How to Cope With Clueless Questions, Crass Comments, and Crazy Conjectures

Note: I’m re-upping this one from 2013, as it seems a useful follow-up to the Robert Caro post. Also see this piece on Advice for Academic Couples (excerpted from my book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific.) – Best, Hillary

Oh, the things people say to writers!

  • “What do you do?”
  • “What do you write?”
  • “Is there any money in that?”
  • “Where have you been published?”
  • “How’s the book coming along?” (Alt: “When will you be done with that thing?”)
  • “Why don’t you just sit down over a weekend and just finish it?”
  • “You should write like Stephen King!”
  • “You should put a vampire in it!”
  • “Why don’t you just go on [popular TV show]?” And, the ever popular,
  • “When are you going to get a real job?”

These are the kinds of (often, but not always) well-meaning questions, comments, and conjectures that bedevil writers. A little planning can help a lot in terms of coping, however. Below are strategies for: (a) increasing your tolerance for difficult questions; (b) maintaining conversational boundaries; and (c) dealing with hostility.

Increasing your Tolerance for Difficult Questions, Comments, and Conjectures

By far the best thing you can do to increase your tolerance is to work on your own perfectionism and ambivalence. If a part of you actually believes you’re “taking too long” to finish your book, or that writing is a waste of time when it doesn’t earn any money, then any hint to that effect from someone else is bound to hurt. In contrast, the more grounded and realistic you are around your work, the more resilient you will be in the face of challenging questions or comments.

Also, think about your motive when answering questions. If it’s to convince the questioner of the validity of your viewpoint – for instance, that money really isn’t the most important thing in writing or life – then you’re already in trouble. You can’t be responsible for what other people think, and certainly won’t convince anyone by lecturing. The best way to convince people about the value of your path is to live it proudly, productively, and joyfully.

When a friend or loved one repeatedly asks, “How much did you write today?” it can stress you out even if they mean well. Explain to them that nagging isn’t helpful, and that a better way to support you is to: (1) do the dishes or laundry so you have more time to write, and (2) be a compassionate and nonjudgmental listener.

Maintaining Conversational Boundaries

Of course, there could be other reasons you don’t like to answer questions. Perhaps you find them invasive, or perhaps you’re shy, or perhaps you don’t like small talk. Many writers, I’ve found, are uncomfortable with superficial conversations, especially about their work.

I believe that even the most reticent writer should be able to tell people that she’s a writer, since withholding a fundamental truth about yourself creates shame. What you say beyond that, however, is up to you. (I favor a lot of candor, but know that approach isn’t for everyone.) Delimiting conversations can be tricky, however, so here are a few tips:

  • Talk About Writing in General. The answer to, “Where do you get your ideas?” doesn’t have to be some kind of uncomfortable self-exposure, but a more general statement of how writers work. (“Well, you know, we get our ideas from all over.”) If your questioner presses for specifics, just say, “I actually don’t like to talk about the specifics of my work.” Most people will respect that.
  • Talk About Your Past Works, but Not Your Current Work. “I prefer not to talk about the project I’m currently working on,” is a great reply that people usually respect.
  • Answer Without Justifying. If, after you tell someone you’ve been working on your novel for four years, they reply, “Isn’t that a long time?” refrain from going into a long, defensive explanation of how complex your novel is, how much research it took, etc., and simply correct the questioner’s information, “Actually, it’s not. Many novels take years to write.”
  • Deflect. E.g., “You know, I really don’t like to talk about my projects, but you seem very interested in books – what do you read?” This often works because most people like to talk about themselves even more than they like to talk about your writing!
  • Use Humor. If someone asks, rudely, how much money you make from your writing, you can embarrassedly mutter, “None.” Or, grin crazily and say, “Oh, millions!” Humor can be tricky, though, so if your listener is simply not getting it, it’s a good idea to switch to another tactic.

Keep in mind that how you say something is at least as important as your choice of words: if you yourself are confident and at ease with your choices, all but the most obtuse questioners will get the point.

Dealing with Hostility

Always assume questioners are innocent until proven guilty. If someone asks me a clueless or even callous question, I try to give them benefit of the doubt, because I’ve asked my own share of clueless and callous questions over the years.

If someone is truly insulting or offensive or hostile, however, you shouldn’t tolerate that. You have two basic choices: to either not interact with him anymore, or (if you value the relationship) to explain to him why his comment is inappropriate and how you would like to be treated in the future. If you do that and the person continues mistreating you, I would: (a) end the friendship or acquaintanceship, or (b) if it’s a family member, forbid conversation about your writing. These steps may seem extreme, but they’re essential. You must protect your creative core from those who would undermine you.

Don’t Let them Stop You

The most important tip about dealing with challenging questions is to never let them stop you. High achievers in every field say the same thing: “I thought about quitting during a difficult period, but knew that that wouldn’t accomplish anything.”

So, you shouldn’t quit, either.

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