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“Oh, really? What do you write?”

There are artists, and then there are writers. Some people will tell you that writers are artists, too. I agree with this, but I make a distinction – and for a very good reason: To admire an artist’s work requires eyes (or ears, depending on whether it’s visual art or music); but to admire a writer’s work requires at the very least an attention span. This is something a lot of people lack. Well, to be fair, it’s either attention span, or time. Either way, you cannot look at a book and admire it. You need to sit down and actually read it. This is the loophole that makes so many good books go unappreciated, and so much trash sell like crazy.

When people find out I am a writer (and I use that term because that is what I do, and I do not believe the title should be exclusive to published authors) the first thing they always ask is, “What do you write?” Even after the dozenth, or the hundredth time, I am still stumped by that simple question.

How do I answer? I began making up stories the moment I knew such things existed. I began writing poems as soon as I learned to write – and I still have those very first ones saved as a precious memory. With all the stories, genres, styles, and lengths I have tried; with all the different hats I have put on, so to speak, how do I narrow it down to a one-sentence answer? Because, in reality, that is what it takes. The average person has the attention span for one or two sentences and after that, if they don’t like what they’re hearing, their eyes glaze over and they stop paying attention. That means, that the average speaker (in this case, the addressed writer) has two sentences to sell themselves. Do you see my dilemma?

How do I, on first meeting, gauge a stranger’s preferences, figure out if my creations fit into them, and find a way to explain in enough detail to give it justice, but make it short enough to keep the person interested – and then do all this in the span of a few seconds so as not to seem an idiot for not knowing how to answer? I can make up an entire universe in about five seconds and fill it with magnificent creatures never before seen. But to tell someone what I do… impossible.

If I say, “A little of everything,” the listener’s mind automatically reroutes the thought process to an UNDECIDED perception, which often translates to amateur, and therefore not worth the time. Which, if you think about it, is absolutely ridiculous. Shakespeare would fit into that definition. He wrote plays, sonets, in every genre imaginable and awed the masses – still does, hundreds of years later. Not that I am comparing myself to Shakespeare. My point is, “A little of everything” is understood to mean that the person is just beginning to try their hand at something, and hasn’t yet found a niche. It doesn’t take into account the sheer scope of human imagination. In order to qualify myself with this, I would have to add that I have been writing novel-length stories since age 15. But by doing that, I am already exhausting my two sentence limit.

If I say, “Romance,” I am instantly relegating my stories to the TRASH category. Men often think romance novels are just porn for women. And women, very often have been put down for reading romance novels. I know I have been. So even if this is something that might interest them, they are already less likely to admit to it, and will want to change the subject. Besides this, romance is not the only genre I write. My stories are, more often than not, a mix of genres. True, they involve a strong romantic element, but the relationship itself is not what the story centers around. Or, rather, not the only thing it centers around. And so, by choosing “Romance,”or any one genre, I am misrepresenting my work.

If I say a length (novel, novella, short story, flash fiction, poem), I am again misrepresenting my work, because the truth is I have written all of the above at some point or another. But here lies a trap or opportunity. Short stories are easier to stomach, and to explain. A 1k story (1,000 words) can easily be summarized in a couple of sentences. But it is not nearly the best work I am capable of. To snare a reader for two pages is easy. To keep them reading for one or two hundred more, that’s the trick. It is likely that the listener knows this, too. If they hear about a short story, they might like it, but they might not consider me capable of more involved plots.

In the end, it always comes to, “I could send/give you a story to read, if you’d like.” Here, there are three possible outcomes:

1. The person says, “Thanks, I’ll read it later.” And, inevitably, never does, because they lack the time/interest/attention span/imagination necessary to truly enjoy the story.

2. The person says, “That’s nice, but (insert excuse of choice here).” And the conversation ends soon after.

3. The person says, “Really? That’d be great!” And they read the story and tell you what they thought, positive or negative. This only happens when a writer has already managed to hook a listener/reader. Options 1 and 2 are far more likely.

But when you find a person or a group of people truly willing to listen and give you a chance, it is absolutely amazing how great it feels. It makes all the other awkward conversations, nervous stutters, and uncomfortable silences absolutely worth it, just to have someone look at you and see a writer.

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