What to Say to a Writer

August 14, 2019 § 20 Comments

franzenBy Lenore Franzen

At my writer’s group recently, we were going around the circle and checking in—giving the others an update on our own writing, perhaps raising an issue we’d been facing. One woman, when it was her turn, expressed frustration over a question she is asked often by those who know she’s working on a memoir. “When are you going to get your book published?”

When indeed. For anyone who doesn’t make a habit of wrestling with words and calling it her livelihood, let me tell you a secret. This is the question every writer dreads. It’s a question that pokes us, taunts us, by way of saying there should be a measurable outcome to everything we do and perhaps we’ve chosen the wrong thing to spend our time on.

A journalist writes to meet a deadline. An academic writes to stay relevant. A copywriter writes to sell.

The writers in my group are not the publish-or-perish type. Our work has a more subtle intent. We are trying to solve something that may not have a solution. And we won’t know that until we do.

We aren’t capitalists. We don’t keep a time sheet. We don’t have a business plan. We don’t build empires. We don’t insist on deadlines that force us to a place we don’t yet know exists.

We aren’t lion tamers. We don’t train words with a whip, making them do tricks for others. Writing must maintain its wildness. We’re just along for the ride.

This is why we don’t know how to answer these questions. They seem to be in Farsi, and we only speak English.

  • How long have you been working on your book?
  • When will you be done?
  • How long is your book?
  • What’s your next project after this one?
  • Do you have a publisher yet?

As Annie Dillard writes, “Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.” (The Writing Life)

Let me tell you something else. I came to the end of my latest revision this week. For a quick minute I breathed. But my first thought wasn’t to begin researching literary agents or tell you how to pre-order copies on Amazon.

My first real thought was, “Now that I’m done, I can sit down and write my story.”

This is how writers think. We arrive, hoping for greater insight, a clearer path that then requires going back to the beginning, rubbing that new insight like a smooth stone.

It takes courage, believe me, and no small amount of faith, which is assailed most days when we look at our words from the day or week or year before and they’ve lost their sheen. Still we persist, sometimes taking a necessary break, sometimes diving even deeper into the murky waters we’re trying to see our way through.

Here are a few thoughts on what to say to the writer in your life:

  • What feeds your writing?
  • I’m interested in what you’re working on.
  • How has writing changed you?
  • I admire your commitment to your writing!
  • Courage, my friend.

When we write, we put symbols (words) on the page. We don’t know yet what meaning they contain. We can’t because we are traveling in new territory. It is full of mystery. “Right now,” Dillard says, “your job is to hold your breath.”

Lenore Franzen has published an essay in Minnesota Women’s Press, a short story in the collection Mountains of the Moon, and eight nonfiction titles for school library series. She has written a historical novel and is currently working on a memoir. You can follow her at lenorefranzen.com.

§ 20 Responses to What to Say to a Writer

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  • Debra King says:

    Just what I needed to hear. Two years into my memoir and I still don’t know where I am going with it. I’ve taken baby steps along the way in communicating to anyone that I am writing, what I am writing, and fumble over what to reply regarding publishing. My current line is, “the writing and publishing field is so difficult to break into.” One friend has consistently commented on her admiration of my commitment to the task. Love the suggested questions and hope someone will ask me one of those next time!

  • amandahoving says:

    Ah yes…the question that’s like a huge papercut on the writer’s soul. Great post and suggestions!

  • “We don’t train words with a whip, making them do tricks for others.” The question that has often frustrated me is “Are you going to have it published?” because it assumes I have control. The writer has no control. We can only choose to make publication possible or not. We can choose to send it out on keep it home—to pursue publication or hold it close.

    My choice is to write, but there is no not-writing, so that choice is also not mine.

  • Eilene Lyon says:

    Oh, how I do hate that question. How the heck should I know when it will be done or published. It will be when it is, and not a moment sooner.

  • sucieq says:

    So do I and even when the final draft is finished and you are completely sick of it – then comes the blurb, dedications, acknowledgements and the challenge of the front cover. But do I love writing? Of course, and no I can’t imagine life without it.

  • Cathy says:

    Thank you for this!

  • You nailed it. You captured the many moments we memoirists must push through. Your post is insightful in a way only memoirists can really grasp. I wish you the best in writing your memoir. Mine recently was published, about two years after I’d hoped, but at least it’s published.

  • charlagabert says:

    Such a great piece. I’m working on a memoir, too, and I get asked questions like this frequently. Non-writers seem to think memoir writers are just knocking out a formulaic whodunnit or how to book rather than embarking on a backbreaking, heartbreaking journey of excavation and discovery. I try to deflect questions and change the subject.

  • kperrymn says:

    Sometimes when I am answering questions from well-meaning friends, I try to really explain how it’s going–how, for example what I thought would be a quick revision of Chapter Two has morphed into a summer-long deep dive into the complexities of my relationship to an entirely different sister than the one I thought I was writing about. And then I see their eyes glaze over and I feel like someone who goes on and on about her real or imagined illnesses, symptoms, treatments…you get the idea!
    Thank you for the list of open-ended questions. I think they’ll inspire me to come up with new ways to answer the usual ones!

  • K Doherty says:

    THANK YOU!! I have relatives who are such experts of the world they feel it’s their duty to remind me of all they have accomplished. They then make suggestions on how I might benefit from their insight and intelligence to be the highest grossing writer of all time. (where’s that emoji that’s vomiting….?).

    This is lovely, thank you for helping me climb down off the ceiling.

  • Perfectly said. I would like to print it and hand it to the next person who insists on such questions about publishing when I am busy writing 8 hours a day whenever I can manage it. Thanks–good writing to you.

  • Shannon Thomas says:

    I love this! It not only is true(I hate the generalized question, “how’s your book coming along?”), but, I find it to be reflective of some questions we, as writers, need to continue to ask ourselves. What IS the drive for our writing? There lays the answer to the big AHA! of my WIP.

  • lgood67334 says:

    Reblogged this on B. Lynn Goodwin and commented:
    Lenore Franzen gets it IMHO.

  • lgood67334 says:

    Thank you. I reblogged this on blynngoodwin.com. If that’s a problem, not that I can imagine it would be, let me know and I’ll take it down.

  • […] via What to Say to a Writer — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • JudyDy says:

    What inspiring and valiant words. I’m glad you quoted Annie Dillard. I haven’t thought of her in years. Best thoughts to you ❤️ and keep on writing.

  • Margaret says:

    Ann Dillard’s quote ‘your job is to hold your breath’ sounds so refreshing. Thank you for your interesting, reflective post Lenore.

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