One reason I hate small talk is that it’s repetitive–and I hate repeating myself. I like my job, but after nearly 7 years, I’m so tired of answering the “so…what do you do?” question. I’ve gotten a lot of different reactions to “I’m a writer,” and have run into people who make some interesting (often wrong) assumptions.
1. All writing is the same.
My “day job” in writing (helping produce e-newsletters) is an odd mix of creative and journalistic techniques.Writing a novel involves creative writing, as does keeping up a blog, plus lots of research. But sometimes I get people asking me if I do, or would consider, technical writing. That’s a whole different ballgame, involves little writing writing, and may require a special degree/additional training and education. People may assume I’m a technical writer because it’s the only type of writing they’ve heard of that actually pays enough to live on. It’s not.
2. Any writer will automatically be BFFs with another writer.
“Oh, you’re a writer! My niece/brother-in-law/cousin’s third wife is a writer too! I should introduce you!”
“Writer” is a very general term for many different types of work. Two people who are “writers” do not have more in common than any other two people on the planet. A person who writes technical manuals for DVD players might not share the same experiences as a person who writes for the sports section of their local newspaper.
It’s also highly likely that the writer is an introvert who will not be pleased to be thrust into an awkward social encounter with a total stranger.
3. All writers are “word nerds” with huge vocabularies, who are really good at Scrabble and crossword puzzles.
Some of them, yes. Not me. I hate Scrabble and crossword puzzles; I suck at them. My vocabulary is average–maybe slightly above-average, at best. And I mostly care about words themselves only insofar as they can be used for conveying stories and ideas, which are of greater importance to me.
4. All writers are sticklers for grammar and spelling, and they are constantly criticizing your speech and your emails with the air of a stern schoolmarm.
This both is and isn’t true in my case. I do sneer at people who regularly confuse their/there/they’re and who write “should of” instead of “should have,” and I get frustrated by frequent misspellings, because what do you think that squiggly red line is for? I admit that I have zero patience for constant, willful ignorance, but that goes far beyond grammar. Still, people make mistakes. I’m not taking a red pen to your emails. I am much more articulate in writing than speaking, so I don’t fault someone for not realizing the proper way to pronounce a word. Aside from the mistakes I mentioned above, and the fact that I would defend the Oxford comma to the death, I am quite ignorant in grammar. I don’t know how to diagram a sentence, or what a dangling participle–or any kind of participle–actually is.
5. Being published = famous.
P.S. Being published also doesn’t = quality. For reference, see: Meyer, Stephenie; James, E.L.; Sparks, Nicholas
6. If you actually make money as a writer, your work is widely accessible and visible.
“Ooh, you’re a writer? Anything I’ve seen?”
“Maybe? I don’t know your life.”
The e-newsletters I help create are for niche targets–specific trade associations, nonprofits, and medical groups, usually. Unless you’re one of their members, it’s unlikely you’ve read what I actually get paid to write. And the portions that I write may get mixed in with the work of other writers at that company, and that’s after it’s been edited and approved by still others. At the end, it’s hard to tell what’s mine.
You might have seen my blog, but it has a few hundred followers, so odds are that you haven’t.
And my novel currently ranks something like #3,562,009 in sales on Amazon, so you probably haven’t read that, either.
7. Writers will either read anything, or only read the most highbrow works.
Much like Albus Dumbledore, I am tired of people always getting me books as gifts, when I would really love to get socks. And just because I like to read, that doesn’t mean I’ll read just anything. At the same time, being a literary-minded person doesn’t mean I have hoity-toity taste. Yes, my favorite novels are Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and Bronte’s Jane Eyre, but I also have Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating and The Disaster Artist, a hilarious book about the making of one of the worst movies ever made. And do you know why I think that Twilight is absolute garbage? Because I’ve read it for myself.
8. Writers are totally willing to divulge any and all details about works in progress.
People are usually joking when they ask “So how does it end?” That’s fine. I might even tell them, if I know they weren’t going to read it anyway. But I hate being asked “what are you working on now?” because if it’s actual paid work, I probably forgot about it the moment it was finished. If it’s for my blog, just read it for your freakin’ self, jeeze. With more creative endeavors, it is actually detrimental for me to tell people much about a work in progress. (Plus, it’s probably fanfiction, and that’s conversational territory I don’t traverse with just anyone.) Creative writing is very personal; asking about a work in progress is not unlike asking a couple for details on how they’re trying to get pregnant.
9. One writer’s technique/system/path to “success” will work for any others.
I’ve already said that different types of writing and writing-based jobs are…well…different. One person’s method is not another’s, even within the same field. It’s almost physically painful when someone asks me for advice on how to get a job in writing (especially working from home), or how to get published. In publishing, I’m about as far from a success story as you can get. I decided to self-publish just because my odds of getting an agent and accepted by a “real” publisher were already slim, so I decided to fumble my way blindly on my own. I’m not pleased with the results, but I’m not sure I’d do it much differently.
As for my current job? I found it on Craigslist. After moving to D.C., intending to work in a non-profit. I worked in the office for a few years, by which point they knew they could trust me to get the work done from home when I moved back to Ohio. Things kind of fell into place, but I’ve never had specific career “goals” or a five-year plan. Absolutely nothing about my post-college life happened “by the book” or in any way that could be deliberately replicated.
10. Writers do nothing but write.
Writing is a major part of who I am, and if that were completely wiped away, God forbid, I wouldn’t know who I was anymore. But it’s not everything about me and what I do. I love books and movies, and some music. I like to travel, and go to museums and festivals and zoos. I like jewelry and cooking and sites of historical significance and makeup and Myers-Briggs and putting together bookshelves. I have even *gasp* gone an entire day without writing anything. (Unless you count email or texts.)
The short version: You may have your own ideas about who writers are and what they do, but you could be wrong.