Ask Polly: Jesus, My Struggling Writer Friends Never Shut Up!
Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “Because you’re still fucking up in the same ways you were before, only now you’re too arrogant to notice.”
How many times is too many to listen to a friend discuss their problems? I have several friends (mostly unemployed writers) who talk about the same thing over and over: namely, that they’re not successful and don’t know people who will help them, and yet don’t do anything to change it. I literally have listened for over 30 minutes at least four times this week to the same friend who kept repeating him/herself about why they were frustrated and disappointed with their careers not moving forward. What is most frustrating is that I don’t think they actually want or take my advice. I’ve offered to introduce them to people and tell them to keep plugging away but instead they go on and on about how rude it is for people not to respond to them or they are scared to send out their material too soon or since high school they’ve had insecurity complexes. I feel that soon I may just become exasperated and say, “I can’t listen to this anymore, especially if you don’t listen to advice!” Or, “Maybe see a therapist?” For every suggestion I have they have a suggestion about why it won’t work or contradict themselves. Polly, am I bad friend? Do I attract these people for a reason? Or do I just severe boundary issues in that I let myself have the same conversation over and over again. Polly, if speaking up is the right thing to do, how do I say these things nicely? I find myself very depressed after these conversations. HELP!
Wanting Writers’ Block
Dude, I hear you. I listen to more people going on and on about the frustrations of being a writer than I listen to anything else. OK, sometimes my husband likes to complain about the frustrations of being a university professor, but I try to gently nudge him in another conversational direction by saying something mild and loving, like, “Please shut the fuck up right now.”
What’s interesting is how often writers wander about, whining softly about how they need help and they need guidance and they need someone to give them a chance or hold their hand or read their pitches or stop ignoring them or tell them why their pieces are wonderful. All they need is an agent who’ll mold their genius into something saleable, who’ll go out there, onto the mean streets, and champion their brilliance! Someone who’ll smack those publishers in the face, and shove that manuscript under their moronic noses and say, “This genius is entitled to an enormous check that you’ll probably never recoup by selling this genius’s books!”
But let’s be honest. Collaboration and support are not always all they’re cracked up to be. If you’re in this questioning, needy state — “Is this a good idea? What do you think? Can you help me? Do you want to publish this? What would you change?” — you’re throwing the doors wide open and inviting every friend or editor or agent or publisher into your overheated kitchen, and you’re asking them to stick their grubby, shit-stained fingers into your half-finished, tasteless pie. (These editors’ fingers are shit-stained because they’re also editing zany, unfunny “Oh silly, awkward me!” memoirs and magazine articles about people with really incredible DUMBO lofts.) How many people do you know who have better ideas — much, much better ideas — than you do? How many people are smart enough to take what you’ve written, and mold it into something that’s a little more interesting and vivid and cooler than what you had before?
I love the smart, imaginative editors I’m writing for right now. They make me sound like I’m smarter than I am (and that’s pretty goddamn smart, too, huh huh!). But let’s be honest. The world is filled with smart people who will quite cheerfully turn your original weird ideas into horse shit. They won’t do this because they’re evil or because they’re crass capitalist slobs or because they’re fucking morons, either. They’ll do it because you’re standing there saying, “Well? What should this be? What should I be? Who the fuck am I anyway? Do you even love me anymore?” They will show you how to turn what you have, which is strange-ish and not fully formed and maybe a little sloppy, into the average of everything that came before you. They will inadvertently point you straight at the Least Common Denominator, either because you haven’t indicated that you’re capable of more than that, or because they haven’t had a second cup of coffee yet, or because they just heard that someone got a big advance for something a little bit like what you’re doing, only way stupider.
So this is something you’ll want to tell these writer friends in order to shut down their sad donkey eyes and their quiet mewling. You’ll want to tell them to take full responsibility for themselves and move the fuck forward. You’ll want to say that no big break is going to make it easier to get up in the morning and write. What makes it easier is trusting your own instincts and noticing that you have giant ideas percolating in that herd-animal brain of yours, you just have to dig in and find them. After you find them, you have to write something terrible that eventually, through a lot of editing, over and over and over, becomes something great. If you go pawing and kicking at doors of editors and publishers and agents and all you have is the creative equivalent of a half-eaten burrito from yesterday’s lunch, you shouldn’t act surprised when they want to turn that pile of cold beans into, say, a book about candlemaking, even though you couldn’t give a shit about candles. You aren’t owning your stupid writing career. You’re being a lazy sack of fuck that wants a Mommy to make a little color-coded schedule for you and to stop you at lunchtime to spoon-feed you your Spaghettios.
Lately, I’ve had a lot of editors approaching me, asking me to write stuff for them. That is pretty great, and I’m very lucky. But I have to be careful what I agree to write, even when I’m pretty broke. Saying yes to an advice column and yes to writing weekly “Mad Men” recaps might sound a little downmarket to some of my snobby bitch-ass writer friends, but I love an excuse to watch great TV and pontificate like a blowhard about it, and I love, love, love using this so-called advice column as an excuse to go on and on and on about myself, particularly when someone with severe boundary issues like yourself comes along, someone who clearly wants a person who’s self-involved and awful like me to take advantage of their generosity and tread all over them with my petulant, self-involved drivel. But! My gung-ho “Sure, I’ll do it!” spirit (which only lasts for tiny spurts within each caffeine and tequila ingestion zone) sometimes tricks me into thinking that I should be writing shit that I really, really should NOT be writing, shit that I would never in a million fucking years sit down and read myself.
This is where support and advice and help and patronage will sometimes lead you: Down the primrose fucking path to writing a piece or a screenplay or a book about something that, while you might be capable of writing it, will turn out just as bland, worthless and repetitive as every other bit of bland, worthless, repetitive horse shit that crowds the shelves of those dying chain bookstores and plays on repeat at those mammoth movie theaters or sits unhappily between the perfumey pages of some of the not-very-good lady magazines.
And let’s be honest. As a woman, people are going to ask you to write the kind of insipid shit they would never in a million fucking years ask a man to write. They’re going to tell you to make it lovable, to take harsh opinions out of your heroine’s head, to cut your pissy first-person essay off at the kneecaps. They’re going to run out and publish a million and one disconnected, crappy Deep Thoughts by some self-proclaimed boy wonder, but they’re going to read your perfectly delightful work and tell you that it’ll be just great, as long as you only include the stuff on the trials and tribulations of being a mom (Argh! Teehee!) or being a girl (Oh noes! Teehee!) or being a woman (Growl! Just kidding! Teehee!). They’re going to ask you to write about your recent weight gain, or your recent divorce, or your recent (insert humiliating story here), and what lessons you’ve learned from it. They’re going to want you to come up with a fucking moral to your story. Because you’re a lady, you don’t have the option of stomping around in a funk. Because you are a woman, and you feel feelings, you must draw some giant, oversimplified conclusion. You must have blandly down-to-earth protagonists, you must have lovable mommies hugging lost kittens, you must have rainbows and sunbeams spewing out of your ass. They’re going to coach you into writing something you’re not entirely sure about, something you would never in a million fucking years read yourself (if you had free will, which it sometimes seems like you don’t), and they’re going to tell you it’s pure genius. And even though you still might see your piece or essay or snippet of prose as “literary,” they’re going to stick an incendiary headline on it (“Help! I Ate My Own Vagina!”) and it’s going to be an internet sensation, and you’re going to feel Bad with a capital B about it.
And one year later, there you are anyway, laboring away under a giant contract to write Help! I Ate My Own Vagina!: A True Story (which your agent described to publishers as “The ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ of vaginal self-consumption”). And you’re so depressed and anxious and frustrated from working on this enormous, bland, repetitive turd of a book that you could, literally, eat your own vagina. Finally, you call your editor to tell her that, and she tells you to definitely, definitely put that in your final “What I Learned!” chapter.
I’ve had really smart agents and unnervingly good editors, but I don’t need THEM to lead me astray; I will happily do that to myself. I write about culture, and sometimes I’m soaking in that shit so much that I don’t notice how flaccid and limp my prose has become, how bland and dumb I’m getting, how little faith I suddenly have in my voice. I start thinking I should write shit that I hate, in a tone that I cannot fucking get behind, because maybe that will make my financial picture a little less stressful.
That’s when I call my friends and talk their sad ears off, and mewl and moan and piss myself until they have to pretend their cell phone connections cut out just to get off the fucking phone with me.
You know what I need to do though? Put the phone down and ask myself who in the whole wide world is supposed to take responsibility for what I write if I won’t do it myself. And sometimes, in order to take total, true creative responsibility, you have to shut people out for a while. You have to stop walking around like a giant fucking question mark. You have to stop looking for reassurance from half-interested friends, and you have to stop asking other people to help you shape your work from start to finish. Calm the fuck down and get back to work. Talking in circles is just a form of procrastination. Asking for guidance but not actually wanting guidance is a way of justifying inaction and self-pity. Letting it out is one thing; repeating yourself indefinitely is another.
But let me add a caveat: Some of my most repetitive, most needy writer friends are also brilliant, inspiring and very discerning about what’s good and what sucks. Those who ask the most from me, in terms of engaging, thoughtful discussions, do actually give me back tons of insight and knowledge. Certainly don’t turn your back on someone who’s brilliant just because he or she is a little emotional and, well, fucking insane.
But look, honestly? This is how you get a writer to shut up: You say “Shut up.” Anything less than that, and the writer will keep talking until the sun falls out of the sky. Say, “Shut up. Go finish your shit and then edit it again and again and again until it’s great. When you’re done, then we can talk some more.”
My friend and next-door-neighbor just lost his job this week, which is awful, but ultimately has nothing to do with me. That’s his bad news. As always, I want to be a supportive friend and that would seem to include helping him through this trouble. I’ve been there myself, and I know sometimes you just have to talk to people about it to stay sane. And when you aren’t leaving the house very often (no job, no money, etc.), your friend and next-door-neighbor ends up being someone you talk to a lot. My problem is this: I recently found out that my position at my job may be ending in the near future. I mentioned “I’ve been there myself,” well in the past few years I’ve been laid off twice. Both bouts left me overwhelmed and stricken with depression and anxiety. I’m doing okay right now (after being on medication and working hard to put things back together), but with my own job concerns, I can feel myself teetering on the edge of a drop back into depression. I’m concerned that being my friend’s go-to person to bitch about job loss and job hunting could be the thing that pushes me over the edge.
Is there a way for me to back away from my neighbor, who I see every day, without making him feel like I am abandoning him in a time of need? Alternatively, is there a way to make it clear to him that I am available for playing board games and watching movies, but that my house is an unemployment-discussion-free zone (again, without making it seem like I don’t care about these problems)? I don’t want to alienate him or damage our friendship, but I truly feel that right now I need to devote all of my energy and positive vibes to keep myself in order. If my job does end soon, I need to be prepared to prop myself up and do this again. I don’t feel like I have the energy to give that to someone else too. How can I do this?
Yes, there is an easy short-term solution to your problem. The next time your friend comes over, you stop and say, “I really like hanging out, playing board games or watching movies or whatever. But all of this talk about unemployment is starting to give me a panicked feeling, because my own job is not very stable right now. I WANT to be a good friend to you, but I can feel myself teetering on the edge of depression. So, do you think we can try to tackle the latest developments and then move on to something else? I know that’s not completely fair because you’re going through a lot. I just need a slight adjustment to how long we discuss this stuff while I’m feeling this way.”
Don’t wait until you get frustrated or mad to say this. Be nice about it. Notice that you’re not banning the subject entirely, which isn’t really fair or rational. You’re just saying it can’t go on and on.
As far as your own job insecurities, though: I’d suggest you spend a little time each day mapping out a plan for what you’ll do if you lose your job. Think about what you want from your career over the long-term. Do some research into how you might put yourself in a more secure position, employment-wise, if that’s remotely possible. When a fear has power in your life and makes you depressed and anxious, avoiding it isn’t the answer. You have to keep moving forward, sure, but you also have to stare that fear straight in the face and come to terms with it. You will survive a lay-off. But HOW will you survive, exactly? Try to run through it in your mind when you’re feeling calm and happy, and make a strategic plan for handling it. Then you won’t be such a fragile flower with your friend, who clearly does need someone to talk to.
Having friends sometimes means listening to boring or repetitive or anxiety-inducing concerns that you don’t want to hear. If you get depressed or anxious when someone is speaking to you about their feelings, that says a lot more about your fears and your inability to face them than it does about your friend. As you said yourself, his problems have nothing to do with you. Learn to draw boundaries, gently, and learn to face your own fears, and eventually you’ll become a much better friend — to him, and to yourself, and to your other friends. Don’t let your boredom and avoidance and inability to look hard at your own issues stand in the way of connecting with other people who are, in fact, a lot like you, albeit a little better at expressing their emotions and leaning on other people when they need help.
Do you stigmatize vulnerability in others because you’re horribly afraid of vulnerability in yourself? Yes you do, and you know it! Write to Polly right now, you defenseless little lamb, you!
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Top photo by April Sanders. Unemployment photo by Justin Cozart.