Monday, June 1, 2009

Work Related Injury

My father thinks that I work for a publishing company. Which, technically, I do. But not in the way he thinks. He's under the impression that I am employed by a publisher and given an annual salary to write books for them. He assumes, too, that the publisher gives me ideas on which to base my novels. He says things like, "So what are they having you write these days?"

I'd like to say that he's alone in not really understanding what writers do, but he isn't. In my nearly 20-year career I've encountered this on a regular basis. Usually it takes the form of innocent yet deeply irritating statements such as, "You're a writer? Well, good luck with that." Then there's the ever-popular, "You're a writer? Have I read anything you've written?" Inevitably, they haven't, at which point you're regarded with suspicion, because surely if you were even remotely successful someone would be reading you on an airplane.

Speaking of airplanes, woe to the unfortunate author who answers truthfully the obligatory, "Are you traveling for work?" question posed by a seatmate. New writers, usually ones flush with the thrill of publication and winging their way to their first signing or literary conference, almost always answer this query with great excitement. Finally! I can talk about being a writer!

This generally ends in tears and depression, usually when the seatmate nods and says in a tone that suggests you have something in common, "I've got this great idea for a novel. Just have to sit down one of these weekends and write it. It'll sell six million copies easy. Mind if I call your agent?"

When I travel I tell anyone who asks that I'm in the human waste reclamation industry.

My favorite incident of this type occurred when I lived in Boston. One of my neighbors was in law school, and the two of us spent part of every day sitting on his porch talking while our dogs played. One afternoon another neighbor came up and, with great sincerity, said, "I just want you guys to know that I'm really sorry you've been out of work for so long." When we finished laughing and explained to her why we weren't going to an office every day, she was actually offended, as if we'd somehow tricked her. "Well," she said. "I always see you just sitting around."

Really, you can't win. But I can't blame these people (okay, I can, and I do) because popular culture doesn't do writers any favors. When the Will Ferrell comedy Elf came out, one of its central plot lines concerned Ferrell's character's father, a children's books publishing executive, having to come up with a bestselling picture book to save his job. What does he do? Well, first he turns to the two writers who work in the office penning books for the company. When they fail, he calls in a fixer, a writer hired by desperate publishing houses to give them ideas for bestsellers (for which he is paid enormous sums of money).

Funny, yes. But I can't tell you how many people, having seen Elf, asked me why I couldn't get a job like that. "Because they don't exist," I'd say, and again the suspicious looks would come my way. I could practically hear them thinking, He's lying. It must be true. It was in a movie.

Those jobs used to exist, back in the days when rooms full of writers churned out pulp novels at ten cents a page or whatever. And I have several writer friends who wish we could go back to those days. "At least then I would get published consistently," one of them said to me a few days ago. "This whole submitting manuscripts and waiting six months to hear back thing really blows."

Yes, it does. Particularly when other writer friends ask if you've heard anything. They know full well you haven't, or that if you have it was bad news. Otherwise you would have mentioned it. In passing, while inquiring about the status of their books. And with not a hint of bragging.

Again, though, you can't get too upset with them. We're all in the same leaky boat, and knowing that everyone else is wet and cold and hungry is perversely reassuring. Besides, when we finally do sell something, they're happy for us. Sometimes. In passing. And with not a hint of jealousy.

Enough of this blogging. I have to get to work. If I'm late again my boss will give my book to one of the other writers in the office.

1 comment:

hckygrl said...

Oh my gosh, got a free afternoon? I could tell you stories! My husband and I are moving from an apartment we LOVE for this very reason. The landlords, who live above us, find me spooky because I do not leave for an office every morning. I can't wait to get out of here!!!!