by Amy Sundberg
I was having dinner with a friend the other day, and he mentioned that he hadn’t gotten around to reading any of my stories yet. He followed that up by saying that he was a little nervous to do so because they might reveal that disturbing things go on in my mind. (Newsflash: I’m a writer. That implies a certain level of creativity, which means at least a touch of disturbing is probably going on in there.) He didn’t say he was afraid he wouldn’t like my stories, but I’ve certainly had other people express that worry to me.
This conversation made me realize that what I take for granted, being around writers all the time, might not be so obvious to others. So here is an insider’s guide into how writers deal with each other.
1. Writers read a lot. But we cannot read everything.
Writers are fighting a never-ending war against the gigantic pile of stuff that they’re supposed to be reading. It’s a good thing most of us started out as enthusiastic readers because otherwise we’d drown in the amount of material we try to get through.
We read the novels in our own genre. Some of us have more than one genre, so then we have to read novels in two genres. Plus we are supposed to read novels outside our genre to stay well-rounded, so we have to read those too. Then there is the nonfiction that we have to wade through, some for specific research purposes and some to generally better understand the dynamics of the world we live in. We read short fiction and articles and blog posts. We read magazines about our industry. We beta-read novels for fellow writers, and we read to critique short stories. We read for award season. Sometimes we have students’ work to read, or books to read in order to give a blurb or review. We read and read and read.
We cannot humanly read everything. We cannot even read everything by our dear writer friends. It is impossible.
LESSON: We understand that you might not have time to read what we write, either. We LOVE it when you do, but there is no obligation.
2. Writers don’t always love each other’s work.
One of the first published novelists I got to know told me that it was really awkward to be friends with a writer whose stuff you don’t like.
Happily this has not proven to be true for me, and I don’t think it’s true for many writers. At least I hope not, because every reader (writers included) has her own individual taste, and not everything ever written will fall into that taste. This doesn’t mean that the writers who write stuff not to my taste aren’t fabulous people who I enjoy hanging out with, though.
Writers hardly ever ask each other the following questions: Did you read my latest story? Did you like my latest novel? Do you think I am the most Awesome Sauce Writer that ever lived? Instead, we may congratulate each other on milestones that we are aware of (hey, congrats on winning that award, or congrats on that book deal). If we have actually read and enjoyed a work, we might then say something about it unprompted (hey, I read your book and I loved the protagonist). I have NEVER told a fellow writer that I read their work and then proceeded to tear it to shreds, because that would be completely inappropriate. Mostly, writers spend a lot of time gossiping and talking about each other’s work-in-progress.
LESSON: You don’t need to tell your writer friend whether you read their work unless you did so and would like to share how much you enjoyed it. We know our own work won’t be to everyone’s taste, and most of us know better than to put our friends on the spot.
3. Writers don’t always write stuff that is autobiographical or has deep personal significance.
In the TV show Gossip Girl, there is a budding writer who only writes autobiographical stories and models his characters directly from his life. Everything he writes has deep personal meaning and reveals his true feelings about those around him.
This is FICTION. Many writers do not write autobiographical fiction. That’s not to say there’s not a part of themselves in the work, but often it is very hard to tell which part unless you know them very, very well (in which case, it shouldn’t come as too big a shock). Many writers do not model their characters directly on a real-life person (I don’t know that I’ve ever done this, for example). Many writers do not reveal their deep, dark secrets in the text of their work. Sometimes (often, in fact) they just make stuff up because it will make the story more awesome.
Writers do often re-visit the same themes over and over. For example, I like to write about death and mortality. That fact tells you something about me, but it’s not something I try to keep hidden. Sometimes a writer’s general personality is reflected in their work (although not always), in the sense that when you meet the writer, you think, “Ah yes. I can see how this person would have written that book.” But this is all fairly surface personality kind of stuff, nothing that should be particularly alarming.
LESSON: Writers are not constantly revealing their deepest, darkest secrets in their fiction.
Is there anything I’ve missed? What are some other common misconceptions that might make non-writers uncomfortable when dealing with writers?
Amy Sundberg is a musician and a science fiction, fantasy, and YA writer. Her stories have been published in Daily Science Fiction, New Myths, and Crossed Genres. She loves musical theater, ice cream, traveling, and learning about neuroscience, and she lives in California with her physicist-engineer husband and their little dog. You can find her at her blog, The Practical Free Spirit, where this post first appeared, or on Google+.