“Look, Mum, I’m a writer!” (Mistake #32)

Fretting over friends’ and family’s lack of interest in your work, is today’s mistake.

This one seems to affect writers across the board – beginners and established scribes alike. I know a lot of writers who like to moan about it.

I ought to declare that my circle of loved ones took great interest and demonstrated huge pride when I first published. It was really nice. Had they not, I may well have been pissed off.

That faded. I was fine with it. You ought to be fine too. Because they’ll make all the right noises at first, they’ll coo and high-five you and tell their friends and show the neighbours. But after a bit this’ll drift gradually from “Oh wow!” through to “That’s great” and then “Oh right” and all the way down to a polite silent nod and a quick change of subject.

You’ve bored them. And they’ll probably stop asking about what you’re working on, because your new job is not a new job any more. You do a bit of writing now, and they know you do a bit of writing, and … when’s Strictly Come Dancing on again?

Some writers mope about this. I’ve known some to pester their nearest and dearest. Send them scans of their articles, for instance. Email them to alert them to a new story. Call them up to ask what they thought. And absence of enthusiasm irks them. And then they turn to other writers. Or me.

“My family don’t care!” (Aw, they do a bit – just not that much.)

“They’re not interested in my work!” (Correct. My latest article is on prostate health and I can’t expect my mother to digest that with her cuppa and a Rich Tea.)

“My mates don’t understand how hard my job is!” (And you understand how hard nursing is?)

Stop and ask yourself what you want from them. Approval? Compliments? Pats on the back? That’s all well and good – but is this truly satisfying to you when you’re clearly soliciting it? I know it’s lovely to have your team behind you, but unless they’re openly disapproving or negative about your work, does it really matter if they’re a bit so-so about it and don’t leap up and down with joy when you press your latest opus into their hands? Is it not enough that they make you hot cocoa when you’re writing till gone midnight and give you a warm hug when you’ve received the umpteenth rejection to your novel?

Do you know why I think it’s a mistake to fret? Because all the approval and compliments and pats on the back you do get in this way will dilute the pleasure you get from the spontaneous and sincere ones which will one day come your way – from all quarters.

I won’t forget the dietitian who sent me an out-of-the-blue email complimenting a piece of work or a reader’s letter of gratitude for an article which helped her towards a diagnosis. The same applies to the girl I met at a party who was a fan of an old column I used to write or the M&S checkout lady who recognised me from the same magazine.

There are a few others, though not many, and I’ve been doing this for over a decade. I guess the reason I remember them is because they were meaningful at the time, and so they stayed with me. More prolific and better writers get a lot more. But they’re all special. I’ve a friend who has been reduced to tears by a complimentary note from an editor.

They’re great because they’re reminders that you’re read: some writers find this difficult to imagine, someone actually taking in their words. They prove that you make a difference. They inspire you to keep doing what you’re doing. They’re rare little pearls which make it all worthwhile. And I bet they wouldn’t if they were lost in a sea of other little pebbles.

Students – keep thrusting your work under my eyes and nose because I do care. Do the same with editors because they’re the ones who ultimately matter. But don’t thrust them under your loved ones’. Friends don’t want to read your work: they want to talk about X Factor and have a beer with you. Your mum wants to check you’re eating well what with all the time you spend on your computer. Your dad wants to know whether you need any jobs doing around the house what with all the time you spend on your computer.

Isn’t that just great as it is?

Comments 13

  • Some good points Alex. We really shouldn't care. I find people divided between the ones who think I am just earning pin money, and those who think I must be rich and living mortgage free.

  • Only last week, my 2-year-old nephew brought me a painting he'd produced at nursery. "Wow wee," I said, because I could see that he was impressed with what he'd done, and I know that at that age, it's important to give encouragement. (I haven't yet decided what his frantic scribbling actually is.) But yes, there comes a point in our writing lives, when we shouldn't expect family members to treat our writing as if it's a drawing we'd done when we were 2 years old!

  • I think the same applies to those of us doing NaNoWriMo. 'Ooh, guess how many words I've done now,' may get a teensy bit repetitive…and why don't my friends leap up and down every time I tell them? Even if it is three times a day. Hmm.

  • @ J – ah the money issue! May come to that another time.

    @ S – I think your nephew should be rewarded with £15 pocket money. The honourable thing to do, given his uncle writes filth for Take a Break…

    @ L – Good luck! I don't envy you. Someone will no doubt come along and invent a NaNonFicBookWriMo at some point. Which I will also ignore. Just finishing a NF book now and I don't want to write another for about .. ten years.

  • Aah, your post has made me realise how 'needy' I have been! Every time (not that often) I get a story published, I tell all my friends and they all duly 'rush' out and buy the magazine! Eek – do they all secretly hate me? One of my friends, Vera, does actively ask me 'when's the next one coming out?' and when it appears, she makes everyone she knows read it! She's like an unpaid agent. Every writer should have a Vera in their lives. But maybe I should leave the others be!! Helen

  • Maybe Vera has a new career as a writing coach to look forward to? Perhaps you could be her agent, then, not vice versa?!

  • I am very fortunate in that I have a Mum who will always jump up and down at every acceptance, a sister who buys every magazine I'm in and a husband who always asks me how it's going and is delighted when I succeed or have a good writing day. I also have my own 'Vera' who insists on telling everyone about her 'famous' friend.

    I also have other friends all along the spectrum from 'quite interested' to 'never mention it' and I do tailor my conversation accordingly.

    So I do agree with what you say. However, I get my own back on those uninterested friends by refusing to engage in lengthy conversations about their children. (Only joking. Well, maybe a little bit true!) 🙂

  • Okay, now you've made me feel guilty for making my mum feel guilty for not reading my last four books. Like I don't already feel guilty for being such a crap daughter because I'm writing all the time.

    Good point, though. Thank you for the perspective.

  • I'm just the opposite – I really don't want attention from my family, because most of them aren't into the sort of fiction I write, and any praise would be empty. My husband is very supportive, but we both accept that he's not my target market and that it doesn't matter if doesn't like everything I write. His support comes in the form of feeding me when I'm chained to the laptop, not by endlessly lauding my wonderful prose 🙂

    I have writer friends who do encourage me, because they know how hard it is, and that's enough for me.

  • Thanks all for the additional comments and perspectives – interesting how much it differs from writer to writer.

  • Hi Alex,

    I read this blog post a while ago, and perhaps I should have paid more attention to your advice.

    In an attempt to garner support for my fledgling writing career, I recently asked my mum to have a look at my blog. After all, if I can't persuade my family to read my work, what hope have I of getting strangers to do so?

    After much prompting, my mum duly toddled off to the local library to have a look at the aforementioned blog yesterday.

    The following telephone conversation ensued:
    Me: "So what did you think?"
    Mother: "I'm a little confused".
    Me: "About what?"
    Mother: "What was I supposed to do once I accessed the blog?"
    Me: "READ IT!"
    Mother: "Oh".
    Silence …
    Mother (eventually): "But what exactly is the point of a blog, darling?"
    Me: "ARGHHH!"

    Great advice Alex. It's a pity I didn't take it on board sooner!

  • I think this is really helpful, particularly for me just starting out. I have been getting a bit carried away with it all – continuing with a novel, starting a blog, entering a couple of competitions. And my husband and family are supportive, but like you say, that is one conversation of many in a day that have nothing to do with what I wrote. So I found myself over the past couple of days putting my blog up on Twitter and a blogging networking site to get better stats. Then I realised what I'm actually doing is seeking attention, approval, applause even. Instead of knuckling down and getting on with writing what I want to write for my own sake, me who has wanted to do this for such a long time. So THANK YOU for bringing me back to where I should be. Onwards and upwards!

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