Friday, 16 May 2008

Coffee Morning: Don't tell anyone - I'm a writer!


It's 1.20 AM here in the Caribbean, and I'm posting now to catch the UK early birds. No coffee for me, please, or I'll be up for the rest of the night. Help yourselves to whichever poison you prefer - or you may share my jug of fresh orange juice.

I want to focus on an aspect of the writing life that intrigues me. When I started my blog last year, I posted about my covert approach to writing:

"I've kept my writing a secret from many of the important people in my life. My son has always known, and my sister, who also writes. A couple of friends know that I do some clandestine scribbling and there are two more who pretty much are traveling the same road, so we talk about the work, provide encouragement, act as critics and first readers. Even now that I have an offer from a publisher, I'm not telling a whole lot of people until I see my signature on the contract. Maybe not even then. Perhaps only when the book is released."

Weird, huh. But I've discovered that a number of other writers recommend this approach.

Carolyn See, in her excellent article Keep It To Yourself, claims that to the people closest to you, your writing is "...like a case of genital herpes. It's possible for them to love you, but they'll have to overlook the writing." She says that writing challenges the very structure of civilization, which is built around everyone working together, living by the rules. "It's no coincidence that repressive governments go after their artists and writers first. Daily life is serious business. It's hard enough to put a civilization together. And one artist is - theoretically, at least - capable of bringing down the whole damn thing."

Heather Sellers, in Page After Page, tells us to shut up and write. She believes that talking about it siphons off valuable energy that must be fed right into the page. Hemingway said that talking about your work takes away its magic and its strength. Jane Austen kept a bit of sewing nearby to cover her writing in case someone came in. Gertrude Stein got miffed when someone wasn't sufficiently appreciative of her work. "Very well, then," she said, "I will write for myself, and for strangers."

I'm with Gertrude on this. I've signed a contract. The release date for novel number 1 is just months away, yet I could not disguise my dismay when my son asked me on Sunday: "Mom, can I tell everyone now?" Even at this stage my impulse is to guard my dirty little secret, to keep it all on the down-low.

"Um, no," I told him after a long hesitation. "It won't be released for months yet." I suspect that even when that big date comes around I'll find some reason to demur. As for the friends and relations who're looking forward to reading my novel... Oh boy. Strangers are fine - but the people who know me? Exposing myself through my prose is a prospect that, quite frankly, gives me the jitters.

How do you handle this? Are you, like me, a closet writer, or is your writing life (to use a really bad pun) an open book?

27 comments:

Debs said...

Orange juice for me please, I'm hoping it wakes me up a bit.

I understand how you feel. A couple of years ago I took advantage of a Daily Mail offer to Print Your Own Book and had 24 copies made. My logic was that should I never actually be published then family members could have a copy of something that had kept me hidden away for so long.

I thought this was a sensible idea until the time came to give out copies of the book and I have to say it was probably the most excruciating experience. I was embarrassed and worried at how presumptuous of me it must be to think that they would want such a gift.

They were all very sweet, although maybe a few of them a bit bemused by the fact that I'd written it.

Lucy Diamond said...

What an interesting post - thanks! My writing life is not a secret in that it's my 'job' and people know that. However, I never go on about it to new people unless they ask specifically what I do. When we moved last year, I deliberately kept quite quiet about it - the last thing I wanted was for the other mums at school to think I was up myself in any way etc. "But you're so normal!" one of them said when she found out I was published - I was really relieved at that comment!

I did find it a bit embarrassing when Any Way You Want Me came out last year and people actually READ it. I mean, I was really grateful that friends and family all went out and bought copies but at the same time, it did make me cringe, thinking about them reading my story, especially certain scenes... But I guess that's just part of the job - and I'd rather they all bought copies than nobody did!

Flowerpot said...

Well I'm a journalist as well so that part is obviously in the public domain but I tend to keep my fiction quiet as that hasn't been published - YET!! I do find keeping the balance between the two difficult - they're like two very demanding and utterly different children tugging me in different directions...

Graeme K Talboys said...

Mmmm. Interesting. I don't advertise the fact I'm a writer, but I don't exactly keep it a secret either. I've been writing since I was knee high to a tall person, so immeiate family always knew. My one regret is that my father died before I got published. My mother always used to leave my first book 'casually' lying around if she had visitors. And my auntas are always asking when my next novel is out - I wish.

The only nervous moment I had was when my mother read one of my novels in draft. She made some astute criticisms, but otherwise loved it (well, she was my mum). But I've alwas shared my work, had others offer critiques. That's not always been easy, but I think it has thickened my skin and helped me improve my writing.

Most of the people who know I'm a writer also know the business. There are some, however, who still assume that writing is easy, getting published is easy, and that being in print means you are loaded with cash. If only...

Crystal Jigsaw said...

I used to let my mum and an auntie read short stories I had written but my book (if it ever gets finished) will only be read when I feel completely comfortable with it. I shut myself away most days and just write, sometimes rubbish, other times work that I feel is worthy of being read. Only a select few know what I'm writing about and I know, when the time comes, I shall be very particular about who gets to read what I have spent years creating.

CJ xx

Fiona said...

I keep very quiet about my writing. I find people either think, as Lucy said, that I think I'm up myself or they look like they want to pat me on my poor delusional head.

I think think that if I ever do have a novel published, it will at least, give me an excuse for turning up at the son's school with my skirt tucked in my knickers. 'She's a bit odd,' they'll say, 'you know, a writer.'

K.Imaginelli said...

Great question, wordtryst!

A few of my closest friends/family know that I write novels, but I mostly keep it to myself. Since I'm supposed to be publishing articles and academic books to keep my uni job, I don't want to raise any eyebrows. Although it would be funny to offer up a chicklit novel instead of my academic book during one of my annual reviews. :)

I also agree with what Lucy said above--I don't even want to think about how friends, family, colleagues will react to certain scenes in the novel.

Lane said...

Interesting Liane and thanks.

People know I write - that's no secret but most see it as 'dabbling' and they've never read anything I've written. The public perception of being a 'writer' is that holy grail - the published book', preferably several published books.

I can only imagine how I'd feel if the day ever came when people could actually hold my book in their hands (and hopefully read it:-). I'd probably feel a bit jittery and exposed but I think I could cope with that!

Captain Black said...

Another fascinating and possibly controversial topic. I think I'll need a stronger drink for this one...

For me there are two distinct main sides to this, though there are probably many more smaller issues. There is the artistic side, the emotional side if you like; and there is the business side, or the practical side. It all depends on how you want to treat your writing. Is it a hobby, a vocation, a life-support system, or something else?

If you consider only the artistic argument, then I would agree with what many have said here. To let the cat out of the bag can be detrimental to your self-esteem and therefore your output. People won't understand what you're trying to do, and possibly even belittle you for it. Too much amateur analysis and criticism may stifle your creativity.

On the other hand, if you also consider the business aspects of writing, and presumably you have to if you're serious about getting published, then hiding your work is a bad idea in my opinion. Yes, you can get published using just yourself, an agent/editor and a publisher, but I submit that this is harder and will take longer.

Drawing analogies with the software industry (something I do a lot), would vendors be interested in publishing software that has only been tested by the author, or possibly only other software developers? Wouldn't it be better if some actual users had tested it as well? Personally, I'd go for the latter.

For me, it's the same with writing and publishing. I prefer to have my writing "tested by developers" i.e. other writers, editors and publishers; but also "tested by users" i.e. readers who are not writers. Friends and family are very handy for the second role!

Kent Beck, in his book series on Extreme Programming, has a mantra that says: "Lose the fear" (trust your work and don't be afraid to change things because you'll have lots of testing to support it). I believe this is a good idea in writing too. It's often difficult but we should lose the fear and be proud of what we do, published or not. Let our writing friends help us to become better. Let our non-writing friends do the same.

I'm sure not everyone will agree with me, but this is what I think will work best for my projects.

Rowan Coleman said...

Its sort of hard for me to keep it a secret now, but I did exactly that for my first novel until the signature was on the contract!! I kept thinking that it was all bound to go horribly wrong. I do still thank that most of the time, ut that's general writers paranoia. Now I tend not to tell people that I am a writer unless the subject comes up, for example I'm on the PTA at my daughters's school, have been for nearly two years but it's really only now that anyone knows I am a writer. I think that's because its just a bit odd to talk about, people always think that its a bit of a sideline I do for 'pin-money' not the main source of income in our household and a proper career. And then they ask you 'Are you famous?' (ie are you Sophie Kinsella) and you have to say. 'Well no, not really.' And then they ask you the title of your book and you tell them and they look a bit vague. Another writer friend of mine who is propery famous always tells people she is a typist. What I NEVER do is talk about a book and what its about etc with ANYONE until its finished, barring my editor and agent. I NEVER share, because I think it does risk diluting your ideas and creative energy.

Helen said...

If people ask (like my midwife did the other day) I say I am a writer. When pushed, as people often exclaim 'wow you're a writer, what do you write?' I tell them I write features for Trashionista. If pushed any further I will tell them I'm writing a book too. But now I have Trashi to take the interest I like to keep the book side quiet.

NoviceNovelist said...

This raises for me the thought that you're only a writer if you're published and if not then keep stum about it! I don't beleive this in my logical head but I worry that other people will defnitely think 'poor woman' who does she think she is - why doesn't she get a normal hobby like other people.

I only talk about it in my writing group and with close friends/family and here of course! I would be horrified to say to people in my 'real world' job that has nothing to do with writing that I have finished a novel and started on another. I'd sooner turn up at my very conservative office in fetishist underwear brandishing a studded whip!!!! That would feel a lot more comfortable than annoucing my writing ambitions.

ChrisH said...

I'm with Captain Black on this one. It's about the business side of it - I have a product and I'd like to sell that product. For me it's all been part of taking myself seriously as a writer to 'go public'.
Congratulations on your contract, Wordtryst. C'mon, shout about it - you've worked for it!

JJ said...

Hmmmm, interesting topic.

Being nowhere near publishing a novel I haven't had to consider whether I'd tell people or not. So this is a pretty theoretical response but I've thought more about it since being a Novel Racer and I would certainly be relatively circumspect about breaking open the champagne at the sniff of interest. Interest is great ... it shows you're worth looking at twice, but it ain't a contract.

People (close to me) know I write and want am writing a novel. I've never felt anything but supported by them. More of my family write than don't; my best friend here's Dad is a writer; my two best friend's in the UK want to write books.

I think the issue is that if you are surrounded by people who will support you and don't think you're getting above yourself then it's fine to say it outloud. If you know they won't, then don't tell them.

The terror of success/failure gives me nightmares already (well, not quite...) so I do think it would be terrifying to have to promote yourself when you've got a book coming out. It's that, not whether or not I write, that horrifies me.

That said, I will use every single contact I have when (if) the time comes.

Leatherdykeuk said...

*chuckles*
Lovely question. I growl at people too often to not pretend I'm pretending to be a writer. I wish I had been more secretive about book #1 coming out because no people say "Wasn't your book due out by now?" and I have to say 'yes, but the publisher folded.'* I can't even shop it to agents because I haven't had my contract cancelled yet.


*Theoretically, 'Discovered Authors' still exists, but they won't answer and mail.

Calistro said...

Pretty much everyone knows I write but I'm much less open about WHAT I'm writing. I once told two of my cousins about the plot of novel #1 and they looked at me like I was mad and made me feel really wobbly about my whole novel. Now I NEVER tell people what my novels are about and instead will say something vague like "It's a bit like the film Ghost but the main character is a woman." That's normally enough to shut them up but sometimes people press for more details and it makes me squirm.

Clare Sudbery said...

Great question.

I have two contradictory views on this, I think. On the one hand I don't tell people I'm a writer (even though I'm published), generally. I find it a bit embarrassing, and people struggle to understand exactly what it means. They either think I might be rich and famous (I'm so not), or that I'm a bit pretentious, or they find the whole thing so intimidating and weird that they change the subject and never mention it again (e.g. my hairdresser, and the only two parents of my son's friends that I've ever told).

On the other hand, I do - and always have - show WIPs to people, and discuss them with people. I find the feedback invaluable, and it helps to clarify my ideas if I discuss them. But I'm very careful about it. I have to choose the right people, and the right moment in the process. I've decided first-draft stage isn't a good time to show work to anyone - it's too fragile. But it can be a good time to discuss plot developments, if I need help working them out. But only with one, very trusted, person.

Before I was published I was more circumspect about telling people. Rightly or wrongly, I saw a publishing deal as validation: Permission to announce myself as a writer. Until I got published, that is - and found it made little difference. I was still embarrassed to announce myself as a writer, and the goalposts moved: As long as I was still only writing part time, and only published by a small publisher...

Now I am officially a full time writer and have a contract with a major publisher (albeit in another country), but still I marvel at the description "writer" on my tax returns, and don't really believe it. But yes, it is my official title, announced on my blog as well as the tax return, and if anyone asked me what I did, I would answer truthfully. But feel embarrassed and a little presumptious.

A year or so after I was published, my partner and I met some people at a party. They asked what I did. I said I was a software engineer (I was). "Yes," said my partner (bless him). "And..." I was genuinely confused. I looked at him blankly. "And she is also a writer!" he said.

Final thing: People reading your books. My first has now been read by colleagues, ancient innocent old grandparents, friends, parents, you name it. It was weird at first, and I did worry what people would make of this glimpse into my inner world. Particularly as it contained sex, drugs, sexuality, was very dark in parts... full of all sorts of things I had never discussed, for instance (and nor did I have any desire to), with my colleagues.

The reality was almost disappointing. NOBODY mentioned any of these things to me. Not a one. They made vague comments about the book, but I'm sure that every single one of them would have been more embarrassed than I ever would have been to talk about it. So they didn't. As for relatives... my grandmother found the whole thing quite bewildering, by all accounts. But she, and all my other relatives, were so pleased and proud that I was published, this eclipsed everything else. They didn't read it in the same way any other person would.

The worst thing is when people pick the book up and read it right in front of you. I have to leave the room. I can't bear it. Luckily that hasn't happened often.

Oh, and the other thing is the friends who buy it but never read it. That's happened quite a lot. You just have to accept, they probably never will. Or they have, and they hated it so are keeping schtum. But mostly I think they are so worried about what their reaction might be, they avoid it. Or they just find it too weird, reading fiction by someone they know - and can't suspend their disbelief enough to enjoy it. Or they don't read uch in the first place, and have a massive To-Read pile that's been sitting there for years. Occasionally they apologise to me, rather anxiously, for not having read it. I always reassure them. I hate the idea that they might feel under pressure to read it.

Clare Sudbery said...

"I once told two of my cousins about the plot of novel #1 and they looked at me like I was mad and made me feel really wobbly about my whole novel."

Yes, this happened with me and my most recent novel, when some friends asked. I've been more circumspect since then.

Kate.Kingsley said...

This is a FANTASTIC topic, (so much so that it was what i thought of doing for my upcoming break hosting ~ back to the drawing board for me! But great minds, eh? ;-) ). It's something that has been on my mind a bit recently:

I'm a secret scribbler ~ my blog is pseudynonymous as i wanted a space to talk about and experiment with my writing without the risk of friends and family stumbling upon it. Self-consciousness, more than anything. It might all seema bit "cloak & dagger" but my maiden name was very distinctive and so I would be very easy to locate on a Google search......

........And then last week I received a series of emails from my mother asking "is this you?" bearing links to the few bits and bobs that are out there on t'net under my real name. I was mortified! (not least because a coupel of the pieces are a few years old and I'm not that impressed with them anymore.). I fessed up, and oddly enough she hasn't mentioned it since, so she either thinks they're rubbish and doesn't want to have to tell me that, or she realises that it's a side of myself I want to keep private for the time being (lets hope its the latter, eh?)

I submitted something to mslexia this week, under my real, but married, name ~ luckily my marital surname is a lot less unusual than my maiden name, and so I feel a bit less exposed using that as my author name now. I may even change the blog over to my married name, in the near future.

i think i keep it to myself because i would like to see if i can actually do it, before telling people "look at what i do". Jenny Colgan suggested keeping your writing to yourself (I think ~ her website's gone now so can't verify that), at least in the early days, And I followed that advice not least to avoid the gales of laughter that were bound to meet my "err, I'm writing a book" confession.

Husband knows I write, and best friend (who is a published, wonderful poet) knows I dabble, and i guess now my mum does too, but other than that it's my little secret.

B said...

It's really interesting reading everyone's views on this.

Pretty much everyone knows I write. It's like Samaritans, I volunteer there and you're supposed to keep that quiet too, but basically pretty much everyone finds out any thought that happens to be tripping through my brain. I've never had it bite me, so I suppose I've never had reason to stop.

I will talk generally, though, but will rarely discuss specifics. Dorothea Brande said something along the lines of 'if you tell people what you plan to write, your mind will consider the story told and you will either lose interest or if you force yourself to finish will find the story flat' so I won't discuss even generalities except with a few specific people.

Also, the idea of writing a sex scene? Or indeed anything vaguely controversial? That MY MUM might read?? I was brought up Catholic. I'm terrified of what people would say to that one.

Fiona, I'll be so glad to be published if it means that people can write off what they see as my odd behaviour as 'oh, she's a - *furtive glance* - WRITER'! My husband just calls me insane.

I do, however, seriously consider the idea of using a pseudonym if and when it ever comes to that. Which is odd. (I'm considering my nanna's maiden name.) Because just because everyone I know knows, doesn't mean I want everyone in the entire world to be able to find out that I am me.

(I realise that this makes little or no sense. I'll try harder in the future!)

(And Clare, did you use the word eclipsed deliberately - considering one of the main backdrops to TDOD? I giggled to myself when I read that!)

liz fenwick said...

Interesting topic Liane.....I was very quiet about what I was doing when I wrote the first one - only the dh knew but after the first rejection I outed myself. I felt I had written one complete novel (of total crapt) so I was a writer and I shouldn't be ashamed. So now its my answer when people ask although I have to explain that I am not yet published in fiction. The responce is normally positive so I don't worry about it.

I think Capt. B had a good point about the two sides and in today's pub. climate you have to be able to stomach the self promotion stuff...now I just need to get there :-)

Helen Shearer said...

This is interesting. I have told people that I write but I don't think I have ever referred to myself as a writer. In my silly little brain, 'writers' are the professionals and 'people who write' are the amateurs. Does that make any sense at all? My family and friends all know and some of them have read small bits and pieces but no one has read the entire novel and I'd like to keep it that way until it gets published. I don't ever tell anyone outside of my close circle what I'm writing about. If anyone asks I just tell them it's a comedy and leave it at that. When I finally do get published I will shout "I am a writer" from the rooftops so loud that those of you on the other side of the pond will hear it.

A. Writer said...

This is a very interesting topic and one very close to my heart.

All my friends know I write but only one member of my family knows. I can't tell my family until I have some proof this isn't just a hobby I'll grow bored of - as that is what my family will think.

I'm anonymous online because I don't want my family to google me and find my blog. That goes for the family member that does know. I don't want that family member to find my blog as I do write some stuff there that I don't want them to know.

I'm fairly open when it comes to saying I write. I'll tell people about my books and what stage I'm at. Like Cally, I've tried to tell people the plot of one of my novels and they look at me like I'm crazy. They just didn't get it.

So now, I just tell them bits and bobs and that keeps them quiet.

B said...

I do think, though, that if you summarise the plot of most novels they sound boring, or nonsensical. It's how you write them that makes them compelling and interesting.

I just googled my name and found a couple of articles I wrote a few years back. I can't help but wonder if anyone googling me would realise they were written by me. Weird, huh?

DK Leather said...

Lovely topic.

I confess to having previously been one of the breed of 'one day I'll write, when I have time' writers. However, since I now have two books part written, 10k and 20k respectively already written, I have been known lately to say "I am writing...".

I think like someone above I probably won't be able to logically consider myself 'a writer' proper until I'm published!

Mind you, I do have some, probably polyanna-ish notions that I *will* be published, so I'm fairly hopeful that I will be able to call myself a writer proper some day!
K x

KeVin K. said...

Very liberating for me is the fact that no one cares about what I write. Someone -- most likely my wife or children -- will say I'm a writer and folks ask "What do you write?" I start to explain media tie-in and game writing and their eyes glaze over. My wife has struggled to read my work, but she can't stand science fiction so she usually nods off after the first few pages. (Our youngest does read science fiction, but the only thing she likes is my Doctor Who work.) Most people know writing is my second job, but it might as well be selling insurance for all the interest they show. And I really, really appreciate that.

(Interesting point I just thought of. For three decades and more I told people I was a author -- only working as a teacher/photographer/whatever to keep myself fed while laboring over my masterpiece -- without having sold a word. I spent days agonizing over perfect sentences for my literary works, turning out two or three short stories a year that pretty much aped anything you'd see in The New Yorker and the first halves of a dozen novels. Then about a decade ago I had a satori: Writing is a craft, not an art. Like cabinetry making or architecture. Beauty has no purpose unless it's accessible to the audience. While one in a million might actually understand what's going on in a Picasso, everyone appreciates a well-made chair. At that point I stopped being an author and started being a writer. I replaced artistic posturing with solid craftsmanship -- slowly, it was a painful process -- and began producing work people wanted to read. And -- unless the topic is writing -- I almost never introduce myself as a writer.)

Annieye said...

I was a closet writer up until about last August,when I discovered fellow wannabes (Lane, Captain Black, Fiona amongst them). It made me realise that I wasn't actually a bit of a weirdo after all and that there were people like me who loved writing just for the sake of it.

I've crept out of the closet now and am getting more confidence to let people read my work. You're so right about 'dirty little secret'. That's just how I felt. There's still only a few people who know that I write and I still feel embarrassed about it.