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Prophets Without Honor: Explaining to Your Family that Writing Is a Real Job!
by Moira Allen
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Sometimes people will say "Oh, are you still writing recipes then?" As if that's the only thing I do. And then I don't know how to answer them. Do I just say: "Yes." Or do I say, "Well actually I'm working on two books at the moment, have X number of articles published this month and have been offered a new copywriting job?"
Would that sound like boasting? I'm in a real predicament here. Do I just accept that for many people writing will never been seen as a job, smile and say 'yes' whenever people ask me if I'm still doing that writing thing? Or should I blow my own trumpet about my writing career? How do you deal with it?
The issue Dawn raised is one that I'm sure a great many of us have experienced, and wonder how to handle. Nor is the answer always straightforward, as many of us may also have discovered.
Why is it so hard to convince our family and friends that our writing is "serious business" rather than just a hobby or a passing phase? For starters, I suspect that many of us, without realizing it, are suffering from the "prophet without honor" syndrome. This comes from the passage in Matthew (Matt 5:55-56) in which Jesus is preaching in his hometown. His listeners begin to mutter, "Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren't all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?"
In other words, prophets (and writers) are generally regarded as extraordinary people. They are exalted, special, unusual, possibly rare and strange. They are not like you and I; they don't dwell upon the same plane. Conversely, our nearest and dearest (like Jesus' friends and townsfolk) know exactly how ordinary we are; they know that you and I are, in fact, just like you and I. We're not different or exalted; the air doesn't shimmer around us as we speak. Our families "knew us when;" as my mother-in-law often sighs when my husband tries to explain some aspect of his job, "I remember him in his blue pajamas."
It's hard to be impressed by someone that you keep visualizing in blue pajamas! I suspect that our families can't even imagine "real writers" as ever having worn blue pajamas. It's hard to imagine a Great Author like Stephen King cleaning up cat puke, or perhaps standing in front of the open refrigerator drinking milk from the carton. But our families have seen us doing things every bit as mundane and humdrum. They know where we live, and how often we dust the furniture; they know what we drive and how rarely we clean out the back seat; they know what we wear, what we eat, and how often we belch.
In short, there can be a vast disconnect between your nonwriting relatives' view of "A Real Writer" (extraordinary, exalted, not like one of us) and "my sister who writes" (who, her?). They simply can't make the mental leap between the kid in blue pajamas and the next Stephen King. My brother-in-law, for example, occasionally tries to "compliment" me on my writing: When reading my holiday newsletter, he will invariably turn to me, put on a huge condescending smile, and exclaim, "You know, you write very well, young lady!" I think he imagines that I'm just going to melt into a puddle of gratitude at the praise. Instead, I have to fight the urge to smack him!
But then, perhaps one reason I want to smack him is because, so far as I know, the holiday newsletter is the only thing of mine he has ever read -- and he's not the only member of my family who hasn't bothered to crack the cover of one of my books. And this may be another cause for the lack of "honor" we find in our "hometown."
Most of us who write are also readers -- often avid, voracious readers. We love to be swept away in a good book -- and as writers, we understand how much effort goes into creating that book. We feel a certain respect, if not awe, toward our own favorite authors, for even though we know that they, too, probably have to clean up the cat puke, we also know what it takes to do what they do. In short, as readers, we admire writers, because we understand what it takes to be a writer.
But what if your family and friends aren't readers? A friend once came to my home and stared in awe, or perhaps horror, at our floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. "You don't actually read all those books, do you?" she asked. I felt like replying, "Um, no, we just keep them for insulation." I knew that an honest answer -- yes, we've read many of them, and we've kept others for reference, and there are others that we haven't read yet but will someday -- wouldn't have made any sense to her. And I wonder what she would have thought if she could have seen a pile of all the books that we have read over the years.
But if a person doesn't regard books, or reading, as a particularly important or worthwhile activity, then that person isn't likely to regard writing as a particularly important or worthwhile occupation. If a person thinks of books as oddities, things that appeal only to four-eyed nerds, then the fact that you write them isn't going to cut any ice in your household. You're going to get about the same reaction you'd be likely to get if you introduced your latest boyfriend, the tattoo artist -- an occupation I confess to having held in some degree of scorn until I realized that, whatever I may think of tattooing, "artist" is indeed the operative term.
Whether our nearest and dearest are readers or nonreaders, however, yet another issue many of us face is the question of what we write. Whenever I tell someone that I'm a writer, almost invariably the first question out of their mouths is "Oh, what books have you written?" By that, of course, they mean "what famous novels have you written that I might have read?" -- because in my case, replying with titles like Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer just causes peoples' eyes to glaze over. And if you don't write books at all -- if, instead, you must humbly admit, "Actually, I write articles for magazines," you can actually see the person's expression change as your status is downgraded from "possibly slightly important" to "oh, a nobody." I've had a few people valiantly press on with a question like "Oh, you mean like Woman's Day or Family Circle?" At this point, I know it's time to change the subject.
And that, of course, brings up the money issue. While most of our relatives aren't tactless enough to ask how much we're actually earning as writers (though some may!), most also know that our "scratchings and scribblings" probably aren't keeping the roof over our heads or the food on the table. Sadly, to most families, a "real" job is one that involves a steady paycheck. And so, by definition, we don't have "real" jobs -- not like our sister the psychiatrist or our brother the auto mechanic. Anything else is just a hobby, or worse, a childish game -- and sadly, many of us have families that are wondering when we are going to give up the games and grow up.
Finally, there is one sad dichotomy about being a writer, and that is that no matter how exciting our writing may be, our real lives tend to be monumentally boring. Very few of us have actually ridden dragons, danced with elves, or been abducted by a stunningly handsome 14th-century Scottish Highlander. (If you have, please don't tell me about it. I really, really don't want to know.) So if someone asks us to "tell us how the writing is going," what can we say? "Um, well, it's going. Fine. How was your day?"
Even my brother-in-law can manage to come up with some mildly amusing job-related stories involving inventories and airplane parts (he works for Boeing). My sister, a university professor, can keep us in stitches with accounts of some of the answers her students give to history test questions. But my work day, like that of most writers, involves... um... mumble, mumble... typing. And more typing. And quite a lot of staring at the screen and not typing. Oh, yeah, and surfing. (The next time someone asks me, "Where do you get your ideas?" I'm going to say, "Oh, I just do a Google search for them.") Since most writers work at home, we can't even come up with funny stories about our coworkers, unless you count the cats. ("Hey, just yesterday, Tabitha tried to knock the lamp off my computer desk again; isn't she a scream?") It's hard to impress people with what we "do" for a living when it doesn't sound as if we actually do much of anything!
So what can we do about this lack of honor? First, we can recognize that some things are never going to change. Families always manage to find something to disapprove of, whether it's the fact that you're not married yet or haven't given your parents grandchildren or don't earn as much as your siblings. Second, we can accept that, just as with any other profession, no one really understands what a writer does except another writer; after all, is anyone really that interested in hearing your brother talk about transmissions or your sister discuss how to conduct an appendectomy?
Third, we can become a bit more proactive. Instead of just telling our family, "I sold two articles last month," make copies of your latest publications and send them to everyone. Send out your own holiday newsletter and make sure that it trumpets your successes. Send out postcards of your book covers. Casually mention how many hits your name gets these days on a Google search.
Finally, and perhaps most important, we may need to realize that what our families say to US and what they say to others may be two very different things. My own family is, again, a good example. My niece is a very talented artist (you can check out her work at http://www.monasmurals.com/), yet I've never heard her mother actually praise her to her face. However, when talking about her to someone else (when she's not present), her mother praises her talent to the skies. I won't even try to get into the family dynamic there (let's just say it could be healthier), but the point is: Even when our families don't seem to give us the respect for our work that we think we deserve, they may actually be a lot prouder of us than we realize.
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.