dr. shordzi

Don’t Ask, “How’s the Book Going?”

Your friend may not know how it’s going

Writing something as big as a book means you can easily get lost. At the beginning, you shove off with great excitement and paddle around on your laptop until suddenly you are in the middle of the project and can no longer see the shore. When you started you were pretty sure it was a genius idea with a clear course, but with each passing day you become less certain. It’s common to get several hundred pages into a manuscript before arriving at the thudding conclusion that it’s all shit. Time to abandon ship. So, until the project is done — and sometimes even then — it can be hard for your friend to tell you how it’s going.

Even when it’s going well, it can be hard to know how to answer

Writing requires intense mental absorption, and big writing projects are complicated. Your friend may be producing pages at a furious pace, but, when asked to look up from the keyboard and say something about the work, even the most glib writer can be a bit dumbfounded. Like a six-year-old who’s asked, “How was school today?” The question can be a perfect conversation killer.

The project is big enough as it is, and your question just makes it seem even bigger

A friend told me that, whenever he got on the phone with his mother during the year he was writing his PhD dissertation, she would ask, “Have you finished that paper yet?”

That paper.

Every question about a big project is a reminder that it isn’t finished. It would be different if your friend were a contractor building a house. There would be obvious progress each day, and you might not even need to ask. You could just look over and say, “Hey, you’re moving right along.”

But writing is a private activity that is far less linear than many people imagine. The words you put together one day may have to be disassembled the next. In the worst cases, you may have to bulldoze the whole structure. And each question about “how’s it going?” is a reminder of how much further there is to go.

If you are a close friend or family member, it is probably unrealistic to completely swear off asking the “how’s it going?” question. Willfully ignoring the writer’s daily grind might seem neglectful or uncaring, so you will need to ask. But pace is everything.

Once, when I was teaching a large class, a particularly eager student would raise his hand to make a comment as many as a dozen times a session. He was well-intentioned, but his behavior annoyed the other students and discouraged them from participating. Before the semester got very far along, I took the young man aside and told him I would call on him no more than three times per class. He accepted this limitation willingly, and things were fine from that point on.

Try to think of your writer friend as the other students in that classroom. Don’t ask too often. It gets annoying. If you space out your questions, the writer will have more to say, and your curiosity will be more welcome.