Five Asinine Things Writers Hate to Hear

47 comments

The writer's life is a life of rage, pain, humiliation, despair, and (did I mention it?) rage. Cocktail parties become minefields as we dodge questions about what we do for what is euphemistically called "a living." Civilians just don't get it. With purposeful malice, they insist on asking us to discuss what we're working on. Don't they understand that they're knifing us in the heart?

Here is a selection of the most egregious questions and comments hurled at me over the years. I'm sure you have your own. Please share them in the comments section below.


“What are you working on?”

Only writers and maybe one or two of our most intimate friends understand why this question is enough to make us want to throw up. To civilians, it’s a perfectly reasonable conversation starter — a way of engaging us on a subject on which they believe we will eagerly hold forth. Of course, it has quite the opposite effect. Asking a writer what s/he is working on almost always leads to instantaneous nausea, a sudden flood of bile squirted from the spleen directly to the brain.

Asking a writer what s/he is working on almost always leads to instantaneous nausea, a sudden flood of bile squirted from the spleen directly to the brain.

To us, the reason is obvious. Either we’re not working on anything because we’re blocked, in which case the question rips open the oozing gashes we’ve inflicted on our mental wrists already, wounds which perversely have become our best friends (they're closer to us than any of the humans we know), or we have managed to quell the fierce and hideous voices inside us that tell us how worthless and talentless we are and by sheer force of will have gotten something down on paper or a computer screen — something we aren’t completely humiliated by — and suddenly we’re faced with some grinning investment banker or tech whiz or divorce lawyer clutching a single malt scotch and clobbering our membrane-fragile egos with the ugly mallet of idle cocktail chatter.

If we don’t become completely paralyzed by the inquiry, we’re likely to stammer some sort of evasive reply, which only spurs the inquisitor to ask more foul and intrusive questions. Someone asked me what I was working on once and naturally I began dancing the writer’s two-step (you shift your weight from one foot to the other, pause briefly, then shift it back, and you continue to do this mutely while looking panic stricken at your feet) but was momentarily saved by someone who had a number of writer friends. He rushed to my aid, saying, “Writers don’t usually like to talk about their work.” Just as I began to exhale in relief, my interlocutor fixed me with a stare and asked, “Why not?”

This was my cue to shout, “If I answered your stupid question I’d be talking about it, now wouldn’t I?” I admit that this was not the most graceful way of changing the subject, but it was certainly effective. The group of partygoers around me quickly dispersed, and I was left to nurse my grievance in smug, lonely bliss.

“Have I ever heard of you?”

How can one respond to a question this moronic? I’ve been asked it more times than I care to remember, and I’ve tried many replies, all unsuccessful. It’s a query on the same plane of intelligence and maturity as “Mommy, do I like this?” as asked by a four-year-old on the subject of shrimp or bread pudding. “Have I ever heard of you?” “Well, apparently not, asshole, or you wouldn’t be asking the question.” I’ve never employed that reply, the most logical one, but I always consider it. In practice I try kindness and logic instead: “Do you read a lot of Hollywood biographies?” I ask pleasantly. The answer, almost invariably, is “No,” so I’m instantly off the hook. But every once in a while, some particularly aggressive jackass says, “I’ve read a few,” after which s/he asks who I’ve written about. I tell him or her. And here’s what I get in return for my charity: “Never heard of you!” Charming. Well, I’ve never heard of you either, but then one rarely hears about paper-pushing functionaries in the frozen foods industry or whatever time-wasting, soul-killing job pays for your fucking whores.

“Beats working for a living.”

Ha ha oh boy that’s funny I could die laughing have you ever considered doing standup? This one’s the granddaddy of all inanities, great-great-granddaddy actually — it’s that old. One must be very cagey and careful when responding to this comment, considered as sharp and as cutting as a scythe by the speaker but in fact about as razor-like as a club. Why? Because you cannot under any circumstances reveal that you are in fact not making a living; that your annual writing income is in the high two figures; and that your work brings you unimaginable grief.

Best to smile enigmatically and respond with an even hoarier cliché, such as “Piece of cake.” Or: “Work is for suckers.” Or: “Fuck you, dickbrain.”

“Aren't there books about that already?”

This is the blowhard’s question, combining a minimal amount of knowledge with open hostility. In a way, we have only ourselves to blame for it, because it means that we’ve actually answered the dreaded “What are you working on” icebreaker when we should have simply kept our traps shut and distracted the nasty creep by performing the classic writer’s two-step.

At first when I fielded this question, my pride got the better of me. I’m sorry to say that I took the inquiry seriously and attempted to explain how publishing works and how library shelves were full of books on the same subject and how different writers have different points of view.

This method was doomed to failure. Even if I had started with the Gutenberg Bible and traced the history of the printed word and the evolution of scholarship on any number of topics my answer would have gone down in flames simply because the questioner was never interested in what I had to say at all but was instead too busy congratulating himself on his superior knowledge and talent at put-downs.

I finally came up with what I thought was the perfect clever reply. “Aren’t there books about that already?” the blowhard would ask. And I would answer, “None by me.” My triumph was usually short lived. Instead of appreciating my wit, the blowhard would dumbly press on: “But I mean there are already books on the subject, right?” Ass.

“Why don't you write a bestseller?”

It’s hard to keep a straight face when asked this one, which is invariably offered helpfully by someone who has no functioning mind. The only possible reply is to slap your forehead violently and cry, “Damn! I never thought of that! A bestseller! You’re a genius! How can I ever repay you?” Then quickly walk away, all the while repeating in a tone of wonderment, “A bestseller! A bestseller! Why didn’t I think of that? Damn!”


What questions/comments send you into a murderous rage?

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.

Comments

Emma C's picture
Class Facilitator
Emma C from Los Angeles is reading Black Spire by Delilah Dawson March 6, 2015 - 1:00pm

"Where do you get your ideas?"

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing March 6, 2015 - 1:14pm

We're plagiarists, of course.  I get mine off the internets. 

--Ed

Josh Zancan's picture
Josh Zancan from Crofton, MD is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck March 6, 2015 - 1:29pm

As soon as I read "Aren't there books about that already," my immediate thought was "None by me."  Then I read on.  Glad we're on the same page.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing March 6, 2015 - 1:55pm

You're a genius, Josh!

--Ed

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like March 6, 2015 - 2:21pm

Overwhelmingly, my writing has nothing to do with my routine interactions. I talk to so few people about the fact I write, I almost never bring it up, I almost never meet anyone who would bother to ask about it; all meaning I'm functionally ego-less in that sense, for better or worse. I have thought about changing this, but then I suppose I might have to answer a dumb question once in a while. We'll see.

I have, in the past, gotten "What are you working on?" In my experience, it's less a stupid, panic-inducing question, more one which is simply hard to answer unless you've rehearsed an accessible summary of your work. You can either hit them with the "high concept" (if you have one) or start slow and work your way into increasingly boring details; and you know this already, so you get shifty and just try and avoid answering for real, instead saying something vague, perhaps seeming rude or aloof.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing March 6, 2015 - 8:55pm

I'd rather seem aloof and rude than answer the question. 

--Ed 

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast March 7, 2015 - 12:21am

I have only been asked the 'Have I heard of you?' question once and that was in New York, in Mood Fabrics by the guy who was serving me.

Luckily for him, he was holding the only pair of scissors in the vicinity.

Gary Bonn's picture
Gary Bonn from Scotland is reading Anything from Writerlot.net March 7, 2015 - 12:48am

'Why don't you write books like [insert author's name here]?'

But it's the editors' comments that strike the hardest: 'I'm so glad to see this character back in the story - but didn't she die in chapter four?' (Beware cut and paste errors.)

'Before we publish another of your books, Gary, get therapy!'

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing March 7, 2015 - 6:47am

Ouch. 

--Ed 

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing March 7, 2015 - 6:47am

Ouch. 

--Ed 

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing March 7, 2015 - 6:47am

Ouch. 

--Ed 

Benjamin Martin's picture
Benjamin Martin from Portland, OR is reading ... March 7, 2015 - 10:11am

The one that causes me to clench my fists in absolute rage:

"Oh, you're a writer? What do you write?"

"Words, asshole. I write words."

Christopher Lesko's picture
Christopher Lesko from Northeast Ohio is reading Hot Water Music March 7, 2015 - 2:04pm

Have you sold any of your books?  ... How much do you get?

andrew.cole's picture
andrew.cole March 7, 2015 - 2:20pm

You sound like a complete jackass and I would be happy if you never came to one of my parties.

Asking what you're working on is not an inappropriate question unless you are an over sensitive nitwit, which you are.

Get over it!

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing March 7, 2015 - 2:28pm

Dear Andrew,

I am over being an over sensitive nitwit. I am now comfortable with being one. Thank you for your help. 

--Ed 

 

Lindorfan's picture
Lindorfan from Surrey is reading Raising steam March 8, 2015 - 12:41am

Similarly questions to a home educator are rather asinine for example "oh you homeschool , is that allowed? 

Or the other favourite (or rather Not) is "how will your child socialise? " 

Clearly attending a building for schooling is the only place in the town, country, or world in which to socialise! 

andrew.cole's picture
andrew.cole March 8, 2015 - 4:27am

@Lindorfan

It seems pretty obvious to me that most of the people here were never socialized. Writing can be solitary and personal, but that doesn't give you a license to look down on people nice enough to take an interest in YOU. ASSHOLE.

You seriously can't just give an easy answer?

What do you write?
Crime thrillers/Literary novels/Poetry about naval lint/Obnoxious articles for Litreactor.com

Just give them a genre and tell them you are not far enough along on your current wip to talk about it. Problem solved!

Don't project your own insecurities on to other people.

I like this website, but this article really pisses me off.

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On March 8, 2015 - 12:13pm

I can deal with most questions from non-writers, but this one makes me want to rip people's tongues out with salad tongs, and it was dumped on my lap within the last couple of weeks:

"Oh, you're a writer? I have an idea for a book."  

Meaning, of course, that whatever I may be working on pales in comparison to their Pulitzer Prize idea, and that I should dump everything and get right on writing it. I usually suffer their spiel, and tell them, "Sounds great, you should write it," before walking away. I learned later that night from a friend that said individual thought of me as an asshole, but he never bothered me again, so I considered it a success.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing March 8, 2015 - 12:56pm

Dino - Yeah, I've gotten that as well as variations. I got a letter once from someone I used to know telling me about his plans to write a book and asking about how he should market it. The tone was on the order of, "if you can write a book, then I certainly can." The thing was, he hadn't written a word. His brilliant idea was to write about his experiences in a 12-step program.

I advised him to write the book first and consider marketing issues later, and I never heard from him again. Then he died.

And Andrew: I don't care if you call me a nitwit and a jackass; I've been called far worse. But leave lindorfan out of it. There's nothing in that post that merits the (shouted) "ASSHOLE."

--Ed

andrew.cole's picture
andrew.cole March 8, 2015 - 1:44pm

Actually, that was still directed at you. I replied to lindorfan to point out that you are clearly unsocialized, since he or she mentioned it.

The fact that you can't even talk to people who ask you the most basic questions about yourself without getting extremely angry and taking it out on them is a sign that you have serious problems.

How do they even find out you write? Because you told them? When a stranger asks what you are or what you do, they want to know what you do for a living. If you don't make a living writing, which is what you suggest and is true of most writers, then don't tell people you are one.

If you are making a living at it, then yes, it IS better than working for a living. Go to war, or wash dishes for 12 hours a day and come back to me with that shit. People who live off their writing are privileged. Period.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life March 8, 2015 - 4:49pm

Ed, from now on your bio MUST include: writes obnoxious articles for Litreactor.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing March 8, 2015 - 9:02pm

Dear Andrew -

My mission in life has been to get goats. I got yours. End of story.

--Ed

andrew.cole's picture
andrew.cole March 9, 2015 - 4:25am

Douchbag or Asshole, either way you are pathetic.

I have lost a lot of respect for litreactor because of this. I won't be coming anymore.

There was a lot of actual bitterness in this post so don't try to back peddle and pretend you just being an asshole, which is inexcusable enough as is.

You are a self-important jackass and typify everything wrong with people who write because want to be an author.

No books on that subject "by you"? Well, who should give two fucks what you have to say anyway? I don't. And don't ever refer to people who don't write as "civilians" you fucking piece of shit--tongue in cheek or not. That word has meaning. You have done any service to anyone to set yourself apart.

They should change the name of this site to Whiny Privileged Douchbags.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing March 9, 2015 - 5:56am

At least learn to spell douchebag. 

--Ed 

Josh Zancan's picture
Josh Zancan from Crofton, MD is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck March 9, 2015 - 6:09am

Andrew, if disagreeing with how Ed carries himself gives you this much anger, I'm not sure he's the insecure voice in this conversation (conversation for us, insult-laden diatribe for you). You may be the one projecting.

Matt Pucci's picture
Matt Pucci from Milton Keynes, England is reading Anything and everything March 9, 2015 - 8:12am

@andrew.cole Jesus Christ, dude. Chill out. And get a sense of humour (or "humor", if you're American and insist on misspelling such words).

Ed, I loved this, like I love everything you write, and hope you continue your douche-baggy, assholey, nit-wittery ways for many moons...   

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago March 9, 2015 - 8:29am

Seems to me the problem here is that many writers are not prepared to answer the innocent questions you've enumerated. Perhaps a way of avoiding having to answer them is to keep the fact that you are a writer under your hat until you can intelligently, and politely, discuss your work.

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb March 9, 2015 - 10:55am

I need to go a party Andrew Cole is attending and if I get asked 'Have I heard of you?' I'll say 'Probably not but go ask Andrew if he's heard of Ed Sikov; that's a better question.'

Amber Bo Bamba's picture
Amber Bo Bamba from Sydney is reading The Beautiful and Damned March 9, 2015 - 2:40pm

I agree with those^ guys, I think the entire column would have been much nicer if it went:

"People ask me what I'm working on and yes, it makes me uncomfortable - but I answer them politely anyway.

The End."

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing March 9, 2015 - 3:01pm

I wasn't trying to be nice. I was trying to be entertaining.   

-- Ed 

helpfulsnowman's picture
Community Manager
helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman March 9, 2015 - 6:52pm

Hi Ed!

I'm with you. It's really hard for me when someone asks what I'm working on. It's hard to put into words a lot of times. Especially if it falls outside tidy classification (which I think we all like to imagine our work does in some way). Also, a lot of times, I find the explanation of what I'm writing sounds really stupid. Because it's longform storytelling, and it's that way for a reason. If I could tell the story in three sentences, then I wouldn't need to write a book about it.

It's a bit like asking a software engineer "What are you working on?" Sometimes the answer might be interesting and relatable, but a lot of times it probably doesn't make sense and sounds like gooblydegook out loud.

I mean, if you ask an abstract painter "What are you working on?" you probably won't get a very satisfactory answer. And I think it makes the painter feel like shit to say, "Uh, a red square on a white background." To reduce work that way.

Keep up the obnoxious work.

Alec Cizak's picture
Alec Cizak March 10, 2015 - 4:07am

Wow, try to write an amusing article and out comes a whole army of sour puss!

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. March 10, 2015 - 4:12am

My favorite Weird Writer Question I Get:

"But you don't look like you write horror or sci-fi. Why do you do THAT?"

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. March 10, 2015 - 4:18am

Also: the conversation within the comments has been among the most amusing I've seen outside of the liberal newspaper I write for in the South. I love it when the trolls come out to play.

Ed: well done, sir. Well done.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing March 10, 2015 - 5:42am

Thank you, friends! Now where do I send the checks?

--Ed 

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. March 10, 2015 - 5:59am

I'll DM you my address. ;-)

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On March 10, 2015 - 8:50am

Yeah, Leah--why do you write such schlock?!? ;)  Keep it up, lady!

I get that too from people. It's some variant of, "I don't understand why you chose to write such dark things." I've adopted Stephen King's response: 'Why do you assume I have a choice?" 

Ed, thanks for the front-row seat to the mudslinging!

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words March 10, 2015 - 11:25am

a friend was slinging her first novel at a show and got this gem,

"Is it any good?"

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words March 10, 2015 - 11:28am

btw I always answer questions like "Have i ever heard of you?" with something along the lines of "Yes, of course" with absolute sincerity. The reaction I get determines how much sarcasm and/or vitriol to use going forward

Naomi Mesbur's picture
Naomi Mesbur from Toronto, Ontario, Canada is reading Burn Baby Burn Baby by Kevin T. Craig March 10, 2015 - 11:32am

This one I heard on a second date:

"You don't have anything published. So you're pretending to be a writer, then. What do you really do?"

Hm.You don't have a recording contract. So you're pretending to play that guitar, then. 

You don't have legal custody of your child. So you're pretending to be a parent, then. 

Obviously there was no third date. He even tried to kiss me at the end. 

Oh and my answer was, "Ask my agent."

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing March 10, 2015 - 1:35pm

Great new additions to the list! I'm especially fond of "is it any good?"

--Ed 

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. March 10, 2015 - 2:29pm

Oh, Dino, you're my <3. 

"Is it any good?" I heard that a bunch at the comic expo where I was selling my books this weekend.

Add to the list, for what it's worth (not a question, but whatever): I sell a LOT more books when I wear low-cut dresses.

*sighs dramatically*

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life March 10, 2015 - 2:53pm

I know for a fact nut-huggers sell books.

 

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. March 11, 2015 - 4:14am

I *only* buy books from men wearing nut-huggers, Josh.

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On March 11, 2015 - 6:36am

This is good to know. I'll be washing and re-washing some khakis for that strong European embossed-crotch look in anticipation of this.

Leah, it's the low-cut top in conjunction with the bloody table-top. No man can resist!

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life March 11, 2015 - 7:38am

Me too, Leah. That's how I know!

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing March 11, 2015 - 12:11pm

Cripe! Bring back Andrew!

--Ed