Thursday, November 29, 2007

Identity and Mushrooms

Posted by Lynne

It took me a long time to assert my identity as a writer. Parenting articles placed in magazines or online, even a monthly column in a regional parenting paper, didn't quite hold enough weight to stake my claim.

Believe it or not, in the early months after Negotiation Generation sold to Penguin, I still felt others would perceive me more as an expert with a book than a writer. Eighteen days after my parenting book hit the shelves, my novel sold to St Martin's. And within minutes my definition of myself included writer.

As holiday gatherings begin to litter the calendar--with some having already taken place--I realize I'm a novice at declaring myself a writer, an author. My social repartee is stilted, my responses to the predictable questions and remarks weak and unpracticed.

At a recent party, I went on for ten minutes, giving a detailed retort to the comment: "You should get on Oprah." I explained the way it happens and how many people each year jockey for a coveted book pick. I lightly offered that getting on Oprah was as likely as getting struck by lightning.

Muse of this blog, the dear Carolyn See writes in her marvelous book, Making a Literary Life that writers must become adept at saying thank you for compliments and no kidding for anything else he or she doesn't choose to discuss at length.

While I've used both phrases a lot in the last few months, I still enjoy conversations about writing and publishing and do choose to have them in social situations. But I'm here to warn you about the trap you might fall into if you too wade into discussions unprepared.

What in the world would you say to the following--

I have an idea for a book. Maybe you could write it for me.

I've written a chapter of my book. Will you read it and tell me if it's good?

I only read happy books. Is yours a happy book?

Can you give me your agent's/editor's phone number? If she likes your work, she'll love mine.

Who will play the lead when your book is turned into a movie?

I know a writer who self-published. She's making a ton of money--why would you want an agent?

Lengthy explanations and oodles of education don't cut it in the face of these faulty perceptions, these comments that show a limited understanding of the muse and the marketplace. My answers are getting better day-by-day, because I don't feel an obligation to set things straight. I chat, I smile and I commit to nothing. I choose instead to offer resources. I recommend this blog and the ones listed in our links section to the right. I tell the emerging writer about books that changed my writing life, those that nurture equal parts inspiration and perspiration.

If the person I'm chatting with is truly at the beginning stages of the journey toward a writing life, he or she will do the necessary homework, put in the time. I'd be humbled to part of the process that encourages this writer to walk further down the road. Yet if the conversation is as important to the person as the ingredients in stuffed mushrooms, I've made it nothing more than it is--party conversation.

I've worked hard to be able to say I'm a writer. While I'm committed to showing other writers the way, I know it must be earned. Each writer must walk her own path--no kidding.

Care to share how you claim your identity as a writer, while at the same time chit chat about the writing life?


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Lynne, Thanks for making me laugh this morning. I swear, if I had a dime for every time someone mentioned Oprah! And, yes, you're on the right track--smile, nod, chat and know when to set folks straight and when to just take another sip of wine. I also love the line, "Yeah, I figure I've got a book in me, too." I always want to say (but don't), "Well, then, just let it out."

Now, a year and a half after my novel hit the stores, I am comfortable calling myself a novelist or author. I love writing it in the blank for "occupation." I'm willing to chat about the journey in general and mine in particular. I stress that not much happens overnight, so it's important to have the stamina to stick with it. And I also recognize that a smile, a word of thanks, and another sip of wine is often all that's needed.

Therese Fowler said...

Ha, Judy! "Well, then, just let it out." That's priceless.

Lynne, I so identify with your experience. In addition to many of the questions and comments you've been getting, I keep getting asked whether my current wip is a sequel. The answer is easy (No) but I'm puzzled as to why that's the first thing so many people ask.

The other thing I get a lot is "Oh, a novelist--like Nicholas Sparks?" For a long time, I gave the lengthy (boring) distinction-making answer. Now I just smile and say "Yes!"

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

I love the just let it out comment too. For me the key is learning when to smile and nod, and when to share my journey. When I guess right, it's such a relief, since talking with serious writers is always so wonderful!

I'm happy to know I'm in good company. Now I can relax knowing it's okay to allow a few misperceptions, they can't really hurt anyone. And if someone is truly serious she'll keep chatting to learn more. Suddenly it's called networking--and networking is a terrific thing.


Anonymous said...

I'm still in the closet as a writer and reading those questions makes me want to stay there.

Right now writing is more of an obsession than even a hobby. Even my partner hasn't read what I've written (I've told her she can't ask me about it. She thinks I'm nuts. She may be right.) and I dread anyone asking me about it--part superstition, part, gee then I have to back up this obsession with something on a printed page! Egad!

See, if I don't talk about it then no one will know how disappointed I am when nothing comes of it (evil editor go away!).

I hope I get over it. (The fear, not the writing!)

kristen spina said...

Oh Lynne, I love this! You've captured it so perfectly. Though I can't really say I'm an "author" (someday!) I do very often say I'm a writer. And in all these years of writing for magazines and freelancing, I can't tell you how many times someone has told me, "I have a great idea, you should write about it."

I have only recently begun to whisper under my breath that I am writing a novel. The question I hate: "What's it about?"

Thanks for the smile this morning.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

I gave a workshop not long ago where a writer said she was never going to send out her work because she was afraid it might be rejected. Ah, but rejection is part of the journey. And I want you to know that every reader of my work has offered me valuable insight--feedback that made my writing better. That said, I still get frightened, but it's worth it in the end.

Don't stop writing. And when you feel brave enough, share your work with a respected reader. I think ultimately, you'll be glad you did.


Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

If I have to choose between the questions and a lack of interest in my work, I'll pick the questions.

You have every right to say you're writing, but not divulge your topic, plot, etc... Only you will know when you're ready to tell. And when you are, please let us know!


Sustenance Scout said...

My kids do a terrific job telling everyone I'm a writer; I just get to nod and smile. :)

Hope you ladies don't mind, but you've all just been tagged for the middle-name meme. Check out my blog for the details, and feel free to be brief! K.

Carleen Brice said...

It's only in the last year or so that I've gotten comfortable with this. And I think it's because I've "met" so many other writers thanks to the blogosphere. Now I don't feel so odd and alone. So when I get sincere, well-intentioned questions, I am sincere and well-intentioned back. When I get pointy, little jabby questions/comments (such as "If you can write a book, I know I can," which someone actually said to me!), I can ignore or be jabby right back. But I don't get sucked into justifying myself anymore.

Lynne Reeves Griffin said...

Carleen and Sustenance Scout,

We all have to find our own way toward embracing this identity of writer. Thanks for sharing your journey.