I got a text message this week from my mom, who’d met someone for lunch who asked about me:
She wants to know how your book is coming.
A perfectly innocent question, but it irritated me.
Googling “things not to ask a writer” turned up no links that could succinctly explain my annoyance.
I can’t answer her question. There is no book and there may never be one. All I can do is write. Maybe it will happen. Maybe this will all just be a futile exercise in self-indulgence.
That came off pretty harshly.
There was no offense meant by the question. Since I’ve started revealing to people that part of my reason for leaving my last job was to enable me to take the time to work on a writing project and perhaps get a book published, lots of people have been asking me that same question.
It’s really hard for me to respond, for a number of reasons.
Looming large among them is my self-image.
I can’t escape this feeling of being branded as feckless. I get the sense that some of the people who knew me as “Katie Bradshaw, museum director” are at a loss as to why I would leave a position of leadership in the community without another solid job to move on to. Some have taken to referring to me as “retired.”
That classification is hard for me, as I have this need to feel “legitimate.” In a culture that values hard work, in a society in which people are defined by their occupations, being perceived to be “dropping out” of the workforce makes me feel persona non grata.
Also, there’s that whiff of ignobility that has tended to haunt writers. (And cartoonists.)
Because of this chip on my shoulder, the innocent question “how’s the book going?” transmutates in my brain into “when are you going to do something productive?”
In a previous conversation, in response to a previous “how’s the writing going” question, Bugman helped me come up with another, less fraught, response.
It’s a process.
Indeed, it is.
When I was looking for “things not to ask a writer,” I’d also Googled “how’s the book going,” which led me to an article in The Globe and Mail by travel writer Will Ferguson. To quote:
With writers, the correct question is never “How’s the writing going?” but rather “How is the not writing going?”
Not writing is the easiest thing in the world to do. And that’s what an author means when she says she is “working” on a book. Working means “not writing.” Working means reading, working means “research.” Working means watching TV. Working means taking long diversionary walks. Working means perusing newspapers with an unnaturally intense interest. It means everything and anything except the actual act of writing.
While the above statement is a bit tongue-in-cheek, it really gets at the heart of what a lot of writing is all about.
I generally don’t just sit down and pound out a chunk of writing.
I think. I do research. I get distracted. I get stuck. I write and rewrite and delete and tweak and cull. I read something on an unrelated topic, and a fortuitous cross-fertilization of ideas happens. I go for a bike ride and suddenly hit upon a solution to a problem.
Writing is a process.
Becoming a better writer is a process.
It’s the journey, not the destination.
Today, while taking a walk, I suddenly came to a realization. If I’d told people I was leaving my last job to go back to school, there would not be the same questions hanging in the air about my identity. I wouldn’t be “retired.” I’d be a “student.”
So, I will just think of myself as a student.
Rather than paying money for tuition in a formal program, I am paying time-away-from-wage-earning for a period of independent study.
I’m learning how to use Twitter. I started two new blogs and am trying to keep up with two existing ones. I’m keeping two journals. I’m corresponding. I’m reading more than I have in years.
Reading classic literature. Reading magazines. Reading blogs. Reading book reviews. Reading “the competition.” Reading about writing.
I’m grateful to my family and friends who are encouraging me, who care enough to ask “how’s the book coming?”
I’m grateful when people understand how scary it is for me to step away from stability and fling myself onto a path that may or may not yield any tangible benefit.
And I’m grateful for my mom’s response to my text-message outburst:
At least you are giving it a shot.