Almost Speechless

“I could hardly be polite,” I told my husband after we were out on the street.

“I noticed,” he said.

All of which is a big deal for me, since I’m a Southern woman of a certain age and I’m so damned polite I can hardly breathe sometimes. I am perfectly capable of running into a tree and saying, “Excuse me!” or thanking a cop when he hands me a speeding ticket. But, please. I do have my limits.

A few minutes earlier, we’d met and had a casual conversation with another couple. You know — how many kids, where do you live, where are you from, what do you do. That kind of thing.

When the woman heard I was a writer, she was tickled hot pink. “I’ve just started writing, too!” she announced. “I love it! It’s so relaxing! I’m having the best time!”

It was one of those days when I wasn’t finding writing to be particularly relaxing and I wasn’t having the best time doing it (or not doing it, to be more precise). But that’s beside the point. The point was — looking into her glowing, pink-cheeked face — she saw us as complete peers (both writers!). Which, I suppose, was kind of sweet, but it did make me wonder what I’d been doing for the last 30 fucking years of my life, since it seemed to have been equaled by a good week of effort on her part.

“We need to get together and talk about it!” she enthused.

No, actually, we do not. I don’t think we have a great deal to talk about, since a) in the first place, I don’t particularly enjoy talking about writing and b) if I did, it probably wouldn’t be with her. Her guileless enthusiasm was already getting on my nerves.

My friend Elizabeth, who’s also a writer, swears she’s not going to put up with it any longer. The next time someone tells her, “Oh, I think I’m going to start writing, too!”, Elizabeth swears she’s going to reply that she plans to begin her new career as a neurosurgeon the next day.

Do Elizabeth and I sound churlish? Yes, we do. I know we do. But sometimes — just for a while, just till you regain your equilibrium and Southern good manners — you get pissed under these circumstances.

Don’t tell me — as I once heard in a yoga class — that everyone can write. No, everyone cannot write, but everyone thinks he or she can.

I propose a moratorium: You should have to write for five years before you consider yourself a writer or offer your opinions on writing. By then, you will have either quit writing or you will have gained a tremendous amount of humility (this is a profession that is quite effective at teaching you humility).

Anyway, why don’t we get together after that? We’ll have a lot more to talk about then.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Sometimes, but not often enough, bad things happen to people who are rude to writers


38 comments… add one
  • So agree with everything you said, Ruth. Writing is really hard work, and not just the writing, but everything that goes along with it – the promoting, networking, invoicing, getting paid, dealing with inbox fireworks, and on and on.

    I don’t like to talk about writing either, because if you’re not a professional writer who’s been doing it for years, you don’t get it. And the next time I explain what I do and the person asks innocently, “And you get paid for it?” I swear I’m going to haul off and smack them. Yes, I get paid. I support my family of four from it. Any other questions?!

  • When I was teaching newbie writers at a large community college, one of the first things I would have them do is write on a sheet of paper, “I am a writer.” Then I would say to them, “Now, do not let anyone tell you differently,” and I would also tell them there is a difference between a “Hobbyist” and a “Professional” who does this and has been doing it day in and day out for years. That’s where the confusion comes in and I would tell them either is ok, but they needed to decide to be a professional and earn the title.
    My sister’s idiot ex-boyfriend, who was the ultimate “crack plumber” once said, “I think I could do that when I told him what I do for a living.” I told him with my wry smile, “You first have to know how to spell,” I said. I’m sure he thought I was kidding. 🙂

  • Writing as relaxing. OMG clearly she’s not been doing it long. Or actually selling it which is where it gets ugly. I have said to my husband that if one more person tells me “I’ve always thought I had a book in me” that I will respond “I’ve always thought I had a Picasso in me. Too bad it takes talent.”

  • Cindy D. Link

    I totally understand your frustration, I teach. While I have written some important (to me) things such as dissertation, I do not compare that with the witty, thoughtful, and daily grind writing that you and others do and make it seem easy. I love writers and worship them as demi-gods. To read a well crafted sentence where each word is absolutely perfect is a taste of glory. There are some writers who do it so well that I read their books slowly, as one would eat a box of expensive chocolate, so that you can taste each one and remember it. I think that within me I have several good books that would like to get out but I can’t tap into my writer gene yet to make them happen. My hat is off to you and the 30 years you have spent perfecting your art and your craft.

    Because I feel as though I “know” you from reading so much of what you’ve written, I’d love to meet you in person for a cup of coffee. While I would enjoy a conversation about writing, I’d much rather have an update on how you are doing about the passing of your father, how the kids are doing, what’s it like to live downtown after having a house for upteen years, the “old” days in Austin – I bet you have great off-line stories to tell. When I thought you might not blog again I was worried about loosing a “friend.” You keep doing what you are excellent at doing and I’ll keep smiling that Southern woman grimace when people call themselves teachers because they showed up in a classroom for a number of years.

  • Sooooooo true!

  • I’m SO there. I often quip that I’m going to become a part-time astronaut any day now. Writing is an art. Writing is a skill. Writing is work. Writing is a profession for many of us, and it does get tiring to have people assume we’re just playing at this (like a hobby) or that they can do it to. Most cannot.

    In fact, I opened my presentation last Saturday at American Society of Journalists and Authors with the fact that I am A) not independently wealthy and B) come from a staunchly two-income household. In other words, I really do make a living at this by working full time (or more) … not something many people can do.

    Hop. Hop. Hop. That’s me jumping around in solidarity.

  • I was in a class this winter at Grub Street, Novel in Progress. There was one person in the class who was convinced he was a writer, a recently retired lawyer. Why did he think that he could write? He had already written a trilogy about a Puerto Rican family that emigrates to the USA. The teacher tried to help him understand the need for focus, that he should choose one or two main characters and follow them rather than extol the whole damn extended family over a period of 80 years. We offered similar feedback. Sad to say he didn’t get it. The rest of us learned a lot from that class. Maybe someday some of us, maybe two or three out of the other ten, will publish our novels?

  • Yeah, maybe it’s all a matter of how you say it. Like, I garden, but I’m not a gardener. As such, I can say that I garden, even if I’m really bad at it. No one cares. Similarly, I cook, but I’m not a chef. I nurse my kid’s boo boos, but I’m not a nurse. Maybe we need a word that means “I dabble in writing” to distinguish it from “I write for my career.” But I can’t think of what to call the writing hobbiests.

  • Wow, I have mixed feelings about this. I agree that writing is hard work and that most people are not very good at it, but it’s attitudes like this that prevented me from calling myself a writer for a long time – even after I had a book published. Since the book was about fun things to do in NYC, I kept saying that it wasn’t a “real” book because it didn’t have a plot and characters. But I sat down and spent hours writing and revising it, so doesn’t that mean I’m a writer? I still have a complex about it, and whether I can call myself a writer, and I have an MFA in creative writing! Only in March, when I began working on a novel, did I suddenly think of myself as a “real” writer, and I think that is sad. If you write on a regular basis, no one has the right to take that joy/frustration away from you.

    At the same time, it is galling when someone who has no training or experience in a field suddenly equates herself to a seasoned professional, so I have empathy for this side of the coin, too. This is not unique to writing. I also have a degree in public policy/nonprofit management, and it irks me to no end when people indicate that just anyone can pick up and do that kind of work, as if there was no skill or education behind it. Just like it was when the woman who has been writing for a week thinks she is on equal footing to a seasoned author.

    It’s an interesting situation. How do you encourage people to pursue writing (or any skill) while respecting the people already in the field?

  • Must confess I don’t like reading swear words, but you always place them so well. 🙂

    And I loved your last line in this post. Perfect.

  • I just guffawed out loud at the “It’s so relaxing!”

    Glad to have found you through Roxanne.

  • You could hear something even worse. Has anyone ever said to you, “I have so many great ideas for books. If only I could get someone to write them down!” I guess they haven’t quite figured out coming up with an idea is the easy part.

  • I know what you mean. I’m a graphic designer and communciations specialist. I get it with graphic design all the time as well. Oh yeah, suuuuuuuuure anyone can dabble with photoshop and say they design….. doesn’t mean they CAN design. And the I love mentioning, or really? All I have to do is start dropping words like EPS, Vector file, InDesign, crop marks and DPI and then we quickly figure out who really is the designer. That’s hard to do with writing… that’s the key, we need some really big, elaborate words that are involved with writing to shut up those who say they “write.”

  • Relaxing, my ass.

  • OH Goddess… Lighten up!!! She was probably just trying to pay you a compliment and pick your learned brain.
    This happens to people in nearly all professions (with the exception of pooper scoopers).
    Be the consumate professional you are, rise above the teeming masses….or go out on the deck with a big glass of wine…
    There are a lot of things I’m not, a writer is just one of them.

  • Kel Link

    Hilarious! I work in development and am thrilled to be told (often!) how so-and-so just made over $500 at a bakesale!! Whee! The exclamation points are for the benfit of the writer in my office who will surely check your site before the day is out. As I have learned, exclamation points drive real writers batty.

    Perhaps the new writer was unaware of your recent dental dilemas and thus confused you for someone with patience to spare.

  • Cindy A Link

    “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
    — Gene Fowler (1890-1960) —

  • Ah, I needed this today. Thanks for making me laugh, Ruth. I’m with NoPotCooking, writing = relaxing? Not in my experience. Especially. Not. Today. LONG day…

  • Well of course she can write. She’s probably been to third grade. If she quite at first she would only be a printer.

  • If you’re just writing in a journal for yourself, I can see how it could be relaxing. But if you’re trying to sell your writing? Not so much. There’s the rejections, which you allude to in the humility comment, the editors who email inane questions over the weekend and expect an immediate answer, the prima donna sources who apparently want to be interviewed but don’t return phone calls, the self-doubt when you hear your inner editor ripping your writing to shreds before it even makes it onto the page. Still, I’ve found that few things are as satisfying despite all the stresses. It just takes a lot of work to get to those moments of satisfaction and they’re often short-lived when you get a nasty comment or an editor rewrites your carefully crafted intro.

  • Do I here a big Amen?! Your post made me laugh but I know so well of what you speaketh. People who think writing is casual fun have no idea the work involved.

  • Craig Link

    Telling Ruth to lighten up is akin to telling Molly Ivins to be serious.
    I guess it would have been possible, but who would have wanted to read it.
    I are a writer too.

  • I don’t much like talking about writing either, but I think you are a bit hard. Also, I think your friend Elizabeth is not quite getting the point. I don’t think, for example, anyone ever did serious harm with an inappropriate nominative, but I guess a brain snick in the wrong place might mess up everyone’s weekend plans.

  • My husband went to art school for animation and swears to me that anyone can learn how to draw. They just have to decide to do it and then apply themselves to the task everyday for 5-10 years, depending on natural talent. I can’t help but think this applies to writers as well.

    On the other hand, it stings a bit to read this, as I was a late bloomer. Since I was 13, I wanted to be a writer, but it took me until I was 31 to actually try it. I’ve been writing full-time for three years, and I’d say your five year rule is a good one. I’m almost skilled enough to recognize all the many ways I am not.

  • Ruth, I have always admired people who could put thoughts, feelings, experiences into words, sentences, books. I think not everyone has that gift, skill, desire and just because you write someting down, does not mean it is any good, or that anyone would want to read it. I have horrible grammer, spelling and puncuation, and yet I embarass myself when I blog because it is a need of mine. For me, it is something that I have to do, but not something that I am good at. You are someone who knows good stuff from paper filler and cares about it. You my superstar blog friend are a Writer damn it, not someone who writes. Thanks for your thoughts, your books, your passion, and you. And because I am not a writer, none of this was stated correctly, but I hope my heart shows thru with admiration for your work and you.

  • Sheryl Link

    Relaxing? Fun? Um, no. Let her give it some time and then repeat those same words (I have a feeling they’ll be preceded by the ‘F’ word).

  • Arlene Link

    I once read an article that described how several very well-known authors felt about writing. (It was years ago, so sorry I can’t be more specific.) About half the writers indicated that they found writing easy and enjoyable, and about half found it hard and stressful. I was familiar with work from both groups, and it’s some of the best.

    If an amateur describing herself as a writer ticks you off, I suggest asking them about their publisher.

  • Writing – relaxing? Not for me. Thanks for the laugh, Ruth.

  • Merr Link

    Indeed! I saw this and tweeted because you hit the nail on the head. Do you even think that people stand around and talk to doctors and say this kind of stuff?? Geez. But you made me smile, Ruth.

  • Journaling can be relaxing…the dumping of words swirling in our brains to be emptied on the page. Writing…not so much.

    Glad you left with your Southern Charm intact.

  • From one Southern writer to another, I totally get this. Thank you Ruth!

  • Off the subject of hobbyist writers… though my mother has never (to my knowledge) apologized to a tree, she did mistake a mannequin for a real person once and said “excuse me” to its plastic face. Oh, mom. So polite.

  • Everybody has a story. But not everybody can’t write. This I believe.

  • I also have mixed feelings, in that writing is definitely hard work. However, I love the process of creating. For me writing is like doing pottery on the wheel. I found it hard but oh, so rewarding. And sometimes surprised by the results.

  • “I could hardly be polite.”

    Now THAT is the greatest challenge one faces. And, sadly, so few succeed. I get through it by envisioning banana peels strewn along the paths of any adversaries of my Southern ingrained politeness. I smile through my blue eyes until I can make my cheerful escape. Sometimes I feel I’m trying to plug a leak in the dike to save Amsterdam. I root for myself by inwardly chanting, “Bend like the wheat! Bend like the wheat! This storm shall pass! This storm shall pass! Rah! Rah! Rah!” Utterly draining yet successful. My applause for your victories– and for desiring to be victorious. Some friends have likened my quest to be polite to being a doormat. If so, then I want to be the BEST doormat in town! I couldn’t live with me if I weren’t.

  • I am jealous of writers. I wish I could write.
    I am a lawyer. I often run into people who think that they know all about the law. The television shows have made them feel as though they have been through law school and passed the bar.
    Sometimes I am not polite.

  • I’ve often said that parents think they’re experts on education because they went to school. Writers often get the same attitudes. But I have to say that as someone who fell into writing without a degree and little formal training, I’m grateful for the established writers who gave me advice, encouraged me and otherwise let me know that I could do this.

    Still, it’s pretty easy to spot a hobbyist. And it’s pretty darned annoying when they don’t understand that this is real work for some of us.


  • Just saw the typo in my comment (some writer!). I mean to say: Everybody has a story. Not everybody CAN write. This I believe.

Leave a Comment