I am not a writer: NM Browne

I don’t know about you, but when people ask me what I do, I am always a bit uncomfortable
admitting to being a writer. I don’t think I look like a writer, or, at any rate, people are always surprised. Maybe a writer should be taller or younger or generally more like the glamorous members of the photogenic intelligentsia that grace the flyleaf of the better class of hardbacks. Maybe a writer should be a more engaging conversationalist who exudes high order empathy and drips bon mots. Maybe it isn’t either of those and my interlocutor is simply worried that they have failed to recognise someone they feel they should know. I sip my drink and brace myself. I know what they are going to ask next. ‘So should I have heard of you?’ This is almost always said in the tone of voice that suggests they already know that is unlikely. They look me up and down, take in the stray greys around my ears, that slightly wonky lipstick, the ill-advised footwear and guess my answer. I shrug and laugh and reassure them that no, I am not a household name. ‘Will I have read any of your books?’ Once more I am obliged to confess that, as I am obviously something of a failure at my chosen profession, they are very unlikely to have read anything of mine either. It isn’t surprising, given that I have presented myself as pretty much a washout in terms of career success, that they feel obliged to share with me their own literary near miss.  They have a brilliant idea for an original novel which would inevitably be extremely successful if only they had been able to find the kind of spare time with which I have obviously been blessed (and which I have patently misused.) I keep smiling. I know they are trying to keep a dying conversation alive in the interest of politeness, so I respond in kind and ask them about their brilliant and original concept. (I have been at the wrong end of this conversation enough times to suspect that brilliant and original concepts are in fact in much shorter supply than people believe.) They always tell me. It usually takes a while. I take a deep draught of my drink and start seeking a suitable exit strategy. Surely I have received an urgent text, am moved by an urgent call of nature, something, anything. I fail to come up with a convincing reason to escape and it is at this exact moment that my questioner, moved by pity and an admirable spirit of convivial generosity, convinced that not only am I an abject loser but probably an alcoholic to boot, leans forward conspiratorially and offers me an opportunity of a lifetime. If I write up their brilliant and original concept they are prepared to go halves on the income from the resultant best seller. ‘That sounds amazing,’ I say and bite back my observation that, although I think it is probably true that everyone has a book in them, there are good reasons why some of those potential books should probably stay where they are, locked in the cerebellum, heart or perhaps back passage of their hosts.
 I know It could be much worse, I could be a doctor or a plumber and be obliged to make instant diagnoses on the state of someone’s health or boiler system over a glass of warm Chardonnay at a drink’s party. Indeed, given my general ill temper, I should be grateful that anyone bothers inviting me to a party at all. Nonetheless, next time someone asks me what I do I think I might say I am a trainee typist, coffee taster and reading therapist. It might make for more interesting conversations.


JO said…
Even the question 'what do you do?' makes me bristle - as if we are defined by the labels that come with work. If I'm feeling charitable I might list some of the things I love doing, like travelling and writing and reading. If not, I will mumble and move away and find someone more interesting to talk to!
Andrew Crofts said…
Whenever anyone offers me a half share of their great idea I always respond that I would love to but unfortunately I am not in a position to take on any speculative projects just at the moment. If, however, they would like to pay a fee .... a suggested figure of £100k usually moves the conversation forward.

Questions with which to start conversations with strangers are always tricky. "What do you do?" may be a cliche but if responded to with good will it can at least get Pandora's box open and lead to other topics.
Nicky said…

Yes - I am frankly grateful that anyone bother talking to me at all. But why must we be famous to be interesting? I always feel that I've let my questioner down why they've never heard of me and I wouldn't feel like that if I was a plumber (though I'd probably care less as at least I'd be rich!)
Bill Kirton said…
I've had both the writer and the doctor treatment, the latter when I was a lecturer. I was also the warden of a Hall of Residence where, during the long vacation, SAGA parties came to stay. I was on duty one day, so my name DR KIRTON (the DR thanks to my thesis on the theatre of Victor Hugo) was displayed in the foyer. A man asked me where he could find this Dr Kirton and when I said he'd found him, I was overwhelmed by far more information about his urinary tract and its problems than I wanted to hear. My protestations that I wasn't 'that kind of doctor' were brushed aside because he was so desperate for me to write him a prescription for the medications he'd forgotten to bring. I suppose, as a writer, that I could have obliged but the pharmacy probably didn't stock the items I might have recommended.
Susan Price said…
Bill, that made me laugh out loud! - And Andrew, that's useful advice about the suggested fee of £100,000 I've made a mental note.
Spot on, Nicky! I've had the conversation you describe far too often. It has an alternative ending, I find: the suggestion that you should read their book, edit and persuade your publisher to publish it.
Decades ago, I started answering, 'What do you do?' with, 'I work with a word-processor.' This guarantees an immediate loss of interest in anything to do with me and I can listen to other people talk about what they do, which I much prefer.
Enid Richemont said…
I've encountered all of these remarks, as have we all. "Should I have heard of you?" can be painful when so much of your work's gone out of print. The one you didn't quote, although I'm sure you've met it, is the response to: "I write for children and Young Adults", which is so often followed by: "Oh that must be fun." This, after sweating blood over a picture book text or a Y/A novel sometimes makes me want to reach for my non-lethal gun.
Sandra Horn said…
Oh yes! Oh yes! Been there. The trouble is, nothing makes me feel better about myself than being able to say, 'I'm a writer.' I'm so proud to be able to say it... I have considered responding to 'Should I have heard of you?' with a withering look and a murmured,'I should think that's highly unlikely.' in a snotty-superior voice. I wish I had the bottle.
julia jones said…
Well Nicky when I had the pleasure of meeting you at a party it was a sheer delight - but I can't help remembering that I might just have mentioned my ... brilliant and original concept?

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