• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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You Probably Think This Song Is About You

Away for holiday weekend. In laws, then my husband’s old friends from college newspaper. I am always a bit nostalgic around these people, that is if you can be nostalgic for something you didn’t have. In my case, that would be college friends. I did have some, but I blew through them pretty quickly mostly because I didn’t have a clue who I was, and basically walked up to people like the little bird in the P.D. Eastman book and asked, “Are you my mother?

I digress. What this post is about is people walking up to me and asking, in five simple words, words that feel like a switch blade to the jugular, a rope around the neck, a hot coal to the foot, the ginormous wheel of the M5 bus threatening to pull you under as it wheezes down Fifth Avenue and leaves you crushed among the spectacular debris along a Manhattan curb where just ten feet away a man coats a hotdog with mustard and hands it to a dad from Montclair who has just seen the Temple of Dendur and has already forgotten all about it.

But I digress. Five simple words: What are you working on? Variations: So, what are you working on? Working on anything new? Anything ever happen with that screenplay? Weren’t you working on something for tv? How do you get ideas? When do you have time to write? Still keeping at it? Wasn’t your sister writing something for tv? What happened to that?

How does it make you feel, you know, being asked in polite company, what you’re working on?

36 Responses

  1. OK, here’s another one: How does it make you feel when, with great effort and a sense of well-earned triumph, you have finished the umpteenth revision of your first novel and are bravely sending it out into an unfeeling world of overly busy, nonresponsive agents, to hear an acquaintance say, “Congratulations! I hear your book is being published! How soon can I buy it?”

  2. All extremely painful questions. I frequently believe that medieval impalement would be less painful. But once I get past the initial knee-jerk reaction—though I do try to keep that knee as straight as possible because I don’t need people suing me for personal injury damages—I try to remind myself that these people have absolutely no clue what they’re talking about, have no idea how hard and time consuming the whole process takes, I only see them once or twice a year, they don’t actually *care*, and they have boring, mundane jobs that make the life of the stapler guy in Office Space look hip and amazing. It doesn’t always work, but I try, and those little elitist thoughts sometimes makes me feel a tad better.

  3. I kind of like when people ask me what I’m working on. There’s hope for it. Nobody’s compared it to a bad case of shingles and I’m naive enough to think it’s going to be pretty okay.

  4. People ask me all the time: So what’s next? What the new book? When’s the new book? I just tell them I’ve done that, and I’m cutting a CD of original songs.


    A Jackson Browne song was playing in my head as I read your post.

    Maybe people only ask you how you’re doing cause that’s easier than letting on how little they could care…… There comes a point when you’re not sure why you’re still talking. I passed that point long ago.

  6. I much prefer “what are you working on?” to “Haven’t you been working on that for years?”. Sadly, no one ever asks me what I’m working on.

    And I rarely talk about my current WiP because I did once get the comment “Haven’t you been working on that for years?”. And it’s true, I have been working on it for years, even if I don’t count the four years I stopped working on it.

  7. I still ask every kitten and Snort “are you my mother?” It’s one of the (myriad of) reasons I’m reluctant to leave the house.

  8. I forget that non-writers don’t know how the publishing world works. When I say, I’m working on a book, someone says, Oh, when will it be out? Some people seem to literally not understand that there is no guarantee that writing leads to publishing. I suppose if they did get it, they’d REALLY think I was nuts.
    Mostly, when someone asks, I feel like a C list actor, muttering about ‘this gig I’ve got in the works’ or highlighting something from a few years ago, all in attempt to avoid saying, I’m writing and I don’t know if anyone will ever give a shit and I’m only as good as the last thing I published.

  9. “where’s the book” as in where’s the beef as in is there really a book and if there is it must suck because you’ve been writing it for the last six years which clangs around my head and drops to my gut and lodges with all the other shit in my small/intestine/colon causing me to bloat

    not unlike when my first (and best) therapist asked 20 some-odd years ago when i was being treated for an eating disorder, “what do you like about yourself?”

  10. It makes me feel like a caged animal. Until I answer, “I’m working on becoming a better alcoholic.”

  11. I panic, obfuscate, and deny everything. (Not necessarily in that order.)

  12. I don’t like it because often the questions sound patronizing (“Still workin’ on that novel?” “Uh no, I’ve written about three novels since then, unpublished, but…”).. The alternative is worse, ie no one asks you about your writing because a) they don’t really think you’re a writer or b) they don’t want to bring up the topic because they think you suck as a writer and don’t want to encourage you, etc.

    I don’t tell people the plot of my novel because it kind of takes the wind out of my creative sails–not sure why.

    ARE YOU MY MOTHER was one of my favorite books–I think the first book I ever read!

  13. I love being asked, “so what’s happening with that” by people with absolutely no interest or knowledge of the writing, revising or post-writing process or the publishing industry in general. They invariably cross their arms, knit their brows or perform some other nonsense to demonstrate how engaged and critical they’re being. And of course, any answer aside from “I signed with an agent and was offered a three book deal with The Publisher Of Whom You’ve Heard” equates to “absolutely nothing – and nothing ever will”.

  14. Early one evening in Kenmore Square a homeless man wearing a tinfoil collar told me that if I lost fifty pound I’d look human. I did not consider the source. I did not even look in the mirror with any sort of objectivity. (Because I wasn’t overweight by anyone’s standards in those days.) I carried that cutting remark around for years, letting it lap over me again and again as if I was standing in a pond of sewage.

    People who chide you about your work are like the man in the tinfoil collar, and are best ignored. The others that ask– your mother’s friends, colleagues of one’s spouse, the parents of your children’s playmates– and usually on the heels of “What do you do?” –think that they are being polite by showing an interest and should get an upbeat well-honed response, followed with a friendly inquiry as to what they’ve been up to.

    You only need to worry when these people stop asking. Because then they think that something is wrong and it would not be polite to show an interest– or because the last time they asked you blew up in their face, or ran away weeping. This is simple social intercourse, you can manage it.

    • One afternoon I was walking in the Fashion District when a man wearing a tinfoil hat approached me. He asked if I was self-medicating. Ever since, I have believed in the power of tinfoil apparel.

  15. Hard, because people have such different ideas of what constitutes a “real” book and one on a book of the Bible is way over the top for some of my friends, they think I should be writing fiction or a memoir. What is even harder is my supportive husband has NO idea how hard it is to edit, and I am in editing mode – sometimes a page or two is all I can do at a time and he seems to think I can push it out with the same speed I wrote the rough draft. Sigh.

  16. Stock answer for anyone who asks what I do.
    “I write books that nobody buys.”

  17. Now, Betsy, for your problem.

    I would consider producing your screenplay, let’s meet.

    When someone asks, you now reply in all candor,
    1) “I have a producer interested.” (five words)
    2) “I am negotiating with a producer.” (six words)

  18. The one I really dread (from the well-meaning non-writers in my life) is “What are you doing next?” They always want something more reassuringly concrete than I can give them. My stock response is to laugh and say, “That’s a really interesting question. I’ll let you know when I find out.”

  19. It makes me feel like stabbing people.

    “What’s it to you chump? What are YOU working on?”

    I know what these people are up to … not-so-subtly / actually asking, “Has anything come of ANY of your projects yet? Anything tangible? Anything monetary? Anything that would make anything you do worthwhile in a normative human value system? Anything?”


  20. I have never been the kind of writer who talks to complete strangers wangling endearing anecdotes out of them for freelance columns. I don’t have a generic human-interest bone in my literary body.

    If I did I would relish holiday time with relatives, past co-workers and seldom seen acquaintances who do invariably ask clueless, and, I believe, passive/aggressive questions about the progress of my self assigned artistic (they all hate artists) work.

    And therein lies their real question. Why do I do it? Why would anyone give so much for possibly so little in return? Nobody asked me to. What’s the deal? I must be some kind of elite charlatan, an ant-social parasite who could at least smile every once in a godless while.

    So now I lay low and say, “Your guess is as good as mine.”

  21. People are more inclined to ask if I’ve found a job yet, so for now I rarely have to answer this question. On the few occasions where it has come up, I’ve been a bit freaked out. A bit in this case means very.

  22. Completely by accident or a universal comedy variety show in which I am unknowingly a contestant, I am at a talent agency in LA and they are looking at my manuscript for possible “official business”. Pretending that I am sophisticated as I am being whisked off from breakfast to brunch to lunch to lunch #2, I am handing out what I now see as a terrible version of my unfinished manuscript to producers I don’t even know.

    Okay so I say “fuck” and “cunt” way to many times for Hallmark. And no I won’t take out those words. Seriously there is no Hallmark version of “cunt”.

    But what did I know.

    I get to my hotel room exhausted from the whole thing and for a little support I decide to call my mother. (When will I ever learn?) I try to say, “Omg! Mom this is exhausting and confusing and premature because my book is not even done. I have to finish/publish before any of this.”

    And what does she say?

    “What do you mean its not done yet, its been three years! Jean, really.”

    She is the only one on the planet that calls me Jean. “Mom, MY NAME IS JEANNIE.”

    “Jean, do you think you are being a perfectionist? Are you are holding on to that manuscript because there is something in you that does not want to let it go?”


    Note to self–put back in all the parts about your crazy mother.

  23. I was also a little bird. I’ve started saying I’m working on marketing, which is true. Or will be. Mostly. It sounds decisive and if I put on my serious face they seem quite satisfied. But it’s getting out of control. I have my own little fan club and I don’t even have a book. They aren’t people I know really well. They’re friends of friends of friends…. one person sleeps with another…Anyhow, they’re all waiting to buy this book that they just know is going to make it. Even if I talk myself blue in the face that it’s not a given. I’ve been asked to run events. Someone handles PR for authors. I’m touched but talk about pressure. I’m going to start saying I crochet and watch my stories everyday.

  24. To me, that question is really the slightly more personalized version of “Hey, how’s it going?” It’s a polite question–in general people aren’t interested in a hugely detailed or insightful (or even truthful) answer. So I usually just give them the writing equivalent of “Pretty good, can’t complain, hanging in there.” It’s nothing to get freaked out about for me, because I know it’s politeness, not anything more intensive or interested or (on my more paranoid days) sinister, prompting the question.

  25. After my previous publisher killed my line, I was orphaned. Left the 3rd & last book with unanswered questions. That was in 2006. Fast forward to now & I still get “So, when’s that next book going to be out?” Explaining that publishers don’t continue publishing failed lines/imprints is akin to explaining nuclear physics, and just as interesting. I say, “It’s in the hopper,” and wish they would hop off a cliff.

    Being in the ninth circle of no-book-out-and-none-on-the-way-Hell for 4 years is its own special misery. Now that I’ve sold again, a YA, I told my family to shut-up about it. I’ve told very few non-writer friends. (I shouted obnoxiously with great glee to writing friends.)Explaining that no, this isn’t a continuation of the series I started, but a young adult book, is less fun than cutting off both of my arms and catching my hair on fire. “You mean you wrote a book for kids? Like, with pictures?!” “No, it’s for teens. No pictures.” “Oh, so you’re going to be the next Stephenie Meyer! I don’t get the fascination with those books. Vampires? They’re not real, and that Robert Pattinson guy is a freak. Is your book about vampires?”

    *sticks fork in eye*

    In yet another tiresome question category:
    A ‘friend’ asked how much money I made on my first book. Rude, much? I said, “Millions. You really should try writing. It’s a piece of cake and easy money.”

  26. i just say “writing lots, going well”. how could i explain i just read a 49 page report on fiber-optic cables so i could use one as a symbol? spent 3 days thinking about what to write. net: two paragraphs.

    ps. the history of fiber-optic cables is fascinating.

  27. The question “What are you working on?” doesn’t make me crazy; it’s the intentions behind it. Usually I find the question is an attempt at polite, uninterested conversation, or an intro for someone to talk about what they themselves are working on. People seem to consistently forget that I write a biweekly column, and that they can read it online if they really want to know what I’m working on.

  28. I agree with Amelia. The question is just a polite way to initiate a conversation. I find it less annoying than, “Still writing about xxx?”

    Here’s the question that really bugs me: “What name do you write under?” Of course it’s my own name, but it appears in a paper they don’t read. (That is, it’s not The New York Times.)

  29. Rarely happens except amongst my closest friends who know I write and who also have worked in the book business or are writers themselves. Even then I downplay any queries with a short and simple reply that I’m still working on it but am at ‘X’ point in the process. I kind of look at writing for publication as a very private thing I don’t much discuss or even get out there. Perhaps because I don’t want the attention/questions and also because I believe if I’m writing for publication I’m not going to openly discuss it because a. I might somehow jinx myself and b. it just strikes me as a bit egotistical? Publication is the goal and until I achieve that I’m simply toiling in the trenches and I prefer a very low profile. If and when I am published then I will let the world know…primarily to promote the book so it is hopefully successful.

  30. Well . . . consider the source.

    If it’s myhusband’s old college friends asking, it’s because they have some vague idea that I “do” something creative, and they want to show some small talk interest. If I worked in a widget factory, they’d ask about the widget market, and how the economy is affecting the factory, etc.

    They mean no harm, and I respond that I’ve got a number of irons in the fire. Maybe I give an elevator speech about a current project that has my hair on fire–and then ask them about their job in the widget factory. (That’s what they really want to talk about, and I can sneakily note hairlines, gestures, and verbal tics while they do so.)

    If it’s my mother-in-law . . . I tell her I’m fine. Still working. Thanks. Awfully large weather we’re having, isn’t it? And how about that local sports team?

  31. A bit flattering but at the same time a bit intrusive.

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