What do you do? This week our Year of the Novel blogger, Caro, tackles the awkward conversation and  misconceptions about writing that follow whenever she’s asked that question…

It usually happens somewhere between the first drink and the third. You’ll be standing in someone’s lounge room, admiring their collection of display weaponry* and regretting your choice of party shoes, when a stranger will approach you and introduce themselves.

Without knowing much about each other, you’ll fall back on occupation as a conversation starter. But there’s only so much a person can talk about their own pole-vaulting career before they eventually turn to you and ask: “What do you do?”

If you’re feeling brave (or crazy, and let’s face it – the line between them is a perilously thin one) you’ll mention the unthinkable: that you write. And so it begins.

The problem with telling people you write – or that you’re a writer – is that it creates a lot of expectation. People romanticise the creative process, and explaining that you sit in a room quietly typing (and deleting) sentences simply doesn’t cut it.  A little creative licence can spice up the image a bit – but there is simply no licentia poetica on Earth that prepares you for the next comment.

“You’re a writer? Oh, great. I’ve got a wonderful idea for a story.”

Inevitably, people have very different ideas about what constitutes a wonderful story, and the ideas that follow are often a long way from my own: The life and death of a sports car. A political thriller set in a fish and chip shop. A playboy bunny becomes a superhero. Vampire cats. Doomed romance circa 1725 Spain.

Even when the ideas are good, they’re still not mine – and that’s something I find very hard to explain to well-meaning party guests whose only crime is being interested in my work. I write because because ideas wake me up to harass me in the middle of the night and, somehow, other people’s ideas are never as persistently unsettling as my own.  If you’ve found a way to break this news to people, I’d love to hear it.  But if not, if someone ever does write Vampire Cats, let me know – I’d love to read it.

*NB: The writer may have unwittingly misled you into thinking her friends are diverse enough to include weapons enthusiasts who invite pole vaulters to their house parties. Mostly her friends inhabit houses full of books, and enjoy raging tea-fuelled evenings, followed by a quiet lie-down or an episode of The Bill.

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