When people ask me what I do for a living, I am always at a bit of a loss as to how to answer. It sounds a little too highfaluting to announce, “I am an author.” You just can’t say that sentence without sounding like you graduated from Oxford, or that you have something large that needs to be pulled out from your backside. My preference is to say, “I’m a storyteller,” but that involves too long an explanation. Usually I say, “I’m a writer.”
As all of you know, that answer never suffices. You have to explain what kind of a writer you are, and then you are expected to talk about your books. Some writers have business cards listing their books. I am always saying I should have those kinds of calling cards, but that I have never been organized enough to get them speaks volumes.
Other professions don’t require the explanations that ours does. It surprises me when people actually say, “Do you really make a living at that?” To date I have not answered, “Are you really stupid enough to have asked that?”
As writers we need to remember that two percent of the population buys more than 90% of the fiction that is sold. I have yet to figure out why it is that I never seem to get into a conversation with that elusive two percent of the population.
There is a certain danger that comes with others knowing about our profession, and because of that I think the official headgear of writers is the same as that worn by court jesters. I have been approached to read manuscripts by more “friend of a friend of friends” than I care to remember. Need a newsletter written? Need a paper edited? Need a business letter crafted? For some reason because we work with words, others seem to think we would love to be involved with their endeavors. What we want to say is, “Frankly, Scarlet, I don’t give a damn.” What we usually say is, “Okay.”
Invariably, those requests come without an offer of remuneration. “It’s just a page or two,” we are told. I don’t ever remember telling a plumber, “It’s just a leak or two.” I mean, plumbers love to work with pipes, don’t they?
As for speaking engagements, beware those that tell you, “We don’t pay an honorarium, but you can sell as many books as you like.” Those are usually organizations that even Ron Popeil couldn’t sell to.
There is a difference between writing full-time, and writing fool-time. When you are too often side-tracked by writing that is not your own, you are a fool-time writer. Guilty as charged. I am glad that I am in good company, though (Thomas Sullivan, come on down.)
I am proud of being a writer, but November is not a good month to remind others of that fact, especially if they have high school kids. In years past I have been hit up by friends and acquaintances to “take a look” at their children’s college essays. I have been encouraged by those parents to “spruce it up a little.” Talk about trying to make a silk purse out of a cow’s ear.
Now I am getting an education as to why these parents were so desperate. Maybe the thought of their child’s staying at home while attending a J.C. for the next two years drove them to seek out “that writer guy.” Yes, the birds have come home to roost. My 17 year old boy is in the midst of filling out college applications.
You would think by now I would be ready for this, as I have been through the process one time before. Four years ago my oldest boy wrote his college essay and then asked me to look at it. When I finished reading it I asked him, “When you wrote this were you trying to give the admissions people every possible reason to turn you down, or just most of them?” We revised the essay. It is a process where you should not have any sharp instruments nearby.
Now I am going through that process again, but it’s even worse. My middle child has decided he should apply to schools like Swarthmore, Rice, Cornell, the Naval Academy, and Brown. Naturally, all the schools want different essays, and many of them want multiple essays. There are six supplemental essays alone for Brown.
You know Munk’s painting The Scream? This month it bears an amazing resemblance to me.
In another week or so, assuming the two of us survive our collaboration, my son’s college essays will be done. Until that time, though, I really wish I wasn’t a writer.
November 5, 2009