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33 1/3: ‘And what do you do?’

[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 salebuy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]

Being a published writer who is not yet a household name brings its own unique set of pressures. One of the most tedious of these is being asked what you do at parties. If you can reply 'I'm John Grisham,' then all well and good. However, few of us can say this. In fact only John Grisham can say this and not be completely lying his tits off. If you're talking to someone who doesn't read an awful lot, the kind of person who says, for example, 'I only read biographies' then the conversation will contain several inevitable questions. Let's pick up the exchange from where he/she asks the fateful opener. 'Ah, I'm a writer,' you reply...

1) 'So, have you had anything published yet?'

No. I just go around saying 'I'm a writer' even though the closest I've come to book publication is when I walk by a branch of Barnes and Noble. Do people think you're a total maniac? The kind of person who goes around saying 'I'm an astronaut' because they caught the last fifteen minutes of The Right Stuff on cable the night before? If you say you're a writer and you haven't published a book — or had a movie made, or whatever — then either a) you're 18 years old. Or b) you are a total maniac. And, by the way, you're not allowed to call yourself a writer until that is how you earn your primary living. And by 'living' I mean an income capable of supporting a person living on more than rice crackers and rainwater. Who doesn't live with their parents. Also, don't get suckered into saying 'I'm a writer' then having to backtrack and shuffle when the next question is the invariable 'What else do you do?' Or 'Do you make enough money to live on from that?' Then you have spend a 'lively' five minutes making out that you stayed on at the Dairy Queen — or teaching Grad School, or working at the library — for the love. (Nothing wrong with working at the library mind you — Philip Larkin did it all his life.)

2) 'So, what's your book/film/quartet of poems about?'

Do not, under any circumstances, be drawn into a detailed plot summary. Unless you are Martin Amis/Martin Scorsese/the ghost of T.S. Eliot no one really cares. They're just saying it to have something to say. Personally I favour one of two responses to this question: 1) 'Oh a whole bunch of crap happens. Anyway...' and then changing the subject. Or, b) 'Oh, they live, they love, they learn. Normal human stuff. Anyway...' and then changing the subject.

Actually if you spend any time around writers, musicians, or whatever you'll notice that the last thing the really talented ones want to do is talk about is their work. Those of mediocre — or zero — talent will happily drone on in cerebellum-frying detail about the difficulty they're having with the protagonist's motivation/Act II climax/tricksy, multi-viewpoint flashback sequence. The good ones will try and change the subject immediately. Usually to either sex or sports. (That's when you know you're talking to a real writer: they don't want to discuss the merits of first-person via localised third-person narrator. They want to know who won the game and if you can help get them laid.)

3) 'So, where do you get your ideas from?'

AHHHAGGGHHH!!!! You know, I'm having an idea now right now. It involves removing your liver with a corkscrew and feeding it to you...

4) 'So, do you have a set time you, like, do it every day?'

Actually this is one I enjoy. About the only thing that fascinates writers about other writers is the mechanics of the job: pen and paper? Electric typewriter or laptop? Mornings or evenings? Music on or off? Kingsley Amis said three pages a day every day was the recipe for happiness. (About a thousand words — the same count Zadie Smith shoots for.) Graham Greene wrote three hundred words a day — a single clean page. Anthony Trollope worked for two-and-a-half hours every morning, stopping in mid-sentence when the allotted time was up: even if he was a paragraph away from finishing the book. Stephen King crunches out two thousand words every single day — no weekends off when he's working. At the other end of the scale James Joyce would sometimes come staggering away from his desk at the end of a long, hard day with just seven words to show for his efforts. (But I bet they were a pretty good seven words.) Me? I go from eight am until lunchtime, which is sometime between noon and 2 pm, and about a thousand to fifteen hundred words depending on how it's going.

5) 'Yeah, I've sometimes thought about writing a book myself...'

This — a reference to undertaking one of the most challenging, exacting, soul-testing experiences a human being can put themselves through — is usually tossed off in the manner of 'Yeah, I thought about renting a movie the other night' or, 'I might have another sandwich.' One guy actually said this to me and then followed it up with, 'Hey, do you actually sit down and work out everything that's going to happen?'

'Well, yes.' I replied.

'Riiight,' he said in a 'so-that's-where-I-went-wrong' tone of voice.

I was powerfully reminded of the Simpsons episode — like Shakespeare and the Bible, everyone and everything eventually finds its archetype somewhere in The Simpsons — where they go to Itchy and Scratchyland; a Westworld-esque theme park run by robots. A mouse-cyborg removes the top of its head to reveal a mass of bleeping circuitry and wiring. 'See all that stuff in there, Homer?' Marge says. 'That's why your robot didn't work...'

I'm going to fewer and fewer parties these days. Maybe I'll start again when I'm as big as John Grisham.

÷ ÷ ÷

John Niven read English literature at Glasgow University and spent the next ten years working in the United Kingdom's music industry. His debut novella, The Band: Music From Big Pink, was published in 2006 as part of the 33 1/3 series. His second novel, Kill Your Friends, was published in 2008. He lives in Buckinghamshire.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Band: Music From Big Pink (33...
    New Trade Paper $14.95
  2. Kill Your Friends (P.S.) New Trade Paper $14.99

John Niven is the author of Kill Your Friends (P.S.)

5 Responses to "33 1/3: ‘And what do you do?’"

    Harry Lloyd November 21st, 2007 at 4:31 pm

    "And, by the way, you're not allowed to call yourself a writer until that is how you earn your primary living. And by 'living' I mean an income capable of supporting a person living on more than rice crackers and rainwater."

    hey that's interesting. cuz when i looked up "writer" on dictionary.com it said:

    "1. a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc., esp. as an occupation or profession; an author or journalist.
    2. a clerk, scribe, or the like.
    3. a person who commits his or her thoughts, ideas, etc., to writing: an expert letter writer.
    4. (in a piece of writing) the author (used as a circumlocution for “I,” “me,” “my,” etc.): The writer wishes to state….
    5. a person who writes or is able to write: a writer in script.
    6. Stock Exchange. someone who sells options.
    7. Scot. a lawyer or solicitor."

    doesn't seem to say anything about not making a living at it. so, do you make a living writing a book about The Band?

    “Not a Writer” (according to John Niven) November 21st, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    According to your bio it says you are a "screenplay writer." What movie did you write? I can't find your name listed anywhere on the IMDB. I'm assuming your script was made into a movie and that you are able to make a living off of it or else you wouldn't be calling yourself a "screenplay writer."

    Duncan Hynes November 21st, 2007 at 5:28 pm

    Somebody set off a five-alarm fire.
    Can I be a barista if I make really bad money at it?

    Biff November 22nd, 2007 at 9:58 am

    Geez people, can't you tell the guy's being SARCASTIC. No first-time author would be that snarky.

    Longfellow November 22nd, 2007 at 11:00 am

    I guess no one gets to call themselves poets.

    Except maybe Billy Collins.

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