How to Talk about Your Writing (Without Throwing Up)

You have to give up trying to justify your writing to the people who ask you about it. |

So you've done the hard work of beginning a writing practice. You're chugging along with some good ideas, forming strong writing habits, and cultivating a pleasant outlook.

Maybe things are going okay. And then someone says, "So... you're a writer? What are you working on?"

And, if you're like me, those simple words can be slightly terrifying.

When I started writing full-time, I responded very earnestly to questions about my work. I described where I was with my current draft, maybe sketched out a little of the plot, and--heaven help us--how I felt about it all. 

My goal in these situations was: to be honest, to try and sound like my work was legitimate, and to not throw up on their shoes out of pure nervousness.

It didn't always go well.

And here's what I've found out: The reason behind talking about my writing was all wrong. Way off.

It's good to be honest. It's good to not barf on someone's shoes. Very healthy goals. Nice job, Lucy.

But that middle one--did you notice that? Answering the "what are you writing" question in a way that would make me feel all warm and special and like my work is valuable... that NEVER went well. 

Never. You have to believe me on this.

Give up justifying yourself to people who ask about your work.

When you're talking about your writing, you'll find you have three types of listeners.

  • Category One: The nice people--friends or benevolent strangers. They tend to say helpful and encouraging things. 
  • Category Two: And then, the jerks. These are the ones who say things that make you feel like you've been chewed up and spit out. 
  • Category Three: These are the people who don't fit neatly into either category. Usually, they mean well (in a vague kind of way), but also manage to convey some serious doubts about the validity of what you're working on.

And if you go into these conversations needing them to crown you as a valid writer, as someone who is genuinely working hard, who has justified her place in the universe--

Then you can get into trouble, no matter who you're talking to.

Category One is obviously the nicest. But if I am fishing around for a certain kind of reaction, it's really easy for me to talk too much. Either I'm venting all my insecurities (NEVER a good move), or I'm spilling my guts about my story.

If all I do is hash out my writerly anxiety, no amount of their saying "No, you're a great writer!" is gonna stick.

And if I talk too much about my actual story, a really strange thing happens: When I arrive at my desk the next day, my characters are seriously unhappy with me. 

They cross their arms and say, "Why, why, did you tell all our secrets out in the open?" You might not believe me, but I promise: the work does not go well when I overtalk my plot.

Category Two: SO MUCH FUN. (Kidding.)

If you need someone else to validate you, and then open your mouth only to find out that you're talking to a total Anti-Writing Jerk...

Oh. It's just not going to go well. 

It is shocking what people will say. The best reaction I ever got from a Category Two was the woman who told me that she would evict her daughter if she ever did what I was doing. 

(And yes, it was very clear that I was talking about WRITING, and not, say, prostitution.)

It can be very, very hard to face your work after chatting with a jerk.

And then Category Three. The ones who essentially hope things go okay for you... but they also have very serious doubts about what you're doing. And why. And how successful you'll ever be. And basically...

Well, basically they doubt everything.

I have the most trouble with this reaction. Maybe because it's more common than overt jerk-ness, but also because it's too close to my fears about writing.

That I'll never make any money from it. That it isn't a "serious" career (whatever that is). That it is a waste of whatever intelligence I have.

And this is the person I find myself having inner arguments with, whenever I sit down at my desk. The kind of people I try to explain myself to, rising to the challenge of their strained "oh--how nice." 

Justifying why I write. What I write about. How I work. 

It's never a good route.

So I changed my goal.

I've had way too many crappy conversations about what I do. (Seriously. SO MANY.) 

And I've talked to too many honestly nice people, who have nevertheless sucked all the writing energy out of me and left me spinning. (Again: So many times.)

Finally, finally, I've wised up. I changed my goal.

It's not super complicated. My real, main, underlying goal, in any conversation about my work, is this: To be able to write the next day.

To be able to sit down at my desk after having this conversation about what I do, and to do my work.

No drama. No arguments. No wheedling. No justifying. No seeking validation.

I'm a writer. Writers write.

I don't need to find anyone who can give me that title. It doesn't exist somewhere outside of myself. No one hands out "Oh, FINALLY you're a writer now!" certificates. 

I've decided: this is a valid career. This is the thing I'm doing with my life.

Regardless of making absolutely zero money with it, for a long time now. Regardless of how it turns out.

Whether other people think it's worth my time, or whether they very plainly don't.

When you know this--when you know it down to your toes--then these conversations about your work just don't have that kind of power over you anymore.  They don't tie your stomach in knots and then leave you eviscerated.

Which means: You're free to do your work.

You can talk to your friends without sharing too much, without writhing in insecurity. You can be honest and concise, without ticking off your characters.

You can look at the jerks with sympathy. (My guess is, there is something in their lives that they didn't give themselves permission to do. And now they poop on everyone else's parade. Which is ultimately very sad. And it quite literally stinks to be them.) 

If you can't muster up sympathy for the jerks--or even if you can--you can write about them. Congrats, your novel just got a new character.

And the conflicted well-wishers, the kindly nay-sayers... Well, you can shrug them off too.

Your career isn't in their hands. Your ability to practice your writing until you're incredibly good, your time dreaming up characters and storylines... all of that is separate from them. It's only up to you.

So stay strong.

Look. It's gonna happen. You'll have some weird conversations about writing.

You're going to give too much information about your work to some people, and their reactions will haunt you. You'll blurt something out to a sneer-face, and be paralyzed for a week. Or you'll cheerily tell someone about your work, and their indifference or their constant questions will make you exhausted and doubtful.

But it comes down to this: You're a writer. You are facing a white page, a blank screen, and you're filling it with ideas. Words. Vision put to paper.

That is no small thing.

Actually, it's a big freaking deal.

And so there are going to be people out there that try to put the brakes on what you're up to. (Big deals tend to draw this sort of person out.)

Don't let them.

You have to decide, right here, right now, that you're a writer. 

You have to have the goal of writing. No matter what anyone says.

Because these aren't the only critics you'll face, right? So refuse to give anyone the power to stop you from working.

You're a writer. An explorer. You're diving into the unknown, again and again.

You actually do have the guts to do this. Don't let anyone's reactions convince you otherwise.

Wanna keep reading? Check out these posts: Voice Your Astonishment and The End of Excuses.