A Writer’s Life in Polite Society

Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.

– Stephen King, On Writing

I don’t typically read at meals with others, but I know that I have other writerly rudenesses that present themselves in public. For example, I tend to make up stories about the people around me in my head, which means I’m most likely staring at strangers for longer than makes them comfortable. I also tend to ramble to my table mates about characters, plot, something I read, stories I find intensely funny. If I’m in a mixed crowd of people I know well, and people I’ve just met, those who know me will shortly be rolling their eyes as I recount tales of my past in exact ways, with the same words used every time, like I’m a 16th century bard spinning tales of battle and glory.

In a discussion with a friend last night, I said how I hinge between obnoxiously extroverted and painfully introverted. We surmised that this is a writer’s affliction. One day, we are the shit. We are powerful, invincible, and full of creative might! The next day, we crawl into our little hole and ask please, world, just leave us be. The hard part is functioning in a normal job, and walking through life with grace and normality.

There are reasons I strive to be a member of polite society, in as much as is possible. But I’m starting to questions my own intentions.

1) I do it for my kids

They go to school and have friends and social lives. And I have to admit, when I’m around a herd of moms who are all trying to more than or better than everyone else there, it’s all I can do to not just be a total whack job, just for fun.

I was once the subject of a hypnotist act. The stage hypnotist, Bruce McDonald, who traveled to my college each year gave a talk the next day to all of the participants. In our lecture, he told us the tale of how he toys with first class businessmen on the airlines. He travels in a suit and tie, and he carries a rather standard briefcase. When he takes his seat next to a similarly dressed man, he typically gets a cordial greeting and a firm handshake. Then Mr. Business will pull out his briefcase, and start sifting through paperwork. At this point, Bruce similarly pulls out his case, which he props open just slightly, and pulls out a handful of shiny confetti, which he tosses up in the air. The typical, side-long glance by the businessman is followed by and edging over in the seat. Avoidance. Then Bruce pulls out a fluffy stuffed bunny, which he sets on his tray, followed by a shoe on a stick. Sometimes, these businessmen ask to be relocated. But he said, surprisingly, they’ll typically ask him what gives. Bruce will then produce a business card and introduce himself, and sometimes he’ll even get a corporate gig out of it – just for being silly and having fun.

BachSo I wonder, why do I squelch that playful inner being that is my writer’s self for the sake of appearing normal around the parents of other children?  Wouldn’t my kids be happier if I let out the goofball, loosened up, and played, regardless of what those other moms thought? The answer is a resounding “yes.” I’ve made a concerted effort to be more free with my creativity in public. We sing at the dinner table, tell goofy jokes, make up wild stories while we drive and talk about all of the oddities of the world.

I really don’t care if my kids win trophies or graduate at the top of their class; and I certainly don’t care what other people think of my family. What I do care about is teaching my kids to reach deeply for life, finding joy wherever possible. I want them to know themselves thoroughly enough to express who they are in their most authentic manner without fear of the judgment of others. If I’m not leading by example, how will they ever get there?

2) I do it for my coworkers

I’m in a professional career; a software developer. Granted, I sit in what amounts to a corporate cave, and I write code all day. The people who flank me in the office are just as quirky as I am. Their mode of quirk varies, but developers aren’t typically known for their social prowess. Still, when I’m at work, I attempt to be cool and collected. I don’t talk much about my writing or my creative thoughts. Code is logic, and logic is rigorous, and rigor is…. Boring!

The real reason I like to code is because of its creative aspects. It’s very much like writing a novel; there is structure, and conflict (stupid compiler) and when finished, the product is meant for the consumption of others. When a screen that I coded pops up and works, I always have the realization that I’ve created something from nothing. It’s analogous to the emotions generated from writing fiction.

Yet I still strive to present myself as the logical, rigorous, boring business person. What I really want to do is replace my wardrobe with something acceptable, yet unique. I want to decorate my cubicle and make it a space where I’m truly comfortable, and not just the place I mildly tolerate.

I’ve started, somewhat. I have a wonderful artist’s rendition of Rose and the Tardis (Bad Wolf). I have a collage art piece I put together at the Phoenix Art Museum. I have my pirate sock monkey (everyone needs one of those, right? RIGHT?) But I could do more.

3) I no longer do it for my friends

I used to want to fit in. I was wildly unpopular as a kid. Not really bullied (most of the time) but just ignored. It turned around as I got older, and I found myself part of a wonderful group of close-knit friends in high school with whom I still keep in touch. We were the band geeks, and we were happy with our lot. But I still tried; I wanted an in to the popular crowd. However, I’m hopelessly awkward around that type of group, and try as I might, it just never worked in my favor.

It took me until my late thirties to truly get past the mentality of “fitting in.” I kid you not. Somewhere around the age of 38, I decided against the idea entirely, and I found friends who fit me instead. It meant letting go of some relationships. As painful as and difficult as it seemed at the time, the result was a weight lifted, and myself reborn. I love the group of people I call “friends.” They are accepting; they understand my quirks; they beta read my writing. When I ask nicely. But like one of my dearest friends said (and I’m paraphrasing here), It’s nice to be somewhere that you know that you’re accepted and loved for exactly who you are, and that you don’t have to pretend. That’s why I like being here*. I can always just be myself.

*The “here” of which she spoke was my back patio, where we have stayed up many nights, sharing stories and tears and laughs.

If I can’t just be me around my friends, then they’re not really my friends. It’s a lesson I learned way too late in life. So of course, that means I push the idea on my kids.

So, if Mr. Stephen King would ever like to join my merry band of impolite socialites, he’s fully welcome. We can spin tales, be goofy, dream big and I won’t even mind if he reads at the dinner table.

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