Doyyy I wish I could do that herp derp derp
January 11, 2012 1:23 PM   Subscribe

How do I talk to people whose work I admire without coming across as starstruck, opportunistic, tactless, or otherwise obnoxious?

Anonymous because I feel like a major deluxe dorkomat asking this.

This question is inspired in part by PhoBWanKenobi's answer in this thread, and in part by a few accomplished friends-of-friends I know. They're really cool people on their own merits, and they just happen to be doing things I really admire and wish I could do myself.

For example, one of these friends-of-friends has a novel coming out this year. Yay! Awesome! I'm intensely curious about the process and want to hear all about it. But, you know, I bet he's probably already sick of people treating him special, or saying the same five uninformed annoying things, or talking about their half-assed dreams of writing a novel and declaring themselves besties based on this supposed shared interest.

(And, okay. Yes, I'd like to write a novel. I know: I have no idea what it's like and writing sucks a good chunk of the time and don't expect to make any money and I'm not as good of a writer as I think I am and if I really wanted to write a novel I would be writing a novel and not this question. I don't want to be that irritating pretentious wannabe, all somedays and if-onlys and no accomplishments.)

This is not a question of how I can become a novelist or whether I should try. This is a question of how to talk to people like him, either as a friend or in an informational interview context. I want to be respectful of both their work and of their non-work selves. I don't want to fawn. I don't want to look like I'm only interested in them because of what they've done. But I'd like to know more about it, if they're willing to share.

How can I ask them about their accomplishments without coming across as obnoxious? Especially when they're things I'd like to do myself? I mean, I'd love to sell a novel, but I don't want to be like "You are sooooooo talented! Can I touch your notebook?" or "Wow, that's my dream! You must have a dream job, gee huh? Is it totally awesome?" or "Oh yeah, if only I had the time and dedication I could probably write something good, so like I have sooo much respect for all the hard work you've done" or "Wanna read my manuscript? Can I get your agent's card? You'll let me piggyback off your years of hard work, right?"

If you're well-known for your work, how do you prefer laypeople to bring it up? Or do you wish they didn't? What's okay for me to say, and what isn't?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
i don't get why this is hard. i mean, they're just ppl. i recently had lunch with probably one of the most seminal rappers of the 90s (his wife is an old h.s. friend of mine) whom i admire so it was really surreal that i was having lunch with him. like most people, we talked about my life, which included my career as well as his life, which, you know, includes his career as well—and that career just happens to involve music and touring. you talk to them like you would anyone else. by asking questions and showing interest in them. it doesn't matter that they happen to have just written a book. you just equate that to knowing that someone has just gone on vacation or some such: "oh wow, you just went to fiji! that's so awesome—i'm totally jealous: i've always wanted to go! how was it? what did you do? etc, etc." if you are genuinely interested in someone and ask them about their experiences, unless they are an asshole, i can't see how they wouldn't be happy to talk about something that was good that has happened to them.
posted by violetk at 1:38 PM on January 11, 2012

Before his novel was accepted for publishing, who was he? Answer: the same person he is now, minus a publishing deal. Remember that and you're half-way there.

If these are people you know well enough to engage in casual conversation, do so. They're people like you who just happen to have been successful at something. Don't assume that they only want to talk about that one thing they're known for. If they're getting tired of talking about that one thing, they'll be glad to just chat about whatever everyday things you have in common.

It's fine to just say "Hey, by the way, congratulations on that publishing deal. I'm really pleased for you. It must have taken a lot of work." See how they react. If they want to talk about it, you'll know. If they don't , discuss a mutual acquaintances's new girlfriend, or that new bar, or whatever. Maybe there'll be an opening to talk about it another time. Remember, they're basically just you plus fifteen minutes of fame.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 1:45 PM on January 11, 2012

I too think you're over-thinking it. Most people love talking about themselves and their success. If you're worried about coming off too herp derp doy than just hold back on the compliments beyond 'that's great/that's interesting' and then ask the questions you are curious about.

Seriously, maybe I'm just socially awkward, but I've always found that if somebody has done something I find cool, they pretty much love hearing that. That's not to say that everybody is narcissistic, but there's a large space between narcissism and wanting to talk about yourself and most people are pretty comfortably in that space. And anybody who reacts poorly ("I can't believe Anonymous asked me about that again.") is snotty enough that you probably shouldn't care about their opinion anyway.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:49 PM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

You assume he's sick of talking about his book. He may or may not be. Try asking:

"Congratulations in your book. I'm really curious about the process and want to hear all about it. Are you sick of talking about it?"
posted by ManInSuit at 1:50 PM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

You talk to them for more than a few minutes.

Nobody has come up to me and gushed over my work; the closest thing I have ever gotten to that is something I suspect a lot of people in technology have gotten: the "oh wow you must be really smart."

Well, I have a healthy self-image so okay, I think I'm a smart guy. But they're talking about something that's a result of my deciding to devote my career to something. I don't think it makes me special and in this forum in particular it doesn't make me unusual. It makes me someone who put long-term continued effort into gaining mastery (hah) over something.

I presume the people you are talking to represent the same thing. And I presume that the majority of them are, like me, happy to talk about the aspects of that thing they do which they love. They probably don't want to listen to you recap these things they did which you think are SOOOOO GREAT but if it's something they felt good about then they're probably happy to answer an informed question about it.

So I'd say it really boils down to the same basic conversational skills you want to use with anyone. Try to be aware of their response - if they seem like they're trying to change the topic or disengage then be a good conversationalist and take the hint. Be open to letting the conversation shift even if it's not going to continue in the way you're really interested in.

You might do well to look up some tips on how to cultivate mentors. If you really want some devoted conversation on certain subjects I'd say "hey, this isn't the time or place but I'm working on XYZ and would love to pick your brain a little bit about this thing you did which seems similar. Maybe I could buy you a cup of coffee or lunch or something and we could talk about it some time." If they say no, now's a great time, super. If they never bring it up again... that's a hint too. But if they give you the opening to follow up then do it.
posted by phearlez at 1:51 PM on January 11, 2012

As far as praise goes, I am ecstatic to discuss my work when people are interested in the actual things I've made and want to discuss specific things about them, e.g., "I thought this part of the design was really interesting in this game" rather than "What is it like to make videogames?? That must be awesome!", or "Hey, that couplet was really clever" rather than "What is it like to be in a band?? That must be awesome!"

Even better than praise is real discussion of the works (e.g., "I was curious why you made this design decision" or "I like this song but I kinda thought the bridge was too long"), but I don't expect anyone to be so excited about the things that I've done that they really want to get into a long debate about it. But one of the most satisfying exchanges I've had as a musician was someone who liked my band writing a long and detailed missive about what he didn't like about our latest CD compared to the one before it.

If you don't know anything about their work I would suggest trying to ask specific questions, like say "What is the process of working with an editor like?" or "What was the most surprising thing to you about the process of getting a novel published?" ("What was the most surprising thing about X" is my secret conversational weapon), rather than "What's it like writing a novel?"
posted by dfan at 1:55 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Treat them like a normal person who does something interesting. Absolutely be friendly and interested in them and their work, but don't equate familiarity with that work to familiarity with them as people. Ask questions and then listen to the answers, instead of looking for the first opportunity to change the subject to your own projects. Don't ask for professional favors, like for them to read your book or introduce you to their agent. Give honest compliments about their work, but be ready for them to wave it off or have what might feel like a canned answer -- "Oh, thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it!" -- lots of creative people feel self-conscious talking about their work, or even exhausted by it, particularly if they're at all famous. Remember that their creative work is still their job, and they might be stressed out or upset about it at that moment and not in the mood to chat about it, particularly if you're at a party or other casual gathering.

The most important thing is to pay attention to the signals they're giving you, like you would with anyone else. If you're both at a party, they may be happy to spend the evening giving you detailed tips on novel writing, or they may be eager to catch up with someone else and thus only offer a couple distracted minutes of their attention. Be ready for either, and if it's the latter, be gracious about it and don't assume they just think they're too important to talk to you.

All of that said: if you want to have a straight-up shop-talk conversation with them, and have met them in person even briefly, you could go ahead and email them and ask if they want to grab coffee and chat with you about publishing. I have done this myself many times, and it's resulted in fantastic conversations. People want to be helpful!
posted by Narrative Priorities at 2:08 PM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think you've already hit most of the things that are annoying for me to hear as a novelist. I always like to talk about the process. It's flattering and it's something that I'm extremely emotionally invested in and spend a lot of time thinking about so I always want to talk about it.

The only caution I have is that I would draw a line between emotional validation and practical advice. If someone says, "I want to write a novel," I'm going to say, "That's great!". If someone says, "My novel is 300,000 words long," I'm going to say, "Yeah, it's really hard to sell a novel that long, because the paper costs go up so much, and then people aren't interested in spending that much money on a book by an author they don't know." And I may like you as a person, and enjoy hanging around with you, but also think you may not have the chops to write a great novel. So -- it can get really awkward when you don't know whether the person you're talking to wants advice or just validation, so I would much rather hear "Hey, I'm interested in writing a novel, would I be able to pick your brain for some practical advice?" just so that we both know where we stand. (Even as a professional, I'll often talk to friends/colleagues and specifically ask for a pep talk or cheerleading, as opposed to a critique or conversation about the Harsh Realities of Publishing.)
posted by Jeanne at 2:34 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a writer, I love meeting people who love my writing, but what I really want them to say is, "hey, I loved [XYZ]!" and then I say thank you so much, and then we talk about normal stuff -- Tim Tebow, Vampire Diaries, the GOP primaries, the weather, whatever. A genuine, meaningful compliment is ALWAYS really appreciated, and a thoughtful question is also appreciated, but in general it makes me personally uncomfortable when people want to spend the whole conversation talking about me and what I am up to and my process and stuff.

But one of the most satisfying exchanges I've had as a musician was someone who liked my band writing a long and detailed missive about what he didn't like about our latest CD compared to the one before it.

This is one of those things where YMMV. If someone came up to me and started explaining why they liked my 2nd book better than my 3rd, I would not really appreciate that and I don't think our conversation would be very satisfying for you.

If you're talking about having these discussions with someone you actually know, just talk to them the way you'd talk to any friend about their job. If, however, you want to have an "informational interview," don't do it at a party. Tell them you'd love to pick their brain about publishing and take them out for a drink for that specific purpose. People do like to help and (not to generalize) many writers (me) like a cocktail.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 3:15 PM on January 11, 2012

Speaking as a writer who has experienced the soul-crushing process of umpteen thousand rejections, you might consider asking questions along the lines of, "what was the hardest part of X." That way you are giving the asked person freedom to talk about whatever difficulty in the process they overcame.

I work in an academic environment, and when students hear that I've written an (UNPUBLISHED) novel, their eyes get sort of shiny and they tell me they can't wait to read it! And will it be made into a movie! And other stuff. Then I usually let out a bleat of cynicism that makes that glowy light go away in their eyes.

I gotta tell you, I really fucking hate it when people ask me what my book is about. I now say "incest" which is not really true, but people ask no more questions after that.

I also don't enjoy (outside of writing groups) hearing about (in more than a glancing way) what other writers are working on. But I am kind of a bad person, so there's that.

But if somebody said: 'What is the hardest part about being a writer' I would love that question.
posted by angrycat at 3:17 PM on January 11, 2012

1. Treat them as normal people - if you meet them in social situations, act accordingly
2. If you want to ask about their work ask specific questions, not general questions (i.e. do your research before asking questions)
3. If you want an opportunity for an informational interview, ask them for that. Don't expect to be able to have that conversation if you've just met them socially. If they're "off duty", respect that.
posted by finding.perdita at 5:40 PM on January 11, 2012

Not sure if this applies to the people / situations that prompted your question, but one thing I've run into (at least back when I was blogging regularly and had what might semi-presumptuously be called a "readership") that's driven me up the wall is when people come across something I did / wrote three years ago and start talking to me as if it's still three years ago. So, if you're talking about published writers/artists/media-producing folks here at all, please try and make sure to keep things current and recognize that time does pass and people move on to different projects (in addition to changing their opinions, rethinking their politics, etc.) IMO this sort of thing, if not paid attention to, starts getting annoying on the order of people persistently talking to you as if you're still at a job you had as a teenager or in a relationship with someone who is now an ex. Honest mistakes are certainly not going to get you blacklisted but it just seems...polite to acknowledge that just because someone produces things that themselves stay static with time, that doesn't mean they themselves are also static in time.
posted by aecorwin at 8:54 AM on January 12, 2012

In the context of an existing get-to-know-them conversation, mention briefly that you saw their previous work and admired it, then ask what they're doing these days.
posted by ead at 9:17 AM on January 12, 2012

I know: I have no idea what it's like and writing sucks a good chunk of the time and don't expect to make any money and I'm not as good of a writer as I think I am and if I really wanted to write a novel I would be writing a novel and not this question. I don't want to be that irritating pretentious wannabe, all somedays and if-onlys and no accomplishments.

You seem to be under the impression that these sorts of things are useful to have rattling around in your head, and that if you had been crazy enough to tell us that you want to write a novel without including them we would have all lined up to slap you back down to Earth, and make sure you know that this is not something that's possible for you.

I think that this belief is part of what's making it so hard for you to approach people who have done something that impresses you. Because you're doing all this preemptive sniping at yourself about the possibility of accomplishing anything like this, it starts to seem impossible, which makes the people who can do that sort of this seem special and superhuman. They're not.

So, let me put this as bluntly as I can: the stuff in italics that I quoted from your question? That's bullshit. Nobody needs those voices in their head. If you want to write a novel you should write one (I'm not telling you to quite your job to do it, but luckily writing can be done in your spare time). Stop telling yourself you're not as good a writer as you think you are, and start telling yourself you can write. And then give it a try.
posted by Ragged Richard at 11:08 AM on January 12, 2012

The difference between respectful attention vs fawning is that with fawning, you want to maintain a projected fantasy of the other person, instead of truly getting to know them as a person. Fawning objectifies them and discards their actual personality, making the person feel invalidated.

One way to determine whether you're fawning versus being genuinely interested is how you handle facts that are surprising. A fawning person quickly rejects facts that don't fit into their fantasy, so that they can continue the fantasy. If the writer talks about his prior 20 rejections, they will say "No way, i can't believe someone as talented as you would get any rejections! I'm sure that didn't happen!" Or they change the subject back to the comfortable fantasy, "So anyway, what's it like now to be published? I bet it's really awesome!" The message is clear: "I don't care about you as a person, only as a personification of my dream."

A person who is genuinely interested will become even more interested by the jarring fact. "Wow, I am surprised you got 20 rejections! How did you keep motivating yourself? Was there one that stung more than others?"

People dislike feeling that they are a screen to project a fantasy onto. But they love receiving genuine attention for who they truly are. If you stick to doing that, you can be confident that the person will be happy to talk about their experiences with you.
posted by cheesecake at 4:28 PM on January 12, 2012

Everyone poops.

Everyone gets sick. Everyone turns into the disgusting tissue monster.
Everyone gets diarrhea or at least gets an upset stomach.
Everyone gets blotchy face days, or "my hair was SO much cooler yesterday" days.

Everyone shops for food.
Everyone has trouble finding things in the store and ends up wandering about, vagrant souls of fluorescent lighting, because they can't find an employee.
Everyone stands in a grocery store at some point staring blankly at the excess of options and wonders something like, "Why do I care about these two different baked bean brands? Is this really my life, contemplating beans at 10 at night? Where the fuck am I?"
Everyone stands in the checkout line and stares at the tabloids and candy respectively.

Everyone is important in the fact that they are unique.
Everyone is completely insignificant in the fact that they are so small in this universe.

Your friend and those like him are unique in that they can create things that others find valuable.
And yet, there are millions upon millions of people who are also capable of this. Even you.
So show your appreciation for his work, but if you feel the urge to let your mind flounder helplessly, as if you too aren't smart enough to create, then just remember that absolutely everyone, no matter how talented, poops.
posted by DisreputableDog at 10:19 PM on January 12, 2012

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