Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why Writers Act Rudely (or: The Interruptor)

Last week I was in my local writing hangout/coffeeshop, enjoying my day. The friendly barista*, whom I hadn't seen in a week or two, asked for an update about my writing. I happily gave her a brief update, mainly because I was (am!) still buzzed about getting a literary agent. I felt this was a reasonable victory worth bragging about. Note, though, that I did not just walk up to her and say "Hey, I got a literary agent! Make me a drink, coffee-wench!" While that may have been hilarious, it is not exactly the most polite way to announce good news.**

After answering a few of her questions about agent-searching and why my agent is so awesome, I asked how she had been and how her work was going (she is a film editor). But rather than discuss that work, she began to describe how a recent desire to write a hard sci-fi novel had overcome her. As a writer, but also someone who had read plenty of sci-fi as a teenager, I was intrigued. She answered my questions with the level of detail I enjoy in conversations like these -- i.e., enough to get the point and share in the enthusiasm, but not enough to make me wish I had somewhere else to be. I also liked hearing her describe the precise kind of sci-fi she enjoyed reading because she does not seem like someone who would prefer epic sci-fi novels. So, a fun discussion was being had.
Teenage-Evan's sci-fi book of choice.

As the barista spoke to me, a guy at a nearby table kept turning around and listening and then finally got up, stood next to us, and interrupted: "I'm writing a novel."

The friendly barista -- mid-sentence -- gave him a quick glance and finished her thought. I shot him a glance but did not engage him either.

People -- especially people who write or paint or take photographs -- love to talk about their work. And writers love to know that there are other writers out there. (It's probably not just those with artistic temperaments: parents love to talk about their kids; sports fans love to talk about their teams -- both could easily interrupt conversations whenever they sense room to promote their preferences).

Basically, there's always an urge to connect; but some of us project that urge too forcefully. Too desperately, even.

Consider:

"My child also has a wonderful vocabulary."
"I have always wanted to write a novel."
"I like to take pictures, too."
"I really enjoy films."
"My band is working on our first album with the bassist from Creed."
Creed bassist Brian Marshall "also co-owns a bed and breakfast called Mango Moon in Costa Rica"
where he makes this face 24/7.

There's something about that emphasis -- it's not always in the same part of the sentence -- but it carries with it a desperate need to connect to someone with similar projects/goals and, just slightly, suggests a superiority.

"I'm writing a novel."
is easily meant to be:
"You aren't the only one writing a novel."

The interruptor quickly returned to his table, where he said to his friend, intentionally loud, "I guess no one wants to hear about my book." His friend replied: "Shake it off, man. It's not a big deal."

His friend was right -- it wasn't a big deal. He wasn't actually being ignored because we had no interest in hearing about his book. We just didn't have an interest at that moment. His request to be noticed caused him to forget basic social etiquette. Seems pretty obvious, right?

The real point here, is, that I totally get it. I understand the feeling this guy had. Writers spend lots of time in their heads, speaking in random voices, exploring moral and ethical quandaries, pretending, etc. It's quite fun, but also lonely and usually results in lots of rejection. It's easy to say that writers (more than musicians, perhaps less than painters) spend a lot of time alone.

But it's not simply the loneliness that causes us to have the urge to tell everyone that we're writers -- I think it's the rejections that turns the urge into an act. As a writer I spend time writing and then I have to spend twice as much time asking people to read what I wrote. Sure, Facebook and Twitter let me reach more people, but it also lets me know how many people just ignore the request (oh the lack of comments and likes! Oh the lack of shared links!) And when I fail to get people interested, I feel like I've failed as a writer. Really, though, I've done nothing wrong as a writer; I'm just expecting too much (and, perhaps, failing as a self-promoter).

So, this interrupter just wanted someone -- particularly two strangers -- to be interested. And he figured we would be interested because we were talking about writing. And as someone who queried agents for two years and received over 160 rejections and non-responses for 2 projects -- I know that rejection can make one look for acceptance in any place at any time -- even in the middle of someone else's conversation.

I considered going over to the guy and asking him about his book. I also considered how I might best explain why he had been so easily ignored. Just a little advice from someone who knew what he was feeling but also knew that writers are a crotchety, gossipy bunch ready to turn someone's faux pas into a short story or, worse, a blog topic.

But he left with his friend before I decided whether I should be the holier-than-thou author with no interest, the guy with social advice, or the nice writer interested in another writer's work. I hope he went home to write because it's the only time and place to be somewhat happy between all the rejections big and small.



* much discussion happens at this coffeeshop involving the legitimacy of this word. I tend to agree with the theory that it was made up by Starbucks to emasculate its employees and enrage nonStarbucks coffee people.

**As someone predisposed to introversion and observation, I often chastise myself for saying even two to three sentences about my writing while in public. When I do talk to people about my writing, I walk away thinking I've yammered on too much, even if I've only said a few things. And yet, I will yammer on far too much about teaching. Regardless of whether anyone asks. So, don't read this post thinking I'm innocent of all socially repugnant behavior. If you're in a coffee shop and some guy in glasses is ranting about bad student papers, it's probably me. I am guilty of annoying behavior despite my holier than thou stance. I just like to think I'm not guilty of the annoying-writer behavior that will be described here.