Last week I was the guest at a library book group. The librarian who booked me warned that they were a feisty group who would speak their minds. They were reading my movie murder mystery, THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS.
They were a feisty group, all right, and we had a fine time. They were an intelligent group, also, who spotted and wanted to discuss not only plot and characters, but ways I’d decided to work with the literary references and mystery tropes. One man said, “I admit it that at first I thought the book had a little too much estrogen for me, but then I started seeing how you were playing with the reader, and I became fascinated. It became a great psychological game of cat and mouse.” We talked about the writing process and the reading process and the contract implicit between author and reader.
Then one woman spoke up. “Well,” she said. “You surprise me. You’re not what I expected a writer would be like. I mean, we hear so much about writers being loners and anti-social. You speak English really well. I mean, you talk really interesting. I mean–well, you know.”
The thing is, I do know. Truth is, if you’re naturally gregarious and a doer rather than a ponderer, you’re probably not cut out to be a writer. (At least not a fiction writer. You’ll likely do well at writing and selling self-help.) Fiction writers are made from the stares of kids looking out the window during class, often accused of “being somewhere else” while something not as interesting (say, math or the rest of life) is going on.
It’s not that we writers are an unfriendly bunch. It’s that we keep to ourselves for a living. In fact, I belong to a group of professional fiction writers who work hard at helping their aspiring counterparts and giving opportunities to each other. I brought a friend to a recent party. No one talked to her. I posit this is because chatting is not a writer’s strong suit. (In fact, during my formative years, my father was the pastor of a large Midwestern church, hence, my definition of Hell is still “a coffee hour you cannot leave.”) On the bright side, the aforementioned gathering was at a painter’s club andl the painters were thrilled to meet my friend. She is planning to start taking watercolor classes there.
Now, there are sometimes when being something “for a writer” comes in handy. For example, sitting around a pool in Hollywood, surrounded by people with body types unavailable to most of us, it helps to think, “Hey, I look pretty good for a writer!” Or, perhaps you’re in an endless PTA meeting where a few completely jerkish parents are STILL holding forth on an issue of seemingly no consequence, and you think, “wow, I haven’t killed anyone. Great self-control for a writer.” Or, you’re watching a TV show in which they’re having “adventures” with the ghosts on the Queen Mary, but the voice over is using the word “ironically” in such an egregiously incorrect way that it’s much more jolting than ghosts talking–but you don’t throw anything heavy at the television. “Wow, staying really calm…for writer.” (Okay, I turned the show off. Couldn’t take it any more.)
Most fiction writers would likely agree with John Green’s quote, “Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.” I know the feeling.
And yet. Yet, now, somehow I’ve slipped over. I do love telling stories while looking people in the eye. More that that, some of the most fun times of my year are the “The Book Inside You Workshops” I lead with fellow author and editor Tom Mattingly. It surprised me when I realized this had happened–this morph into a novelist who enjoyed standing in front of others and talking out loud.
I know exactly when it began to happen.
I started working in book publishing in New York while I was still at NYU, and I continued after graduation. My first two editorial jobs, at William Morrow and Taplinger, opened my eyes and taught me so much about books and authors and publishing. When visiting my parents in California, the writing teacher at the local community college asked if I’d come and talk to his creative writing class about publishing. I said sure. As I prepared my notes, I began to get excited. There was so much insider information I could give these writers that I would have loved to have had when I was starting out! I went to the class, and we all started talking–and talking and talking. Afterwards, I realized it didn’t matter what I’d worn or how I’d come across, all that mattered was the exchange of information. We were in it together.
Slowly, that’s what changed everything for me. It no longer became about me talking and others watching, it became about the exciting information I had to share, or the wonderful adventure of a story we were going to go on together.
Oddly, I stopped dreading looking people in the eyes when I realized that, instead of looking at each other, we were looking together in the same direction. I got to be the one holding the lamp.
I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason, when I talk to others such as the library group, I seem pretty sane. (Also, I now realize that people will think you’re stuck up if they talk to you and you’re gazing into the distance so I’ve cut down a lot on that.)
Perhaps when we meet up, we’ll get into a stirring conversation about fantastical things. Perhaps we’ll use the word ironically correctly. Perhaps we’ll even discover we speak pretty good English for writers.
Until then, perhaps I’ll meet you in the middle distance…just beyond the next horizon…