds true and unconditional love from a significantly more attractive person for no apparent reason.”

With sincere interest, but without any expectation of quality we say something along the lines of: “I’d love to take a look at one of your novels some time.”

“Oh, you can’t. I haven’t finished anything yet. And I’m waaaay too sensitive to let anyone read it now. But you can read it once it’s published!”

“I see.”

“But I do have some free-verse poetry about my feelings you could read right now, if you want.”

We pause for a moment, trying to think of the last time we saw a book of poetry on a shelf that wasn’t written by someone already famous, but remain optimistic and friendly.

Usually these are very nice people with good intentions and a kind heart. But it becomes obvious in about ten seconds that though this person writes, they are not a professional. Some of them may get there eventually, but for the most part they’re hobbyists.

So, when I got published it was hard for me to discern yourself. Some people instantly assume that I’m super rich and famous, and that I summer with Stephen King; though this is the minority. Most just nod politely and assume I’m ‘that person’, who enjoys talking about writing but remains a clear hobbyist. There are some times when I try to clarify, but for the most part I just mention it and move on, remembering the words of Jesus: it’s better to put yourself at the foot of the table and be asked to move to the place of honor, than to place yourself at the head of the table and be asked to move. So, I try not to make it the first thing I tell people about myself. In fact I have friends I didn’t tell about my writing career for months. Usually they find out on their own, so there’s no point in being obnoxious. And besides nobody really wants to be this guy:


Greg Mitchell said...

Yeah, it's funny, when someone asks what I do for a living, I never say "I'm a writer". I tell them I'm a screenprinter--which is my day job. Even though I'm published and have all these writery things in the works, I still don't see myself as "A Writer TM". I'm just a screenprinter who writes and publishes stuff. Because, you're right, the people I've met who say "Oh, I'm a writer" really haven't finished anything and just like to talk about all the things they'll accomplish "one day". I'm very happy being a screenprinter who is published :)

Conlan Brown said...

I think you said it better than me, Greg :)

Bruce Hennigan said...

Years ago I went to our city’s local “writer’s group”. I was met at the door by an ancient woman who reminded me of Dorothy Kilgallen. You’ll have to look her up. She was a glamorous actress from the forties and fifties. This woman was a twin for Dorothy and she hugged a plastic wrapped magazine to her chest. She was dressed in a faded evening dress with a moldy mink stole around her shoulders. She extended her hand and I shook it.

“Welcome to our writer’s club. I’m a writer.” She then held out the magazine. It was a copy of Life from the mid fifties. “I’m published.” She smiled. I looked at the magazine.

“Really. What did you have published? Poetry? An essay? A gossip column?”

She kept smiling and the light went out in her eyes. “A letter to the editor. Would you like to see it? Oh, I’m sorry. I can’t take the magazine out of its wrapper.” She then ushered me in to meet the rest of the “writers”. I never went back.

When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a doctor. That is my day job. And occasionally, I get to admit I’m a “published author”. But, those conversations tend to be short and distracted as they begin to tell me about their latest ailment and affliction.