If you’re anything like me, making small talk with strangers is high on your list of least favorite things, just below unpacking groceries and losing a limb. Most people don’t have a lot of trouble making meaningless chit-chat, but then again, most people aren’t socially anxious writers like myself. Even if I wasn’t socially anxious, I’d still be a writer, and therein lies the crux of my small-talk impairment.
Say you’re at a party, bar, or a very boring orgy and someone asks you, “What do you do?” Most of the time the questioner is trying to determine how you make a living, your hobbies, interests, etcetera. Most people can reply with, “I’m a teacher,” “I work for a PR firm,” or “I find money on the ground.” Any of these and countless other responses are perfectly acceptable, and will barely create a blip on the questioner’s conversational radar. However, when writers answer this question, the questioner’s nostrils expand, their pupils dilate, and in some cases, salivation has been known to occur; in short, they smell easy conversational prey, and are ready to put you (the writer) on the defensive.
I suspect a lot of this reaction has to do with stereotypes surrounding writers and those who claim to be one. Whether accurately or not, writers are often thought of as arrogant, lazy, and socially awkward. In addition, many people seem to think that writers spend most of their day doing anything but writing. After all, anyone can be a writer, can’t they? Who really needs to work all day for several months to finish writing a book? I mean, seriously.
It seems unlikely that the hoi polloi will realize what exactly writers really do any time soon. Taking this into consideration, I propose that writers embrace this lack of understanding about their situation. I’m not suggesting writers should perpetuate these stereotypes, but instead should use this lack of understanding to create an air of mystery and exoticism about the profession and themselves.
Allow me to elaborate.
Let’s say you’re a writer at that party, bar, or boring orgy and someone just asked you, “What do you do?” My first choice of response is, “Lie, fabricate, and exaggerate.” When the questioner becomes confused and disoriented, you can explain with a simple, “I’m a writer.” Their eyes will light up with excitement, and they’ll be thinking, “Wow, a real-life writer! And so clever!” That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. You’ve made yourself, and by extension all writers, seem more interesting, dangerous, and outrageously clever.
Some of you may be thinking that this response is only suitable for fiction writers. Poppycock, I say. Regardless of what genre you claim to write, if you can’t admit you frequently lie, make things up, and grossly exaggerate in all of your writing, you’re either a liar or just an awful writer who doesn’t know any better.
Another response that’s almost as good as the first requires an alcoholic beverage of some sort. When asked “What do you do?” you can hold up your adult beverage of choice and say, “I’m a writer and I drink a lot about it.” To be fair, I stole this line from a female rapper from Minnesota, but not many people have heard of her, so feel free to use it early and often. Like the above response, this simple quip makes you seem exotic, worldly, and sophisticated, with the added bonus of possible alcoholism.
Granted, many of you probably aren’t excited about being perceived as an alcoholic, but this is another stereotype sooner or later applied to all writers, particularly those of the American persuasion. Think Hemingway, Poe, Fitzgerald, Thompson, Frost, Cheever, Carver. Should I keep going? Heavy drinking has long been associated with American writers, and this response acknowledges this storied tradition while also winking slyly. If you don’t already know how, sly winking is an enormously useful skill all writers should acquire post-haste.
Once you’ve employed either of these responses successfully, the next question invariably is, “What sort of stuff do you write?” The absolute best response to this for all writers is, “Words, mostly.” “Ahh,” the questioner thinks. “This writer is even cleverer than I thought! I wonder what he/she means by ‘mostly…’” At this point, you are free to revel in your questioner’s curiosity. Your response has made their question seem remarkably stupid (what else is a writer going to write, cupcakes?), while also discouraging any further questioning about your profession. Now it’s your turn to ask, “What do you do?” and I encourage you to pounce with your claws out.
-The Infinite Guest