Sunday, September 30, 2018

Always Wanted to Write a Book? Do Tell!

So, you've always wanted to write a book? Isabel is at her leisure to listen.

Me? Well, that depends.

Don't get me wrong - I'm willing to help aspiring authors. I mentor through several organizations and do my best to be generous with helping people looking to build careers as writers.

The problem comes in when people are only talking and not wanting to do the work. That's why this week's topic is phrased the way it is: What do you want to tell someone who says 'I always wanted to write a book'?

There's this great story Ann Patchett tells in her memoir THE GETAWAY CAR: A PRACTICAL MEMOIR ABOUT WRITING AND LIFE. She's at a party with her husband and another guest discovers that Ann is a writer, and the woman says she believes everyone has at least one great novel in them.

Like most of us, Ann is very used to hearing this kind of thing. It's one of the five things likely to pop out of someone's mouth in a social setting when you say you're a writer, along with "Have I heard of you?" and other similarly predictable and difficult-to-answer sallies. Small talk is small, no matter your profession, and we all have our pet peeves. Most of the time we all can find ways to avoid rolling our eyes at the nonsense and provide reasonably polite replies.

On this particular occasion, Ann was tired and had heard that one too many times, and she asks, "Does everyone have one great floral arrangement in them? One great algebraic proof? One Hail Mary pass? One five-minute mile?"

I tell you, folks. This is always what I want to say.

But, when someone tells me "I always wanted to write a novel," I bite down on the urge to ask if they always wanted to play professional football or write a symphony, too, and instead I nod and ask for more information.

Because this is the key: most people who say this don't mean it. It's small talk at its smallest, party conversation that sounds good. I usually follow up with "And why haven't you?" which most often gets the standard "Oh, I just never found the time." That's actually a decent polite-conversation answer, because we can then segue into other socially acceptable topic like how they DO spend their time. One of the great conversational secrets - and often recommended - is to ask people about themselves. It has the added benefit of letting you off the conversational hook. All the better to swill wine while they talk.

Not that I've done that.

The few people who answer this question with something substantive? Those people I can offer advice to. Sometimes they have started and got bogged down. Sometimes they don't know how to start. If people really want help, it's pretty clear.

Otherwise, I can always ask if everyone has one great vintage and suggest we revisit the bar to find out.


  1. When I was younger I wanted to write a symphony! I only got as far as a sonata, though, before I realized I wasn't actually interested in writing classical/art music.
    If I am serious about wanting to do something, I must make the time. Otherwise I think I'm not serious.

  2. This made me laugh, because it happened to me recently! And now I realize it won't be the last time ;)

    1. I got all excited for them and started asking questions. What was their idea? What inspired it? Who does the story center around? A handful of others and then my last question was, have you started it yet? They'd put some thought into it, but hadn't committed to the next step of actually doing something about it.