Columns > Published on November 24th, 2014

How To Tell Your Family and Friends You're A Writer

Let me tell you about a life thing that I didn't handle very well.

I had a girlfriend. And a new writing habit. Writing's a good new habit to have, and my girlfriend was a good girlfriend to have. I know, so far none of this sounds like a problem.

The rough spot came when I started to feel like I didn't have enough time for both my writing habit and my girlfriend. I liked writing. I liked my girlfriend. And I wanted to maybe, just kind of, sort of, just kinda sorta see if I couldn't take some of the time I spent with my girlfriend and use it as writing time.

I didn't know how to talk about it. How to ask for a little more time. I didn't know how to do it, so I took a bad route, and instead of talking to her about it, I made excuses. I'd come up with reasons we couldn't see each other, and eventually this turned into a big mess.

Things did not work out. The good news was that I could write about it. 

It's my deepest hope that none of you have made similar dumb decisions. Wait. Not dumb. Just decisions that could have been better. While that's my deepest hope, that you're all emotionally grown up and I'm just a stunted dum-dum, I kind of suspect some of you have found yourselves in the same place, or a similar place. Maybe it's not your girlfriend or your husband. Maybe it's a job or a parent. Maybe it's a circle of friends. Whatever it is, I can't help but believe some of you have been down this road.

Lucky for me, and for you as well, I decided to make a change. Maybe, instead of writing about the end of relationships, I could write about something else.

I decided to ask someone in the know. I decided to ask about the best way to talk about this stuff. How do you talk instead of making excuses?

Which is how I ended up talking to my interview subject for today, hoping that she'd have some answers.

As a quick note, this is a person I know personally. You  might disagree with some of the advice here, but in all likelihood, this person was drawing on the way I was saying things or what she knows about me personally. In other words, some of the answers might be more specific to my quirks or personality. Take it with some grains of salt. The big, soft pretzel kind of salt.

Hi. I don't know how to start an interview. So. Hi.


Hi. You're a counselor. Can I call you by an alias for this? Are there some famous counselors? How about Counselor Troy? Did you watch Star Trek: TNG?

I don't know who that is. How about I go by Sigmunda?

Fair enough. Just to get us started, can you tell us a little about yourself, about what you do? Or, to put it another way, tell me why the hell I should listen to you. Even though I know you and begged you to help me out with this. I think readers will want to know a little about your credentials.

Look at...what writers who write for a living do. What you do is the same. The basic activities are the same regardless of whether you're making money or doing it for personal fulfillment. The prestige isn't what makes you a writer.

I'm getting my master's in clinical counseling from an accredited school that's well known for producing quality counselors. I'll be done with that in about three weeks. For the last year I've been in a few different counseling roles, including career counseling for college students. A lot of that is talking about how to make career choices and being confident in those choices. Oh, and if there's any resistance in the family, or if students aren't sure how to get support, working with students and helping them find support elsewhere if that's what's needed.

Can I throw you a curve ball right off the bat? See what I did there with the two baseball terms? Let's say I come to your office for an appointment and I say I want to be a...cosmonaut.

Cosmonaut. Well, I'd ask what led you to that decision and what kinds of things you foresee in the future. What you would enjoy about that career, how that career might help with other life goals you have. Then we'd look into...cosmonau-try(?) What kind of education you needed, the training and that sort of thing.

Sounds like a plan. Now, I'm thinking the way we could go through this is, I'll set up some scenarios based on myself at different stages in life, and I'll ask some questions. Here we go. First question/scenario: I'm a teen. To set the scene, I'm 17, but I haven't really gone through puberty yet. I listen to a lot of Staind. A lot. And I'm sort of getting into writing, starting to dabble. Is this something I should share with my family and friends? Is it something I should just let simmer for a while?

If you're serious, if you're confident that it's something you like, and if your friends and family could be supportive, then absolutely. Share with whoever would be excited along with you. If you're still exploring and not sure, there's nothing that says you need to make a life decision and a declaration at this point. An interest isn't something you should be ashamed of, but you also shouldn't feel pressure to share.

Right. Although if you could see the stuff I wrote, shame would be the word of the day. This question is a little off track, but as a counselor, how concerned would you be that I was listening to a lot of Staind?

I've never heard of Staind or their music.

Yes you have.

[Interviewer queues up It's Been Awhile]

Oh, I HAVE heard this. I hate this song. It's like Creed.

How concerned are you, 1-10, that this is what I'm listening to? On a constant loop.

What's highest?

10 is the highest.

My concern for your mental health: 0. My concern for your taste in music? 7.

Seems fair. Next scenario. I'm older now. In my early 20's. I'm in college or I have a job. I'm writing, and I'm getting into it more. Oh, and I'm VERY cool.  This is me, remember? So I'm VERY cool, and sometimes friends want me to go with them to parties. Alcohol parties! And...I like my friends and I want to be cool, but sometimes I want to stay home and write. How can I talk to them? I don't want them to think I'm a poseur. Poseur? Is that still the word for the thing I was?

I didn't know there were poseurs in writing. So that's new. 

I think it depends on your comfort level. If they're close friends and you feel like sharing, then go for it. Maybe saying something like, "I really like hanging out, and let's make plans to hang out next week" is better than just saying "no". If they're good friends, if they know you and they care about you, they'll be understanding that you need to do some things for yourself.

Let's talk about that same scenario, but with a significant other. A girlfriend in my case. She's really cool. Very attractive and rich. She's probably one of the smartest people, and she wears oversized men's hoodies. I really liked a lot of young women who wore oversized men's hoodies when I was this age. Anyway, I like spending time with her, but I need time to work. That kind of conversation is tough for me because I feel like I'm saying I don't want to spend time with her. How can I bring it up in a way that isn't hurtful?

The fact that you're aware of how the other person's feelings might be impacted is a good start. Being honest and really acknowledging that it could be difficult shows that you're cognizant of how all of this might impact the other person. That helps, and it helps them be supportive if they know what's going on and that you've thought it through a little. And it doesn't hurt to throw in, "And you're beautiful."

And rich? And wear cool oversized men's hoodies?

Sure, that too. Whatever those drawing factors are in your relationship, whatever it is that brings you together. You might as well be honest about that too.

I'll be honest then. Sometimes I think this is the part where I blow it. I tell the person I need to be alone to do the work, and I think I suck at saying it nicely somehow. I've never really had anyone tell me something like that. I've had people say, "I have to work" or "I have class", but I've never had someone tell me they needed time away from me for a hobby. So I don't really know how to do it right.

Yeah, it's a lot easier to carve out time for an obligation than it is for something voluntary. But you don't want to blame something. Explaining why writing might need to be a solitary activity might help the other person understand. Talk about your process. If you work alone or in a different environment, and if that fuels your passion or your hobby, explaining that can help someone else understand. If you can share the same space with someone without interacting, and if that works for both of you, you can still spend some time together that way too. You writing and the other person doing something else. It depends on what you need or whether you need to be physically alone or just sort of not engaged.

Let's say we have that conversation and it doesn't work. Let's just say I blew it again. My significant other had hurt feelings, or I felt she did. So I backed off and now I'm back in my comfortable spot, making excuses to write instead of being honest. I'm saying I have to go do this or that, and I'm writing in secret. But I don't want it to stay like this. How might I bring it up a different way?

It depends on how direct you want to be. A lot of times people shy away from being too direct. Instead of making writing time a regular thing, it might seem easier to turn down your significant other one instance at a time, come up with excuses in the moment until they stop asking for things. I don't think that's the healthiest or best thing for families or relationships though. Be really honest, however that fits in your style. If you're comfortable, you can say, "I need to put in time writing. If I want to be productive and get the most out of it, I need to be alone." And then talk about compromise, or consolation. "When I'm done, we can go get dinner together" or, "I can't tonight, but let's hang out on Friday." The other person's interest is spending time with you, and that's a good thing. Try and meet them in the middle, give them an option of a time to be together that's separate from the time you need alone.

Something I've felt, if I can get in and do some good work, then I feel better when I'm out with a friend or a loved one. I I'm actually with them instead of still being mentally at my desk.

That's definitely something to be aware of and to bring up in that conversation. If there's something you have in your head, a to-do list that comes up when you're trying to relax, that can be an issue. Explain that to them, that you feel like you can be a better friend or partner when you don't have that to-do list running in your head. I think the other person will understand that you're trying to be fair, trying to give that other person the fully-present version of you.

Next scenario. Let's say I'm 35. I'm married, maybe we have a kid. Maybe it's from my imaginary wife's first husband, who is Paul Reubens. So I'm raising Pee-Wee's kid, which is cool and confusing. Am I over thinking this? Okay, I'm 35, I have a family, and I haven't been writing for quite some time. Or maybe I've never been a writer, really, but I'm starting to get the itch to spend more time on it. How do I talk about it with my family? 

One thing that's good for you, there's a definite difference when someone takes up a hobby that takes time instead of money. If you're buying new laptops and lots of new software and you're paying for self-publishing and...I don't know, a printing press, all those things will seem absurd when you're just starting out. But writing doesn't necessarily require a lot of spending, which is good.

If you're starting a new hobby and starting to dabble, you're experiencing a whole new part of life you haven't experienced before. There's a lot of room for personal growth. I'm a big advocate of being honest and talking about that, what it's doing for you, how it's fulfilling you. You don't have to justify it, but saying you get a lot of peace or joy or relaxation through writing, that helps ease the other person into the idea. It helps them understand where you're coming from.

Also, make sure to give the other person or people permission to tell you when they need you, to tell you if they start feeling neglected. Acknowledge that it's something that could occur. 

Let's say I'm still this guy, this man who's 35. I have an awesome beard, by the way. And a whole collection of really great coats. These are the things that seem adult to me. Let's say I'm this guy, and I want to pursue writing, but I know I have to give something else up. I just don't have the time to do everything. Any advice on how to pick something to abandon?

That's really dependent on the person. In general, look at what makes you happy, and look at what could maybe be reduced. 

It's good to evaluate what might not need as much attention while you're gearing up with this. With relationships, there are always dips in terms of the time and effort that they need. If your relationship is solid and stable, maybe it doesn't require as much time at this moment. Don't pull away entirely from your relationship. See if you can't figure out how much time you need, pull 60% of that from an old hobby, 20% from your relationship, and start out that way. And again, be honest. Especially when it involves another person. Let them know what to expect. 

Oh, and when it comes to sacrifices, make the decision together. Make a choice together instead of making a declaration. Ask about their input. Let the other person know what else you're cutting so they don't feel cheated or like they're making all the sacrifices."I'm thinking about giving up fantasy baseball" instead of saying "I'm giving up all household chores."

Or like, "In order to make time for writing, I'm giving up all personal grooming. And bathing."

Those are wastes of time. You could be writing.

Sometimes I think it's easy to say "That sounds reasonable" in the moment, but in practice it's harder. Let's say my partner is struggling with giving me space and I feel like I need to ask again. How can I talk about it without getting into something like, "But you said..."?

Start by trying to use "we" statements."We agreed that we would try" and the like. When you use "I" or "Me" statements, try and use them to explain how you feel. "From my perspective, this could really help me." "You" statements are okay when you're asking questions about how the other person feels. "How are you feeling about how things are going?" "It seems like you have a different perspective. Can we talk about it?" Getting the other person's perspective and seeing where their frustrations lie, what the barriers are, that's really helpful in any conflict.

Alright. Let's say I'm the partner now. My girlfriend has been writing, and it's been 15 Saturdays in a row. We haven't gone out, we haven't spent much time together. I want to bring this up. How do I do that as the partner?

Explain where you're coming from, and try to understand your partner's perspective as much as you can. "I know it's important, and I can see you've been working really hard. It seems you're very happy. It's been more of a struggle for me. It's been quite a while since I've been able to see you on a Saturday. I'm wondering how we can incorporate time for you and I, or if we can rearrange things so you and I can connect and I can feel like your partner."

Another good tool, when you talk about taking up writing, talk to your partner about a trial period. Figure out how long you're willing to go, and establish that time frame up front. Then, commit to talking about how it's going at the end of that period. It can really help to have a built-in end time if it's going badly for one party. It gives them a light at the end of the tunnel. They don't have to feel like it's going to stay bad forever, and it's a natural time to discuss if it's going badly.

I'm going to come out and say it. I feel like a pretentious dork when I tell people "I'm a writer." Maybe because I don't do it as my primary way of making a living, or maybe I just don't feel like this cool, literary guy. I don't own a single cool hat, and I've never smoked a pipe. I never tell people I'm a writer. I'll say "I write" instead. Sometimes I feel like maybe these conversations would be easier if I was a little more confident, if I could figure out a better way to say it. How can I get better at saying "I'm a writer"?

Look at what published writers do, what writers who write for a living do. What you do is the same. You have a process, you write, you revise. The basic activities are the same regardless of whether you're making money or doing it for personal fulfillment. The prestige isn't what makes you a writer.

It helps if you have a firm foundation, a good understanding about the content you enjoy and what you like about it, what your writing interests are. That way, when people ask, you can tell them. When they ask what you write about, which they will, you have more to say. You can give them more information about what your passions are within writing. 

It's a big enough deal that you've had serious conversations with family and friends. You're devoting a lot of time to this craft. Don't talk about it like it's no big deal when it's clearly impacting your life.

Last question: what should I do if I'm writing and a cat keeps sitting on my laptop.

Forget writing. Today is canceled.

Okay, REAL last question: what if the cat is really cute?

Pet it. Why is that a question?

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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