Saturday, June 5, 2010

Handling Awkward Questions

Over at Miss Snark's blog she asked her readers how they handle questions from friends and family about the publishing process. So often family does not understand the arcane rules, or the slow progress and poor pay.

I'm blessed with a supportive circle of family and friends, but all writers, at some time, find themselves in an awkward conversation with somebody who doesn't get it. Sometimes these people are intentionally trying to make you uncomfortable. They may be sneaky about it, and butter you up with compliments and then hit you with a low blow. "So if you're so good at short stories, why haven't you published a book yet?" or "Why haven't I heard of you?" Even people who don't intend it can make you feel awkward.

To handle this, you need aplomb. (I've been told not everybody knows what "aplomb" means. Most people mean keeping your composure, but it comes from the idea of stability. It's related to the concept of tools like plumbobs or plumlines - something that stays straight and true no matter how skewed everything else gets.)

How do you gain the aplomb to handle these awkward moments?

I really recommend working with children. I worked on a playground for years, and the questions kids ask are always unexpected, and often awkward. Kids will test your boundaries. They also have a lot of things they don't understand that grown ups haven't taught them yet. ("Why are you fat?" "What's a freckle made of?" "Why are you doing that?")

Writers who are parents already get this, but those who aren't may want to do some volunteer work, maybe staffing an information booth, or as a greeter at the gate. (Even better is a wrangler position - if you have authority, kids will challenge it.) Of course, any situation where you are supposed to be helpful to the public all day - even when it's grownups - will help you achieve some of that grace under pressure.

At the very least you can pretend you are facing a classroom full of very bright, very rude children whenever you rehearse your answers to questions before a conference. As all children know, pretend is a great learning tool.


Hart Johnson said...

I can very quickly get on board with treating my relatives like they are children. *snicker* (I know that's not EXACTLY what you meant)

My family largely acts like I'm delusional. I have a good job and should just be HAPPY DAMMIT. Why shake things up with this OTHER career that pays less and is so uncertain. I'm pretending at the moment that the writing is just an EXTRA thing... that I don't plan on doing it full time... Until my husband finishes school i can't ANYWAY, so let them believe this is the plan.

The Daring Novelist said...

Yes, the "Playground Supervisor" method works better with strangers and acquaintances. (It's especially good for working events, where you have no idea who or what will come at you.)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Oh, you're so RIGHT. I've winced so many times at things my children have said when they were smaller: "That man HAS NO HAIR, Mama! Look! His hair is GONE!"


You do start developing either a diversionary tactic for them, or a thick skin when it's pointed your way!

Robin Lemke said...

I love it! My children do the same thing. Especially the 4 year old. She's old enough to notice things like "that lady's so fat" and not quite old enough yet to have a reliable filter.