It’s only happened maybe a few times outside of school when a simple and seemingly harmless question has caught me off guard. No one thinks much of asking it but when they say it aloud it’s like they’ve hit a pause switch in my head and I all but stutter, stunned into awkward silence where suddenly I have no idea how to talk or form a thought. I make noises but they’re only half-syllables, each of my trains of thought deserting me on an empty set of broken tracks.
The person blinks at me, weirded out by my odd reaction. The question was simple enough:
So what is your story about?
Yes, it is a simple question. It’s a question every writer should expect to be asked when they say they write, and it has different forms, too; what do you write about? What genre do you love to write? What was your last project about? Why do you write that stuff?
The words twist my tongue into an unsolvable knot and my brain flatlines entirely. I don’t know why this question is so awkward, so intrusive, as if the unknowing inquisitor has asked to read my diary page about losing my virginity but I know several writers who dread being asked. I have not met one writer who doesn’t cringe when expected to talk about their writing or talk about a story they’ve created.
Another writer had asked me this question and I did the process described above. Another friend (unsure if he writes as well but he seems knowledgeable of the paralyzing power of the question) cried out, “NO! You never ask a writer that! You’re freaking her out!”
Indeed, the damage was done and I had internally freaked without realizing it or being able to stop myself.
It’s like a mind-convulsing panic attack with a dash of sour anxiety sprinkled atop.
I don’t mind telling people about my writing. I suppose it just feels like I’m being held at gunpoint to explain my entire novel, my entire portfolio, in a blurb, trying to impossibly fit everything into a simple few-worded answer. It boils down to that the curious person doesn’t understand the multitude of the floodgate they have just unlocked; I don’t just write this one simple thing, I write many things with many subtexts woven in! I don’t write only horror stories, but I indulge in fantasy writings. Even some fantasy writings aren’t just fantasy, I also dabble into surrealistic musings! It’s one river forking into another, all feeding into the sea of my entire writing embodiment! Fluidly flowing from one project to the next, all connected by small details or themes that play central roles to my variety of characters/settings.
See, even that explanation there is a bit hectic and that’s me putting it down in a calm manner. There is no way to be calm about it; this is my mental process. It’s crazy, it’s sometimes a little incoherent to anyone but me as if I can hear voices in my head in a language only I can understand and interpret. There’s no way for me to map anything out without coming off a bit unhinged, therefore, I’m nervous to even try.
There’s the simpler reasons, too, why this question is so pointed and uncomfortable, like a ready arrowhead pressed to our jugular, its stem pulled back in the ready, taut string of a bow. To reveal what we write is to reveal ourselves; we can be deciphered and judged by what we choose to think about, create, and then commit to electronic/hardcopy paper. After all, what does the general reader think about people who read/write about serial killers? If they go into fairly creative detail, one may get thoughts that the writer might have experience with some of the heinous things they’re writing bout. What kind of a person would enjoy reading/writing such horrible things?
FYI I love reading and studying about serial killers and every time the news talks about a murderer who also loved studying the same topics I’m always nervous that I will be pegged for a would-be murderer. Anyone else a huge fan of the Mindhunter series on Netflix? Oh my god, how amazing was the actor who portrayed Ed Kemper?
Putting it simply, showing what we love to write reveals what we are passionate about, which is a sensitive part of ourselves to show for judgement and the possibility of rejection/acceptance. It’s a bit hard when someone says “Oh you write horror stories? I don’t really like scary stuff that much.” It’s a little pinch at my ego, like “Oh? Okay. That’s fine. It’s just…what I like. But okay.”
Writers want to be heard so we want our work to be read. For a lot of us, it’s hard enough connecting to the general population. As introverted as I am, it’s difficult to let myself to put into social situations and not feel like people have snubbed me before they’even said hi to me or vice versa. My writing is precious, as awful as it is before I edit the hell out of it, and it’s nerve-wracking to try to talk it up when I’d rather it speak for itself.
So perhaps, general public, instead of asking us “what is your story about” perhaps just say “can I read it” or “do you have a copy I can have?” Trust me, it’s a lot friendlier, more supportive, and you’ll understand what the writer is pouring their mind, emotions, and soul into all at once, like a wordy cocktail served directly from the word-tender themselves (yes, a bad metaphor, just roll with me). It’s easier for everyone and it helps the writer feel they have an audience. Give it a try! And writers, perhaps do the same for a writer friend.
Until then, keep writing and be careful what you ask a writer!