Sunday, June 21, 2015

"So how's that writing thing going?"

All my life, I wanted to be a writer. I have fond memories going back to second grade of wistfully daydreaming about my future career. I used to write stories -or parts of stories- in my school notebooks. I would sketch images of my characters, outline plot ideas, and even write chapters here and there when I was supposed to be doing homework. Throughout all those years, I longed for the day that when asked, I could say I was a writer. Now, the conversation I used to daydream about has become something I absolutely dread.

The most recent example I can cite happened this week. I saw an old acquaintance, someone I hadn't spoken to in a few years, but who is aware of what I have been doing since leaving my old job. We started with the usual small talk, and quickly came around to the inevitable question: "So how is that writing thing going?"

My off-the-cuff answer is simply "Good," or "It's going great." Part of this is because it would be rude and presumptuous of me to start rattling off numbers and dollar figures, and it might come across like bragging or complaining, depending on the situation. I don't want to be "that guy," so I generally just say that it's going well and see where the conversation goes. Unfortunately, this is the point where it always seems to get awkward. Nobody assumes your latest book is outselling Stephen King. In my experience many people do assume the opposite. That is, they will assume you're a failure at that "writing thing."

Some people even seem a little disappointed when I say it's going well, perhaps because they wanted to hear the opposite? I really can't know what's going on inside their heads, but I do know from experience that many of the people I thought would support me as a writer instead seem to take my modest success as some sort of personal affront. The people closest to me, those who know how I struggled in the beginning and how long I've had this dream, are the least likely to even ask how things are going. Most haven't read my books, they don't want to read them, and they definitely don't want to know how well they're selling. (Speaking generally, of course. I do have a couple of supportive family members, but that's a couple individuals out of dozens.) And once they have that question out of the way, they almost never ask about your books or where they can get them. That in itself, is rather telling.

There's a weird psychological thing that happens in situations like this. Many people seem to get a thrill out of watching someone fail. They elevate themselves by taking someone else down. Perhaps it makes them feel better about not attempting anything themselves. Maybe it makes them feel smart. The Germans have a word for this. It's schadenfreude, and it's used to describe taking pleasure from the harm of others. According to this article from, this is sometimes a result of low self-esteem. According to the cited study, "Those with low self-esteem... were both more likely to be threatened by the overachieving student, and to experience schadenfreude. However, the researchers found that regardless of self-esteem, those who felt more threatened by this student also felt more schadenfreude."

So low self-esteem may play a role, but it's not necessarily the cause and may not be present. The important thing is that someone considered an "overachiever" gets taken down a few pegs. It also means that the closer you come to doing something truly outstanding, the more likely you are to be the subject of anger, jealousy, and even sabotage. Being focused on your own work -be it writing a novel or just completing a report for your boss- you might not even be aware of others' feelings until it's too late. This is all strange to me, because I've never considered writing books to be something threatening or exceptional. It's just a calling. It's something I love to do. And yet it does seem to invoke these feelings in others.

So when that question comes up, I'm thinking about all these different things. I don't want to brag or force the person into a conversation that's all about me. I'm thinking about whether that person really cares, or if he's just asking out of courtesy. I'm wondering if that person secretly wants me to say that I'm not doing well. I can't help the fact that all these thoughts are running through my mind, because they are simply a psychological reaction based on prior experiences.Maybe I'm a little jaded. Maybe I should be more forthcoming, even if it does sound a little like bragging. I really don't know the answer. I just know that now that I'm living my dream and loving every minute of it, but the one part I absolutely hate is talking about it. When people ask what I do for a living, I actually hesitate to answer.

I guess what's important is how you feel about what you're doing. We all know that basing our happiness on someone else doesn't work. We shouldn't do it in friendships or relationships, and we shouldn't do it with our careers.