I write fiction, mostly fantasy. I admit I can be humorless about it. My friend “Shawn” writes fiction of similar genre. We used to talk about writing and about our ideas a lot, but less so since I got a day job.
Shawn starts projects all the time and most of them never come to a full rough draft, so I know not to get too invested in any particular setting or character concept they tell me about. (OTOH, due to my more limited free time for writing, I’ve just got the one novel I’ve been revising for a few years now.) My issue is that Shawn keeps telling me about all of these ideas, with no context. They’ll text me out of the blue, “I’ve decided that Character X and Character Y are going to date” or “I’m setting my next story in a fantasy version of Tibet” and I have no idea how to react anymore. I’d be happy to read any completed stories that came from these ideas. I’ve read their one completed manuscript and, hell, I’d be happy to hear random thoughts about that setting or those characters, who I already care about. But what on earth do I say to “My new character is a dragon and her favorite soda is Ramune,” especially when I know I’ll never hear about this dragon again?
I wouldn’t mind if I got to talk about my own writing in turn, but they don’t seem interested anymore. They asked to read my manuscript once, and (a year later) have finally stopped pretending they’ll ever get around to it. Recently they asked me a question about my protagonists, and I got excited at this sign that we could resume shop talk like we used to. But after I answered, they just said “Nice” and used it as a springboard to brag about their own great characterization, in the context of another story they had just thought up. I kinda feel like my time and effort are being disrespected here.
Am I being snooty about different approaches to the creative process? Am I being too precious about my own work while judging theirs harder? If not, how can I steer these conversations back to a fun and mutual place, and not a place where I’m getting infodumped on?
A Wiki for a Fictional Multiverse that Doesn’t Yet Exist (they/them)
Dear Reluctant Wiki:
I have a mantra in these situations, would you like to hear it?
“Awesome! You should write that down.”
I. INT. – TAXICAB – NIGHT
Rando Cab Driver: “I have an idea for a screenplay, can I tell it to you?”
Me: “Neat! You should write it down.”
Rando Cab Driver: “But can you tell me if it’s good or not?”
Me: “You should write it down. Whether it’s good or not is all in the execution!”
II. INT. – COFFEE SHOP – DAY
Random Cafe Patron: “You look like you’re really concentrating! And you type so fast! What are you writing?”
Me: “Oh, yeah! Thanks. I’m working on my blog.”
Random Cafe Patron: “Oh, neat. I’ve thought about starting a blog!”
Me: “Nice! You should totally do that!”
Random Cafe Patron: “Nah, probably no one wants to read about [subject matter].”
Me: “I’m sure someone is blogging about that right now, but, okay!”
Random Cafe Patron: “But you, maybe you could write about [subject matter]!” [Tells me all about subject matter]
Me: “Nope! I’m good. But you should write that down.”
III. INT. MY GMAIL INBOX – SEMI-WEEKLY
Random person: “Why aren’t you writing about [newsy topic of the day]?” + 2000 more single-spaced words with no line breaks.
Me: “Huh. Sounds like you want to write about _______. Why don’t you write this up for your website, or pitch it to a paying outlet, and send me a link?”
IV. INT. COLLEGE CLASSROOM – DAY
Student Who Missed The Day We Pitched Stories And Who Has Not Handed In The Very Short Screenplay Assignment: “I know I didn’t do the assignment yet, but I want to talk to you about my ideas.”
Me: “You should write them down.”
SWWMTDWPSHNHISSA: “But I want to tell them to you, then you can tell me which one to write.”
Me: “You should write all of them down.”
SWWMTDWPSHNHISSA: “But can you tell me what you think of them?”
Me: “I will 100% do that! I can’t wait in fact! But first, pick at least one and write it down.”
SWWMTDWPSHNHISSA: “But I’ve never written a screenplay before, what if I tell them to you and you can help me think of how to put them in screenplay format?”
Me: “Oh, that’s easy. Write the bare bones of the story down in the simplest form – like you were telling it to someone – and THEN translate it into screenplay format.”
SWWMTDWPSHNHISSA: “Can I tell you the list of ideas I have, first, though?”
Me: “You can write all of them down as 2-3 sentence log-lines and I’ll read them.”
Student: “Well if you don’t want to hear my stories, FINE.”
Me: “I want to READ your stories. Brainstorming is good! Go do your brainstorming with classmates or friends or whatever, and then write something down and give it to me. It’s okay if it’s rough, but it needs to be on a page!”
Listen, I totally get it. The student wants to delay the scary, lonely act of writing a little longer. They think they’ll save time by not writing any of the imperfect ideas and skipping straight to the perfect, teacher-approved (or total stranger in the taxi-approved) one.
I had a pretty devastating argument with my grandfather about this not long before he died. He wanted to tell me about a book he wanted to write and get my opinion on whether it was good. He’s a great storyteller who has lived through some pretty incredible history, so I truthfully said “I’m sure it will be great, I’d love to read it, you should write it!” Well, actually, instead he wanted to tell me about it and show me some sketches & notes he had get my opinion on the idea. I said “Well, why don’t you show me what you have, I’d love to see it!!!” He said, no, he didn’t want me to read anything, he wanted to tell me the idea and get my feedback on that, and then he would write. I said “Great, lay it on me! What’s the book about?” He told me it was more complicated than that, a very complicated series of stories, and what he’d really like to do is tell me the stories and then I could turn them into a book. Welp, okay then, there it was. “So, Grampa, can you tell me one of the stories right now? I can record you on my phone and make a transcript as a starting point” and then he yelled at me that I wasn’t hearing him, I didn’t respect him, I didn’t really want to hear his stories or collaborate on this amazing project he was dropping into my lap, and if I didn’t believe in his book why should he? He stormed out of the room in a fury and wouldn’t even say goodbye to me when I left that day.
I was 100% hearing him, between the lines: He was 95 years old, suffering from dementia, he wasn’t ever going to write a book, and it was easier for him to make it all my fault for not believing in him enough vs. blaming time and fear and old age and never getting started in the first place. Those five little words: “Great, you should write it!” or “Great, you should write it” were cruelly & obstinately fucking with his idea of himself as an already-published author.
And yet, they were the truth. I can care about your writing project but I can’t do your caring about it for you.
I’m not immune: I can enthusiastically pitch shit I’m never going to actually write all the livelong day. We all can. It’s fun! It satisfies the creative urge without having to do actual work! We get immediate feedback and that little ping of having created something! It’s not wrong to enjoy this and want to do it. A writer friend took me to lunch earlier this week and yelled at me for an hour about this book project I’m overthinking into the ground and I started telling her about my process and things I was developing and progress I’d made and she looked at me with all the love in the world and said “But you see until it is written down in an actual book proposal and query letter, it is not real, so what will it take for you to get out of your own way and write it down and then send it out the door?” She yelled at me a little more (in the most loving, motivational, encouraging way) and then she made Twitter yell at me to do the thing, already. She is 100% correct and I will do the thing, because I know and she knows and you knows that until the thing is on the page in some fashion – even a messy, first-draft, imperfect fashion – you can’t really DO anything with it.
Now, mutually discussing story ideas and works in progress with a supportive story buddy is great. As in:“Hey Shawn, let’s grab coffee soon and both bring works in progress so we can talk about them.” Or, “Shawn, let’s get together and both pitch 100 fun little snippets and ideas and get them out of our heads. I’ll take notes for you and you can take notes for me, and then we can go write the best ones.” Acting as a one-sided nonconsensual pensieve for your friend’s story ideas that will never get written is not so great, especially when they are not equally invested in your stories. So, I think one strategy you have is to become a broken record with your friend Shawn’s texts. Every time they send you one of these, respond only with some version of “Cool, write it down!” Then give yourself permission to never think about whatever it is again.
My prediction: If you do this, Shawn will be a bit miffed that you do not give these precious brain-jewels as much attention as you used to. Shawn might say “Fine, I won’t bother you then 😦” in an attempt to get you to reassure them and say that it’s okay. This is a win! It is a sign that Shawn is getting the message! Resist the urge to reassure them or do any more emotional labor whatesoever! Shawn will either go and write it down, or not. How they feel about their story, the writing process as a whole, or your boundary about not texting you every stray thought they have about dragons is not your problem. Part of setting boundaries with others is setting boundaries with ourselves, i.e. giving ourselves permission not to fix it if we communicate the boundary and then things get uncomfortable.
Sure, are some mutual, adult conversation to be had, as well, where you tell Shawn what you told me:
“Hey Shawn, I’d love to read your finished work when you’ve got something concrete! I simply don’t have the bandwidth to read the real-time snippets and texts anymore, though, so please find another outlet for those.”
That’s not a mean thing to say, it’s totally reasonable, and you should probably have that conversation.
There’s also the conversation that cuts deeper:
“Hey, Shawn, I feel like you want me to be really invested in your writing, whether it’s manuscripts or little snippets you text me all the time, but I don’t feel like you’re equally invested in my writing. You haven’t even read my manuscript. I like talking about writing with you, but if we’re going to keep doing that, we need to give equal time to both our projects. And also, I’d prefer to spend my focus on finished work from you rather than blurbs or drabbles, thanks.”
If you said that, what do you think Shawn would say back? None of what you’d be saying is mean, rude, unreasonable, or untrue. Would it end your friendship if you stopped reflecting endless interest and approval at this person without getting anything in return? Something to think about.
In the meantime, there’s “Neat. Write it down!” It’s what most of us need to hear.
P.S. Letter Writer, you sound like a really considerate friend and a cool writer, and I hope you can find a writers’ group or writing buddy who is going to be as thoughtful and invested about your work as you are in theirs. I don’t think Shawn is it, but that doesn’t mean that person or people isn’t out there.
P.P.S. Happy #NaNoWriMo to all of you beautiful badass persistent people. If you don’t already follow the lovely Story Hospital, I recommend their work most highly.