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Please Don’t Ask Me What My Book Is About.

Once upon a time I was a writer who wrote things. I graduated with a B.A. in Creative Writing and a minor in English. I wrote a lot of really terrible short stories and some poetry that is scarcely worthy of the name. I wrote nearly every day for about six years, and have appeared in some very modest publications (one of which actually paid! Thirty dollars, hell yeah!). I then wrote some marginally better short stories, and even one or two that could be considered good. I worked on a novel and hatched ideas for several others. I wrote a children’s book and even got to the beginning stages of shopping it around before I chickened out. I was part of several delightful writers groups and was invited to read my work aloud at a number of events. I started working in the publishing industry. I began writing less and editing more. I became a literary midwife, and happily brought many, many books into the world without ever sparing thought for my own. And somewhere along the line I became a writer who doesn’t actually write anything.

Recently I’ve decided I really ought to do something about that. I don’t want to render my degree any more useless than it already is, afterall. So, I give myself a couple of pep talks and dive right in.

David comes home after work one night to find me seated at the dining room table typing madly away. Naturally he’s confused, because I’m using my laptop, yet not trolling around endlessly on Facebook. He asks what I’m up to.

“I’m writing! Just working on my novel!” I say, beaming. I am like a four year old who has just tied her shoes for the first time. David obligingly showers me with heaps of encouragement and praise, so of course I have to ruin it all by saying, “Oh, yes! I’m going to write every day for the whole month of September!

Wait, what? Like hell I am.

But of course, now I’ve got to. I’ve gone and made a stupid pledge in front of someone else, and now I’ve got to follow through or perish. And so far I’ve done it. I have sat down every day this month and contributed at least a single sentence, but oftentimes more, to my little novel.

And I am not here to tell you about how hard writing is. I am not here to tell you how mind-numbingly stupid that little blinking cursor can make you feel. I’m not here to tell you that it’s easy, either, because it sure as hell isn’t. I’m not actually here to say a damn thing about writing at all. I’m here to ask you–beg you–for one small favor, and the favor is this:

Please don’t ask me what my book is about.

Because here is what will happen if you do:

We go up to David’s cabin for Labor Day weekend. Holidays are a free for all, so besides the two of us, David’s cousin Timmy, his Uncle Mike, and Mike’s girlfriend Shelly are all staying up there as well. I bring my laptop because I am committed to writing every single day, damnit. I find small, quiet moments to get my writing done. I wake up in the morning before the others and I hunker down under piles of blankets with my coffee at hand and I write. And I write. And I experience that sensation I’d forgotten, the one where writing is the best, most freeing, most joyful thing in the world. The words are flowing effortlessly. Time flies by and I don’t even notice. I have hit my stride. I have remembered this gift. This is the greatest thing that has ever happened.

But eventually I am caught out. People wake up, move about, drink their coffee, pull on their sweatshirts. For a couple of hours I am dumb enough to think I might be off the hook. But then it happens.

One of them comes up to me, all innocent smiles, and asks “So, what is your book about?”

And a small part of me, the part that can still think rationally, the part that is going to be drowned in just a few precious seconds, hisses in my ear, “This is why you stopped writing, you moron.”

Because I utterly loathe that question. Why do people always ask that question?! There is no polite way to avoid it. You sound like a total prick if you say something like, “Oh, I don’t like to discuss my works in progress.” Yet if you are anything like me, it is IMPOSSIBLE for you to answer that question in any remotely normal way. I always end up apologizing for myself. Like, oh god, I am so sorry that I piqued your curiosity. Truly, it is better for both of us if we leave the topic unaddressed. You really do not want to know how fucked up I am at this juncture. Shall we discuss the weather instead?

I turn into a spastic freak when faced with that question. I literally begin to twitch. The novel I’m currently working on is a YA fantasy (I know, god, I know) and that’s embarrassing enough to pull me up short right there. But somehow, I lumber on. My cognitive skills fly out the window, so I’m twitching and turning bright red and shouting out things like “There’s this girl? And magic! Mole people? But not really!”

I am losing my audience. Mole people? Jesus. They are backing away from me slowly. They are looking very, very sorry that they asked. And what I should do, I know, is let them go. I should shrug and give a tilted little half-smile and leave it at that. Fucking writers. What a bunch of lunatics.

But deep embarrassment is only one of many emotions racking my nerves at this moment. And embarrassment is being over-ridden by EARNESTNESS. Suddenly I am overcome with desire to win these people over. I am a writer. A good one, even! I have some really great ideas! My books are going to be pretty good, if I ever get around to finishing them! I need to prove that there’s more to me than just magic and mole people. I can be more sophisticated than that.

I try to save myself. I’m groping for something that will satisfy these people and return their facial expressions to normal. Something that will ease their minds about the fact that they are going to sleep with me in a one-room cabin tonight and that I could possibly be an axe-murderer.
So I switch tactics completely, abandon my YA novel, and start blabbering on about my other novel–a monster of literary fiction that I have been working on since 2002 and of which I have never completed even a single draft–as if that would be any better, any more comprehensible.

“AUTO-EROTIC ASPHYXIATION! I like to write about smoking cigarettes! There is probably incest, but I’m not decided as to whether or not it’s consumated!” I shout these things out like a game show contestant until the shame, the SHAME forces me to just shut my freaking mouth. And people are too stunned, too horrified to even look grateful that I have finally stopped talking.

At which point I usually shrink and fade and curl up into the very smallest version of myself and mumble something like “…anyway, um…I’m not very good at describing it?” and take the first opportunity to run away and DIE.

So please, please, PLEASE. Spare us both any further humiliation.

Posted by on September 7, 2010 in Writing