I’m at a dinner party. My partner gestures to me and says to the man we’re making small talk with: “Rose is a writer. In fact, she’s writing a novel!”
“Well, isn’t that something!” he begins. I take a sip of wine big enough to stain all my teeth garnet and wait for one of the following questions:
What is it about? (Oof, I should know the answer to that by now. But I don’t, quite. Hard to explain that for me at least, writing a novel is more like embarking on a relationship. You don’t do it because you know what it will be about. You do it to find out.)
Written anything I’ve heard of? (Nope.)
When’s it being published? (Oh, it’s, uh, still in what we would call the developmental stages.)
What kind of novel? (It’s not genre or commercial, but if I say literary I’m REALLY PRETENTIOUS, so…the regular kind?)
Not to say that there’s anything wrong with these questions. In fact, they’re more thoughtful than many of my attempts to ask about the vocations of others (So, have you engineered anything cool lately? Like, biomedically speaking?). But when I stagger my way through the answers, I feel like I’m defending something.
“Can you please not say that to strangers?” I beg later, after the party. She asks why. She’s asked before, and it’s a valid question. Why don’t I want people—especially strangers—to know that I’m writing a novel?
I don’t have a great answer. “I just feel like it makes me sound…” What? Self-indulgent? Pretentious? Disconnected from real life? Naïve? Earnest?
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. I had a friend who put “I’m writing a novel” on her online dating profile under the prompt “The thing I’m most embarrassed to admit…” I was impressed; she managed to communicate that she is a novel-writing badass, but also self-deprecating in a charming way. (Many, many men in a 15-mile radius apparently agreed with me.)
If it isn’t just me, then there’s something embarrassing about making art. What?
Art-making is embarrassing because it’s one of the most earnest things you can do. Like love or need, it’s inherently unironic. You can’t pretend you do it because it pays the bills. It’s begging for a closer look into the humanity of others; it’s engaging with questions about mortality. So, it’s caring in a big way, and it bears the congenital risks of caring.
Of course it can be more comfortable to find refuge in irony than to look life in the face. And maybe this is why it’s uncomfortable when my date tells a stranger at a dinner party that I really, really care about something.
But lately I’ve started to feel like there’s more to it than that. There’s one other response I get a lot, but almost always from men. They say: You know, I could write a novel! I’ve always thought I had a book in me. I always say absolutely, everyone has stories to tell, which I believe entirely. Then we can transition to discussing the untold story he’s been carrying around all these years, and I stop worrying that he will insinuate one of the following things:
If I make the time to write seriously, I must be independently wealthy and not understand the meaning of work.
If I write about those other than myself, I think I can speak for other people.
If my writing is character-driven, I fancy myself capable of the kind of radical empathy that it takes to write good fiction.
If I bother to write at all, I think the stories I have to tell could be interesting to someone besides myself, and what gives me that idea?
I’ve heard all of these. But usually, people’s reactions are not like this. They seem excited for me, or genuinely interested. And that’s almost harder, because then my discomfort is clearly a result of my own self-doubt. Insecurity is much more insidious than insult. Why can’t I be more like these men, who are so confident—even when they don’t actually write—that they have a story that would grip the world if they ever got around to penning it?
I’m writing in the toxic wake of the final presidential debate, and thinking of all the ways women are humored, not trusted. I’m a woman, and also a millennial, and a teacher, and a queer person. Each of these axes of my identity undercuts my credibility in today’s world. Maybe this is why I fear being humored more than just about anything. And rarely do I feel so humored as when I tell a straight white man twice my age about my novel, because he is the person for whom the literary world is built. I work hard to cultivate my credibility, so why compromise it?
At GrubStreet’s The Muse and the Marketplace this year, I attended a session called The Right to Write. It explored sensitive, complex, and incredibly important political questions about writing responsibly across difference, and about the responsibility inherent in all fiction writing. Though there were plenty of men at the conference, all forty-some attendees at this session were women. At the end of the session, I asked the presenter whether she’d noticed this. “There was one man at the beginning,” she said. “But he got up and left.” Maybe, we agreed, men aren’t socialized to question the self-expressive impulse like we are.
Then perhaps it’s a tiny feminist act to say, why yes, I am writing a novel. I have stories worth telling. Not more worth telling than anyone else’s stories, but also not less. Reconceiving a socially awkward moment as a feminist act has its obvious appeals. But the greatest is embracing that the visceral, embarrassingly intimate thing we call writing belongs to me, too.