When I first moved back home, I was determined to land myself a freelance gig before I met up with any of my friends to deflect the inevitable “So what are you doing now that you’re home?” question. That way, I can be all casual and say, “Oh I’m doing some freelancing.” If I'm being honest, it accounts for 60 percent for why I picked up freelancing—to get people off my back.
The other 40 percent of the reason is so that I would be keeping my knives sharp, being given consistent deadlines to meet so as to not fall into a rut. But who am I kidding? I have a blog where I have self-imposed deadlines already so really it’s just to get people off my back.
But my clever friends are not to be fooled and would often press further, making me reveal that actually, I’d like to spend my “funemployment” doing some writing thankyouverymuch. No, not for a magazine. No not really purely for my blog either. Ugh, I don’t know! Just! Writing, dammit!
You see why the question causes much anxiety.
Okay so, they now know that I want to spend the next year pounding on the keyboard for some vague purpose but that actually leads to the worst question in the history of all questions: The of innocent inquiry of “So how’s the writing going?” inserted near the beginning of every exchange of pleasantries. In the case of my gym trainer, that’s as often as twice a week and that’s just one guy. If I had a dollar for every time I was asked The Question in the past fortnight, I’d be J.K. Rowling minus the actually writing half a dozen best-selling novels part.
You see, when someone asks The Question, writers often hear it as if we were caught not doing our homework. No matter the inflection, we hear it like “So, how’s the ‘writing’ going?” And then, like having an accusatory finger pointed at our noses, we’re quietly panicking, saying “I’m working on it, I swear!” but on the surface all we say is, “It’s going okay.”
Because really, how do we quantify progress in writing anyway? In the number of pages we’ve written in between our meetings? Because if that’s the case, I can churn out 25 pages of correctly spelled words in proper syntax that form grammatically sound sentences every day if that’ll answer the question. That came out sassier than I intended. I apologize.
But before I burn every bridge in my life, I have to say that the completely sane side of me (if that exists) knows that this question is asked out of love and not harassment. You see, the reason why The Question comes across as such is because it’s like the verbal incarnation of the black cloud hovering over every writer, a constant reminder whispering Hey, you haven’t written anything awesome lately. So when the dreaded Question is heard outside our own self-berating heads, it feels like an accusation at ourselves by ourselves through the inquirer. I told you I'm sane.
What many people don’t understand (and it was something I used to feel guilty about but now know it’s an inescapable plague all writers share) is that writing often looks like doing nothing at all. In a panel called What’s Character Got To Do With It? the revered writer of The West Wing and the new Steve Jobs biopic Aaron Sorkin said:
“I'm often asked ‘How long does it take you to write a movie?’ The answer is actually a couple of years. But most of that doesn't look like what a passer-by would say was writing. It looks a lot like me lying on my couch or watching ESPN.”
Or, in this not-as-articulate excerpt from Jenny Lawson’s book Furiously Happy, she writes:
“There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that non-right-brained people don’t see happening. For example, when I have writer’s block, I sometimes have to ‘refill my creative cup.’ [It] means different things to different people but to me it looks a lot like watching Doctor Who marathons or reading David Sedaris books while screaming, ‘WHY DO YOU MAKE IT LOOK SO EASY?’ In summation, I spend an impressive amount of time doing absolutely nothing. Like, I’m at pro level. Because that’s how artistic genius works. And because I’m very, very lazy.”
So how does one say “I watched Gossip Girl till three in the morning then bore witness to my foolhardy Schnauzers picking a fight with the cat for half an hour but trust me it was integral to my next piece of writing” to my politely concerned gym trainer?
The answer is, you don’t. You say, “It’s going okay.”