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How to Piss Off a Writer

by Suzanne Roberts Aug 8, 2013
Tell me you want to write a book with me, or you want me to write a book about your fantastic idea.

Last week I got a very excited phone message from an old friend. She said, “Since you have free time this summer, I was thinking we’d write a book together…here’s what it will be about….” This is not the first time I have heard this from friends, people I love and who love me. People who are not writers. They tell me I have free time since I have 12 weeks to write (I teach community college full-time and thankfully do have a summer to write) and that their idea is the one I should pursue (with them, because really, anyone can write a book if she has a good idea).

I left a polite message explaining that really, I didn’t have any free time. That I was squeezing a full-time writing life into a 12-week sliver and that I already had projects enough to pursue and that she should write the book herself. I said “Good luck!” And I tried not to sound ironic even though I used an exclamation mark.

Here’s why: Imagine you are a rocket scientist and I call you up and leave you this message: “Let’s build a rocket together this summer. I have a great idea for one, and I just know it would be successful. Oprah would probably even want to ride in it!” Now, you would think, how can you build a rocket when you have no training? Rocket science takes years of education, of training, of studying the way other rockets work, of trial and error. You have to build smaller machines before you build rockets. You have to fail many times before you build a rocket that will even leave the earth, much less fly to outer space. You have to dedicate your entire life to rockets.

Now replace “rockets” with “writing.” Exactly.

Ask me to write or edit your resume, brochure, website, or dissertation for free.

And unless your writer friend is a Yenta like me with a weird affinity for matchmaking, don’t ask her to write your profile either. While it’s true that my profiles have fetched dates — two leading to marriages, one straight, one gay — I have retired from profile-making, so don’t ask.

Would you ask your dentist friend for a free root canal? Your profile takes me more time than your root canal.

If I have met you at a dinner party, or anyplace else for that matter, ask me what my real job is after I have told you I am a writer.

My real job, the one I have been educated and trained for, is my real job. My real job is the one that I must do, the one that makes me feel like a complete human being, the one that gives something of value to the world. To do my real job I must be brave and I must be unapologetic. Do you have a real job?

Follow up the question above with, “But how do you make money?”

You will be more likely to ask this if I have said “I am a poet,” which takes more courage to admit even than “I am a writer.” I make money any way I can. I make money, but that is less important than the fact that I make poems and stories and essays and books. I make worlds.

Buy a book and enter my worlds. Then you would not have to wonder why my real job doesn’t make me any money. You will also not have to wonder why you have never heard of me. As my friend Alexi Zentner says, “Perhaps if you read more widely, you would have.”

Tell me how bad your grammar is or that you have always been terrible in English.

I know you think it is a compliment, but really it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me feel like you are trying to give value to what I do because it isn’t really that valuable.

People are expected to be able to say a sentence with correct grammar. Does that equate to being able to write a book? It does not. I can cut up a chicken, but I cannot operate on someone’s brain. When you tell me you are a brain surgeon, I do not say, “Hey, I am TERRIBLE at cutting into people’s brains!” You would assume that to be true. Cutting up a chicken is to brain surgery as saying a correct sentence is to writing a book. Both are a start.

Tell me you have always wanted to write a book, assuming that if I have done it, anyone can.

Remember the rocket example? I would not tell you I have always wanted to build a rocket. And even the things I really have secretly always wanted, I would not have the audacity to tell you. If you are a rock star, I will not say, “I am thinking about becoming a rock star!” I would, of course, love to be a rock star. I love to travel and to get attention and to make people excited and happy. Unfortunately I cannot hold a tune and my butt in no way resembles Shakira’s. Can you hold a tune? Does your butt look like Shakira’s? I didn’t think so.

If you tell me you are a professional ballerina, I will not say, “I’ve always wanted to be a ballerina.” While it’s true I had an affinity for tutus as a girl, I did not devote my life to training. And I am clumsy. Did you devote your life to learning how to write a book? Do you have any natural talent? Did you practice for hours? Did you fall down hundreds of times before you could do a tour en l’air? Does your life ache with the need to dance?

Ask me why my book isn’t the new selection for Oprah’s book club.

There will be over a million new book titles published this year. There are over 18 million books registered in the Library of Congress. Many of the Oprah books have been by dead authors. So writers are competing with both the living and the dead.

A simple math equation reveals that I am six times more likely to see a UFO today than to be chosen by Oprah’s book club. I am 180 times more likely to be struck by lightning, but as a concession, I am 120 times more likely to date a supermodel. Why has no one asked me why I am not dating a supermodel?

Ask me if I’m published.

You will say you are just interested, that you are making conversation, that you want to buy my books, which is not true or you would not have asked me the money question. The sad truth is that many of my friends have not bought my poetry books.

Really you are testing me. Am I a real writer? Or am I just a “dabbler”? A lady who works in local politics said these very words to me – “Are you a dabbler?” — at a fundraiser, which is one step below a scribbler, I think. I am not quick-witted enough to have asked her if she dabbled in the city’s government, but on second thought, what else would she be doing if not dabbling?

Rather, let me define real writer for you: A writer writes. That’s it. Publishing does not make someone a real writer. Snooki has published a book. Emily Dickinson never published a book in her lifetime. Lorca and Whitman self-published. Van Gogh never had an art exhibition; was he not a real artist? An artist is in the making; a writer is in the writing.

Ask me instead what I’m reading. Ask me what my obsessions are, what my writing continually returns to. Ask me what I’m working on — this will answer your real question, which is, are you a real writer?

Don’t ask me if it’s okay before you recite one of your poems, give me one of your 10-year-old niece’s stories to look over, or send me your grandmother’s memoirs or your own epic novel for my review.

Maybe I will say yes. Probably I am very busy — as my friend Patricia Smith says on her voicemail message — writing or thinking about writing, so please make it easy for me to decline and don’t act surprised when I do.

Assume I have time to take you to the airport or your colonoscopy because I don’t have a go-to-the-office job.

Don’t assume I have time to make a beautiful side dish — both nutritious and delicious — for your potluck. Don’t assume I have time to watch your dog, your baby, or your plants. I do not have time. I may be in my pajamas at two o’clock in the afternoon (as I am now) and I may be at the kitchen table (which I also am now) instead of at an away-at-the-office job, but I am busy.

I am writing. I am working. I am creating a world that I hope someday you will visit.

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