Answering Questions About Your Writing Career (Cocktail Party Edition)
I expect that if you’re a working writer — one who actually makes a living by selling words, that is — you’re also at least dabbling with alcoholism. No? Keep telling yourself that.
So you’re likely to end up doing some form of small talk over drinks on a regular basis. That means being able to do the “so I’m a writer…” routine with aplomb — and with a drink in your hand. Are you prepared?
The Question: So what do you do for a living?
Interpreting the Question: This is a default question in social settings. It doesn’t come from a particular desire to know what you do with your life; it comes from a desire to not be that awkward guest who can’t think of anything to say. Your answer should be short, factual, and leave the door open to more questions if the conversation needs to last a little longer, so don’t provide any more detail than you have to.
- I’m a writer.
- I’m a novelist.
- I’m a freelance writer.
- I write children’s books about fairies and talking bears.
- I publish novels, but you couldn’t really call them “novels” as such, since I’m diversifying prose structures to deconstruct the concept of text as linear.
- Actually, I’m a serial killer. Ha ha ha.
Oh, what do you write?
Interpreting the Question: If you’ve properly answered the first question this is very likely to be the second. But don’t get too enthusiastic — you’re still in the realm of the one-sentence answer here (or two very short ones I suppose). Most people, in asking this question, are hoping for an answer they’re vaguely familiar with so that they can say “Oh, just like so-and-so” or “Have you read this thing that’s sort of like that?”
- Well, I write YA novels. Like Twilight, you know?
- Freelance articles, mostly for cooking magazines.
- I’m keeping a blog up while I work on finding an agent for my first novel.
- My next novel is about a fairy child who can talk to bears, but realizes that they don’t have anything interesting to say.
- I wish I had an easy answer for that. I write all sorts of things, you know?
- Humor for the internet. Want to hear a good dick joke? Ha ha ha.
So sort of like [example]?
This is a desperation question. People ask it when they have no way of relating what you do to their life at all and are desperate to convince themselves that you’re not a total weirdo and/or they’re not completely ignorant. Throw them a bone.
- Yes, sort of.
That’s fascinating. How did you ever get into that?
Interpreting the Question: This is one where tone of voice can be important. Some people will sound almost envious when they ask it; others openly mocking. You’re allowed to be a little more flippant with the latter. But remember — at least the pretense of sincerity is necessary for polite society! Your ideal answer should be a little tongue-in-cheek but still be believable. Extra points if it’s clearly a lie but just far enough within possibility that they can’t dismiss it outright.
- Truth be told, I just never wanted to have to wear a tie.
- Well, it seemed like as good a way as any to put my English degree to work. I don’t actually like school, so another useless dregree was out!
- I’d always been interested in [the subject you write on], but not actually very good at it. This seemed like a good way to stay involved.
- I was actually going to be a professional wrestler, but the prize for one of the amateur-league tournaments was a three-week writing camp and I’ve never looked back.
- It seemed the easiest way to get disgustingly rich for no effort. I just dress like this because I want to, you know.
- My ex left the draft of her first novel in the dresser when she left me, and I published it under my name. Now I’m just keeping appearances up.
Does it pay well?
People asking this are often — but not always — looking to score some cheap points off you. Of course it doesn’t pay well. But humor them along with something that suggests their impression might just be mistaken. Just stay within the believable reality of what you’re wearing and the car you arrived in.
- Enough to get by on. But hey, it beats a real job, right?
- You know, I was surprised. I haven’t had to live on ramen for at least a few paychecks.
- I could probably make more doing something else, but it’s the life I want, you know?
- Terribly. I had to sell the second Porsche to a friend when the royalty check was smaller than expected.
- Probably not as well as your job — no matter what that is.
- It would keep me in beer money if I weren’t an alcoholic. Ha ha ha.
You’re now ready. Accept that black-tie invitation with aplomb. But take a trip back through the blog archives and read the series on The Well-Dressed Writer first!