Columns > Published on March 6th, 2015

Five Asinine Things Writers Hate to Hear

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?

About the author

Ed Sikov is the author of 7 books about films and filmmakers, including On Sunset Boulevard:; The Life and Times of Billy Wilder; Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers; and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.

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