Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Peculiar things people sometimes say to a writer--

Preparatory art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins 
for Glimmerglass
That is, to this writer--

"I never read anything written after 1900." (Later on the same neighborhood man read one my novels and declared that he loved it, so maybe he was exaggerating.)

"I never read novels. Can't do it." (Another guy in my neighborhood. Twice. With accompanying head shakes. I'm still wondering if he forgets to what I have devoted my life.)

"Why don't you write something like Stephen King?" (Evidently we all want to sound exactly the same, we writers!)

"Why don't you write something that makes a lot of money?" (Oddly, we don't all have the bestseller gene and the desire to write about alluring vampires or some carbon copy of the latest book-to-movie trilogy or anything that puts money ahead of truth and beauty and well-made sentences--not that the good bestseller doesn't exist, just that it's not the norm. And all that said, we don't object to being paid.)

"Would I have heard of you?" (General mortification abounds.)

"What does the world need with another poem?" (Your answer here. This one came as a tease from a colleague, and it stopped me from poems for a year, during which I began writing fiction. So maybe it was a blessing.)

"Where do you get your ideas?" (I can't say that I get them from the fount at the end of the world and time, or they'll think I'm mad. But that's a better answer than most.)

"What are your books about?" (Read them, and you'll know! My 12th and 13th books are forthcoming, and I look back and see that my books are all as different from one another as rutabagas from fox kits.)

"How can I find an agent?" (I have no idea. Both of my agents asked, one through my first publisher, the other after Louis Rubin suggested my name. But some people ask this so very immediately!)

"Do people read poetry anymore?" (You. Tell. Me.)

Some more via responses to this post on twitter and facebook--

A familiar addition from poet Julie Brooks Barbour via a twitter response: "My favorite: Could you tell me how to get my novel published?" She posted a similar one in the comments with a funny remark.

From writer Gary M Dietz: 1. Your book is on an Amazon list. You must be rich! 2. On (multiple) job interviews "So, you are an author. Why do you want to this job?" (Maybe because my net income from my book is negative!) 3. How many words per minute can you type?

Here's a favorite one, via facebook:  "I don't tell folks I'm a writer. I tell them I'm an astrologer. But it doesn't help. They still say peculiar things" (John P. O'Grady.)

See the comments for more, including some peculiar things people sometimes say to a visual artist...

I am going to have to do a roundup of similar remarks from painter friends, I guess! I think this topic falls into the "weirdly fascinating" category.

29 comments:

  1. Quite the list!

    "Why don't you write something like Stephen King?" This reminds me of someone who said to me "why don't you paint flowers, they are so much prettier?"

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    1. I've heard remarks like that, too! In fact, I think a painter friend has quoted almost the same thing...

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  2. I've heard so many on this list! Glad to know I'm not alone.

    One that I always get is "I'd like to talk to you about publishing my novel." I have very little advice to give, as I'm a poet.

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    1. We just go around with a little sign over our heads, WRITER. Covers all ground, evidently!

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  3. I am starting to understand how God feels when we ask him the wrong questions while hoping to get an answer to what we've asked. The comments that you posted, Marly, of course reveal ignorance, coupled with indifference to the nth degree. It is astounding that people truly expect a reasonable answer to the unreasonable things that they say.

    I especially am frustrated by the question, "What are your books about?" Could this come from the same persons who say that they don't read novels? Or, and, from people who say, "What does the world need with another poem?" ?

    I have been asked, "What style of art do you do?" Because I'd rather show than tell, I send them to my web site. Ironically, I thought that since I am always that verbal, it would be easier that way. Evidently, you sometimes suffer foolishness from the certifiably non-initiated too.

    YO

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    1. I meant not that verbal!.....

      YO

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    2. The good thing is that when you start to collect the comments in a mass, they become funny--and I admit that I have probably said stupid things to doctors, lawyers, oddball professionals, etc. But books ought to be part of our shared culture... The comments can be--experienced in real time, rather than aggregated for humor--quite startling and sometimes depressing.

      I find "what are your books about" very difficult, as I'm not at all the sort of writer who does the same thing over and over.

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  4. After a reading, some well meaning person came up to me and said,"Are you a real writer?" (Heavy emphasis on the REAL) I wanted to say, "No. I'm a turnip."

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    1. Oh, that's a good one! Going to have to collate all the comments from various sites for a post some time. How does one become a REAL writer, according to that person's definition? And was he/she attempting to be amusing?

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  5. Do not despair. Flannery O'Connor was badgered by family and friends in Milledgeville: "Why can't you write something nice like another Gone With The Wind?" And I am badgered by my wife: "You read the oddest things!"

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    1. "Something nice." Nice. Thank goodness you read the "odd" stuff.

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    2. I suspect O'Connor savored the irony of "nice." I savor the irony of my wife's description: "odd." Unintentional irony is delicious!

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  6. I get asked, "Why don't you write something I'd like?"

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  7. I have a former colleague who keeps nagging me to stop dabbling in poetry and translation because he wants to me to write, essentially, another book exactly like the mass-market nonfiction book I published in 2006. I think he means it as a compliment, but this is what it must feel like to be a musician whose fans only want to hear his one hit song from thirty years ago...

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  8. When I tell someone I'm a book designer they generally ask: "Have you designed anything I would have read?" To which I reply: "I don't know. Do you read?"

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    1. That works for a writer too, doesn't it? I'll have to pilfer it!

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    2. MFB . . . I would also imagine they are wondering, "What is a book designer? Well, I'm not going to ask."

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    3. Pilfer away. I am confident I'm not the first to say it!

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  9. I haven't yet collected many such comments in my own writer's ear canal, but I'm sure I've heard several times: "Why do you have to write about such depressing things?"

    As to "I don't read books written after 1900" -- I've always considered that comment apocryphal--never heard a real person say so. After all, why stop at 1900? Why not 1800? Why not 2000? (We must travel in different realms.)

    I'm saving "I get my ideas from the fount at the end of the world and time," for when I DO get asked that question. That is the best answer I've ever heard. I suspect that's where stories really do come from.

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    1. Alisa,

      Thanks! I'm glad you don't think it an insane answer! XD

      The 1900 comment came from a scholar of James Fenimore Cooper.

      Yes, Ms. Alisa, why can't you be cheerful and wear more pink? ;)

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  10. Cool post, i like that very much.

    Should become a writer just for that

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    1. Well, you do write, don't you? But if you didn't... glad to provide motivation!

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  11. There's a great couple lines in Reds, when Maureen Stapleton/emma goldman character first meets diane keaton/louise bryant; she asks her 'what she writes about,' and diane keaton says something like, "...oh a bit of everything..." Maureen stapleton is astounded and says something like, "Hold up, yo, did she just say she 'WRITES ABOUT EVERYTHING?" God that is so hilarious and brilliant, and somehow conveys perfectly the new deeper world she had entered but hadn't realized until receiving that response.

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    1. That's good, but... How come some people can remember details about movies, and I can't? I'll have to remember that response!

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  12. The odd thing is that I've asked many of these questions of myself - but at least not of someone else. Most often, perhaps: What is this !*!** book about? Are you a real writer? Why can't you write like XYZ?

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    1. Hah. Should do a post on peculiar doubts of the "real writer"--that would turn up some interesting questions.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.