Non-Writers Can Be So Annoying
(When They Find Out You Write)
“It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”
Telling people you’re a writer can be a dangerous thing. Not physically dangerous, unless you somehow bump into a serial killer who has a particular grievance against authors (Annie Wilkes, perhaps?), but it can be mentally dangerous. People who aren’t writers have a skewed vision of what it’s like to be one. They think we’re a bunch of lazy wordsmiths who sit around all day punching letters into a laptop — which, in a sense, is what we do. But they don’t understand how difficult our task is; it seems so easy from their side. They’ve written essays before and emails and Facebook statuses, so how hard can it possibly be? And for that reason, they treat our job like it’s merely an overblown hobby.
Which disregards the thousands of hours we spend crafting our words. As if we’re no better than a man who sits at his XBOX for 10,000 days playing Call of Duty.
“There is nothing to writing.
All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
If only non-writers could understand the torment of an author’s life. But even if I slotted them in my place for a week, it still wouldn’t seem that hard to an amateur. As Thomas Mann said: “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
An amateur can tap away at the keyboard, worry free. They have no professionalism or pride in their work. A true writer, however, will agonise over every sentence, each paragraph, or the correct construction of a scene. Should he start it from the end and work backwards? Should he begin in the middle of the action, or would this particular scene go well with a brief build-up? Has he waffled on for too long? Not filled in enough background information? Is the motive too spare or unrefined? Endless questions rattle around a writer’s brain during every scene.
It’s hard work. But when writers say this, the amateur looks at him with suspicion. Hard work? You’re tapping away at a keyboard. I do that every day. It’s easy. They think only from a physical point of view. We don’t lift bricks for a living, yet most will feel just as tired as a man who does — not physically but mentally. Our bodies will be fine, but we’ll be drained. We’ll want to sleep even though our legs could still run a marathon. Our mind will be shut down; every centre used and abused and lightless.
That’s probably why so many writers end up as alcoholics and drug addicts. They need something to take the edge off, to bring them back to reality. Just a shot or two.
And then eventually that becomes their crutch; their oil to start the engine.
“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
Another annoyance is when the non-writer asks you to partake in writerly duties — free of charge — as if you’re some kind of writing Lemming who specialises in any and all forms of the written word and will follow them off the cliff of whatever project they’re starting.
If they need a business plan, you’re the guy to come to; not the guy with the degree in business, or the man who owns a business, but a writer. They think your expertise with words will somehow add gravitas to their proposal. Maybe they think you’re able to turn water into wine, or a bad business into an amazing one.
Or they’ll ask if you can write the words in the birthday card for their mum, or the love letter to their girlfriend, or a sorry note to their sister, or a Facebook status to their clothing line, or a text message to their friend cancelling on dinner. And the list goes on.
The worst, and most frequent one, is people asking if I can write their CV (“resumé” to you Americans) for them. You’re a writer, they’ll say. It should be easy, which is where the fallacy kicks in — this is why the non-writer attempts to procure our services for free: It should be easy. Not only are they assuming that I have nothing better to do and my time has no value, but they also think writing is nothing more than finger-to-keys and thus their CV will be produced — wonderfully and with vivid prose — in the space of minutes.
What they don’t understand is that they could type up a CV in minutes. But to a writer, a CV will be just as hard as any piece of fiction he writes. He’ll spend a day or more doing the work; overanalysing every line, chopping and changing, plucking sentences out and tossing them back in, making sure the words are the best they can possibly be.
If I write them a cover letter, it’ll be re-read five thousand times, even if it’s only two paragraphs long. I’ll panic it’s not good enough. I’ll be insecure about it. I’ll rewrite it over and over. In the back of my mind I’ll know it’s fine, but as I’ve been specifically asked to write it, there’s an added weight of expectation. They know I’m a writer. They think I can pull a rabbit out of a hat — but this is merely a generic paragraph about his workmanship. I think they’re going to see through it and call me a fraud.
But most times they’ll read it quickly, say, “Cool, seems good,” and that’s it. Something I’ve spent almost twelve hours on is dismissed as if no more than a footnote.
Then I’ll have follow-up questions. Did your employer like it? What did he say about it? Did he notice line three? Oh, he didn’t mention it? Well go fuck yourself then.
And then I crawl back to my cave and tend to my wounds.
“There are three rules for writing a novel.
Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
The point is: a writer’s time is valuable and not everyone understands or respects that. Everything from this blog post to a novel I’m working on to a simple Facebook post has some meticulous care and thought behind it. I’ve most likely written it three or four times, or at least tweaked it in a hundred different places. I’ve taken time and effort behind it. To the untrained eye, the words seem simplistic and therefore their creation must have been so.
As Nathaniel Hawthorne said: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” And it’s true — if it looks easy to write, it probably wasn’t.
It’s not solely their fault, though. It’s up to you as a writer to demand respect for your craft. If you accept these menial tasks from your friends as if no more than writing out a shopping list, you’re not only diminishing your work, you’re allowing them to as well. In the future you’ll be their go-to guy (or girl) for tedious work: reports, essays, emails. Sometimes they think they’re doing you the favour. They know you write and they want to make you feel important by giving you a job you never asked for. Like Here ya go, buddy. Don’t say I never do anything for ya. Some of them even expect a thank you.
Be up front and honest. Writing is hard and you should be paid for it. Nowadays, when someone asks me to write something for them, I refer them to my fee. Friend or otherwise, I don’t have time to type up a three-page report as a favour. They won’t cut my lawn or pave my driveway to “help me out”, so I won’t put in my hard labour either.
Friends will understand. Acquaintances may take offence, but who cares?
If they’re not paying your bills, don’t sweat their opinions.
“Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.”
When you consider all the potential hassle you can end up with, sometimes it’s best not to mention it at all. If someone asks what you do, just say: I’m a jobless nobody. People rarely ask any follow-up questions. And they definitely don’t request your help with any simple paperwork they can quite easily do themselves.
And that’s the goal: to be ignored by all . . . and adored by many.
At the same time.
I’ve named it The Author’s Paradox.
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