Cope with Silly/Annoying/Challenging Comments and Questions

From Hillary Rettig’s book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Writer’s Block (Infinite Art, August 2011). (c)2011 Hillary Rettig. All rights reserved. Permission granted to copy and distribute so long as this paragraph is included, and a link is provided back to www.HillaryRettig.com

You’d think that having people ask questions about what you do wouldn’t be such a big deal. But in a world where most people…

  • are suspicious of, and/or outright afraid of, the unconventional
  • believe in big wins, overnight successes and other perfectionist tropes
  • have no idea how hard writing is, or how long it takes to complete works, or the time and effort it takes to create and sustain a writing career
  • conflate your value as a human being with how much money you earn
  • believe the canards listed in Chapter 6.1, and deprecations listed in Chapter 6.7, and
  • are happy to pronounce judgments on people or paths they know little about,

a writer is always going to be on the defensive.

Some of the questions that really irk writers are:

“What do you do?”
“What do you write?” (Sometimes followed by: “You write that?”)
“Is there any money in that?”
“Where have you been published?” (Often followed by, “Where?”)
“How’s the book coming?” (Alt: “When will you be done with that thing?”)
“Why don’t you just sit down over a weekend and just finish it?” Or, “Why don’t you just go on [popular TV show]?” (Or other “useful” advice.)
“When are you going to get a real job?” And,
“Did you hear about XYZ? She just sold her novel for a million dollars!”

In an essay entitled, “The Little Author Who Could,”1 Joanne Levy, who wrote fifteen (!) books before selling her first, eloquently describes the toll these types of questions take:

Angst, embarrassment and feelings of failure were pills I swallowed daily along with my multivitamins and orange juice. Family and friends had learned that when they asked how my writing was going, they were going to get a short and crusty answer like, “Shitty” or “it’s not”, but periodically I would get the question from a well-meaning relative and would have to explain that publishing is a tough business and it was going to take some time (yeah, it felt pretty hollow to me, too, even as I was saying it). Indubitably well-meaning relative would get one of those glazed over looks which I knew meant, “But there are so many books on the shelves at chain bookstore, so what’s YOUR problem?”

I frequently hear writers bemoan the necessity of dealing with difficult, obnoxious or clueless questions or comments, but don’t hear a lot about the specifics of coping. I have a feeling most writers think it’s like the weather, and you just have to endure. But a little strategy and forethought can help a lot. Below are strategies for: (a) increasing your tolerance for difficult questions; (b) maintaining conversational boundaries; and (c) dealing with hostility.

Increasing your Tolerance for Difficult Questions

By far the best thing you can do to increase your tolerance for difficult questions is to work on your own perfectionism and internalized oppression, since they can make you oversensitive, like a burn victim who yelps in pain at the slightest touch. If a part of you actually believes you’re “taking too long” to finish your book or thesis, or that writing is a waste of time when it doesn’t earn any money, then any hint to that effect from someone else is bound to hurt. In contrast, the more compassionately objective you are around your work, the more resilient you will be in the face of challenging questions.

Also, think about your motive when answering questions. If it’s to convince the questioner of the validity of your viewpoint – for instance, that money really isn’t the most important thing in writing or life – then you’re already in trouble. You can’t be responsible for what other people think, and certainly won’t convince anyone by lecturing. (See my book, The Lifelong Activist, and Dale Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, for more on this.) The best way to convince people about the value of your path is to live it productively and joyfully.

Your goal for any conversation should simply be to speak your truth: perhaps, initially, with as little embarrassment or shame as possible; and later on, like Jennifer Crusie, with bold energy and pride.

You might even get to the point where you actually enjoy the questions, and value the opportunity for interaction and mutual education. I myself consider questions an homage to my shamanism, and am grateful to be doing something that elicits others’ interest.

A special type of difficult question is the nag, which I discussed in Chapter 3.8. When a friend or loved one repeatedly asks, “How’s it going?” or “How much did you get done today?” it can stress you out even if they mean well. Use the techniques of collaborative solving to help them figure out a better way to support you.

Maintaining Conversational Boundaries

Of course, there could be other reasons you don’t like to answer questions. Perhaps you find them invasive, or perhaps you’re shy, or perhaps you don’t like small talk. Many writers, I’ve found, are deep thinkers who aren’t comfortable with superficial conversations, especially about their work.

If you’re reticent by preference, that’s fine; if it’s unwillingly (like shyness), consult a therapist. If you simply find the content of the questions challenging, however, then rehearsing a few answers ahead of time should help.

I believe that even the most reticent writer should be able to tell people that she’s a writer, since withholding a fundamental truth about yourself creates shame. What you say beyond that, however, is up to you. (I favor a lot of candor, but understand that that approach isn’t for everyone.) Delimiting conversations can be tricky so here are a few tips:

Talk About Writing in General. The answer to, “Where do you get your ideas?” doesn’t have to be some kind of uncomfortable self-exposure, but, “Well, you know, writers get them from all over. Sometimes it’s people we know, sometimes it’s something we read, and sometimes an idea just pops up in our heads.” If your questioner presses for specifics about your work, just say, “I actually don’t like to talk about the specifics of my work.” Most people will respect that.

Talk About Your Past Works, but Not Your Current Work. “I prefer not to talk about the project I’m currently working on,” is a great reply that people usually respect. (An alternative is to choose a work that you’re comfortable talking about and steering the conversation in that direction.)

Answer Without Justifying. So you tell someone you’ve been working on your novel for four years, and they reply, “Isn’t that a long time?” Refrain from going into a long, defensive explanation of how complex your novel is, how much research it took, etc., and simply correct the questioner’s information, “Actually, it’s not. Many novels take years to write.”

Avoid the urge to compare your pace with another’s – comparisons, as you know, being perfectionist (Chapter 2.7). If the questioner makes such a comparison, just say that every work, and every writer’s situation, is different.

Deflect. E.g., “You know, I really don’t like to talk about my projects, but you seem very interested in books – what do you like to read?” Deflection usually works because most people like to talk about themselves even more than they like to talk about your writing.

Use Humor. If someone asks where you get your ideas, you can hem and haw, or simply say, “Mars.” (I guess this wouldn’t work so well if you were writing science fiction…)

If they ask how much money you make from your writing, you can embarrassedly mutter, “None.” Or, you can grin crazily and say, “Oh, millions!”

The great thing about humor is that it often illuminates the naivete of the original question, both for you and the listener. And if the questioner cluelessly persists, you can keep going:

“No, really, how much money do you make?”

“Enough that, right after this party, I’m going to stop off and pick up my new Bentley!”

If a listener is simply not getting it, though, I think it’s a good idea to switch to one of the other tactics, because while humor is effective, it’s also a little hostile, and can be interpreted as condescension.

Keep in mind that how you say something is at least as important as your choice of words: if you yourself are confident and at ease with choices, all but the most obtuse questioners will get the point.

Dealing with Hostility

Always assume questioners are innocent until proven guilty. If someone asks me a clueless or even callous question, I try to give them benefit of the doubt, because I’ve asked my own share of clueless and callous questions over the years. Besides, many of those questions are rooted in perfectionism, and given that it’s ubiquitous in our society, and that I myself have only lately overcome it, how can I blame my questioners if they themselves are afflicted by it?

If someone is truly insulting or offensive or hostile, however, you shouldn’t tolerate that. You have two basic choices: to either not interact with him anymore, or (if you value the relationship) to explain to him why his comment was inappropriate and how you would like to be treated in the future. If you do that and the person continues mistreating you, I would cease interacting with him on any level. This may seem extreme – and it could be difficult, especially in the case of family members – but it’s essential. You have to protect yourself from people who promulgate destructive messages.

Don’t Let them Stop You

The most important tip about dealing with challenging questions is to never let them stop you. Here’s Joanne Levy again, dealing with her years of fielding questions while prepublished:

It was really tough; I’m not going to lie. But if I stopped trying, then I would officially be a failure and the door would be closed — I would never be published. If I kept trying, there was still hope, no matter how slim. It was still something.

I hear the same message from high achievers in every field: “I thought about quitting during a difficult period, but knew that that wouldn’t accomplish anything.”

So, you shouldn’t quit, either.