Awkward writers anonymous

What is it about writing something in public spaces that makes people feel entitled to ask about your writing, or even to read it? This happens to me on a semi-regular basis and I’m still struggling with ways to respond that don’t outright alienate the person inquiring or somehow embolden them and make them even more persistent in their questioning. These people approach me in the hallway, in the break room where I write during my breaks and lunches, or even on one memorable occasion in the bathroom, and they bludgeon me with well-meaning but very annoying questions that I can’t answer to their satisfaction.

It’s so very tempting to print up a blunt FAQ and tape it to the lid of my laptop monitor.

FAQ for the Excessively Curious:

Q: What are you doing on your laptop all the time?
A: Usually one or more of five things – writing, editing, reading, watching videos, or procrastinating.

Q: You mentioned writing! I know someone who writes/I always wanted to write/I am someone who reads the products of writers. What do you write?
A: A variety of writing from short stories to novellas, in a variety of genres.

Q: That was awfully broad and didn’t really answer my question. Do you not want to tell me what you’re working on?
A: It was a shallow answer for a shallow question. At any given moment I am usually working on half a dozen projects*, all of which would take too much time to explain to you in the small amount of time I can spare in this, my personal break time, during which I would prefer to be writing. If this sounds surly, you don’t know many actual writers.

Q: Okay, maybe it’s none of my business. But what you’re doing sounds really interesting despite, or because of, the enigmatically limited amount of information you’ve provided. Can I read it when you’re done?
A: What I write is such a specific sub-genre of fiction it’s not only something you wouldn’t be interested in, you would be actively uncomfortable if I shared it, so in order to spare you embarrassment and awkwardness, I must decline. I have plenty of pre-readers at this time, thanks.

Q: I’m just trying to show interest in something that you’re doing which has nothing to do with me!! Why are you so secretive? TELL ME MORE! Seriously, what are you writing?
A: ARE YOU FIVE, GO AWAY. Consider that if someone doesn’t want to tell you about something, they are probably not being coy and have a good reason for not telling you. Besides the obvious: it’s none of your business.

* Current projects:
– Just wrapped galley proof for Body Option
– Awaiting second publisher edits for Klaxon at the Core
– Working on re-write for The More Plausible Evil
– Working on pre-submission beta edits for Dragonspire
– Working on pre-publisher edit draft for Castle on a Cloud
– Writing highly illicit** Appetite-spinoff novella
– Awaiting publisher first edit for My Sexual Superhero
– Awaiting publisher first edit for Like Stolen Pearls
– Germinating ideas for mistletoe fic for upcoming anthology call
– Germinating ideas for In Lesbians (working title), my lesbian enemies-to-lovers contemporary romance
– Back burner: Which Boy (working title), an uncommon paranormal love quadrangle
– Back burner: Beta edits to re-cut Casting the Bones into a YA novel

** I’m not supposed to be working on it, look at all the other stuff I have to do.

Huh, I guess that’s an actual dozen. To be fair I’m only actively engaged in four of those and waiting on the others, or they are waiting for me to have time to work on them.

If I were a less polite, diplomatic person, this would be easier. It’s very difficult to satisfy these prurient people while at the same time honestly answering their questions and not revealing the things I really can’t tell them: in short, I’m writing something that’s not appropriate to discuss in the workplace, but I am doing it on my own time on my own laptop.

Moreover, I write queer spectrum fiction. The substantial majority of my co-workers are Christian. They don’t just read Christian fiction on their downtime. Some of them sit in that room and read their Bibles. My experience with the typical Christian has taught me avoidance in terms of discussing queer culture in general. I’m not being down on Christians, here; it’s simply how things have gone in my personal experience. The revelation that I have a female partner, disclosed to a small and select few, has already gotten me treated like I have a disability we’re all too polite to talk about. (Two of my co-workers still refer to her as my “roommate.” I have never called her that.)

It doesn’t even matter that I write a sub-genre of fiction that none of these interested parties would ever want to read. There is a weird sense of entitlement in the people who’ve asked about my writing, as though they have a right to inquire and get answers simply because they know I write. When I dodge and deflect questions like “what are you writing” or “are you finished with that story you were working on?” with answers like “I write a lot of things,” or “depends on which one,” people get huffy that I’m not giving them straight-out answers. It’s as though they don’t recognize the social cue that a lack of answer means the answer is one they’re not entitled to. Because at the end of the day, what I write is none of their business, regardless of where I’m doing it. And I didn’t volunteer the information that I’m a writer–they asked, because they saw me doing it in a public space.

The most straightforward response would probably be to say something like “I prefer not to say,” but even then most people react poorly to being rebuffed … even when it’s something that really is none of their concern. It’s as though they think, by my act of setting up a laptop and writing in public, I have invited their engagement or solicited their interest somehow.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you get asked these or similar questions? I’d be interested to hear if you have any clever responses or alternative methods of handling the nosy but well meaning inquiries when they come up.

9 comments

    1. I’m a bit of an overachiever but also it might explain my stress levels, haha!

      Ugh, unfortunately I tend to be productive at work because there’s no wireless, so I can focus (when I’m not being pestered with questions) on my breaks and lunch.

      1. Yeah, that seems like a great time to write, except that I would feel super uncomfortable with those kinds of co-workers around. I used to write at school and people would be like, “Wow! you’re being so productive on your thesis”, and it was always like: “….haha….yes” *casually blocks screen*

  1. I do get the questions, but I’ve never needed to be harsh about it. My world is peopled primarily by reasonable adults, so they tend to float away when I say that I need to concentrate on something and can’t chat.

    1. I think I’m incapable of being harsh; it might be easier if I was. Most of the people at my workplace are pretty reasonable but then there are those persistent ones that just cannot pick up on social cues or possibly feel like they’re doing me a favor by expressing so much interest.

  2. I think I must give off “stay away from me” vibes, because while I’ll occasionally get asked what I’m writing, it rarely goes beyond that. Usually the only people who feel like sticking their nose in further are the ones who know me on more than just an abstract co-worker level and they’re fairly easy to distract. I have one guy who regularly asks me how my writing’s coming but has no interest in the actual content.

    I get even fewer inquiries if I write longhand like Megan does, because my handwriting looks like some ancient form of cuneiform and is illegible even to me at times. :3

    1. Or your co-workers are less curious than mine! My building has about 500 people, odds are a small handful who see me writing are going to be that nosy and entitled, I guess. And I’m too polite to be blunt about it.

      Haha, if I wrote longhand, I think people would assume I was keeping a diary or writing a letter or something. But my hand cramps too much and it makes my elbow twang too much when I write longhand for extended periods. Sadly.

  3. I agree that it’s quite rude for people to even bother someone that’s working to start with, much less feel entitled to a detailed answer. Also, I would assume a writer wouldn’t want to discuss their project in detail because while in your situation it isn’t likely, someone else could steal an idea, write it faster, and publish something and then yours looks like the copycat.

    I’ve always hate when I’m in the breakroom and on my phone, standing off to the side away from everyone, someone feels the need to come talk to me. I give them short half ass answers because I’m trying to concentrate on what I was doing, and they keep talking. Some people apparently have zero ability to pick up on social queues.

    I think I’d be like “I’m working on something that I need to get done before my break’s over. I don’t mean to be rude but I really need to concentrate on this.” and then quit answering any other comments/questions. It probably would come off rude, but, it’s rude to interrupt someone that’s working as well.

    1. Ooh, there’s a good way to put people off–“I can’t say, I don’t want anyone else to write the same thing.” That’s a totally good excuse.

      Agreed on that one, some people have an astounding ability to ignore the signals that are broadcasting loud and clear we’re not to be bothered.

      It would come across as rude and I’m just congenitally unable to be that brusque. I wish I could be, I really do.

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