Neutrality School

23 April 2001

Today I interview with the community programs director lady to see if they'll let me teach my fiction writing course. I'm not sure if it'll just be a check to make sure I can deal with people's kids or if her standards will be more strenuous. To be specific, I don't know whether they'll want somebody older. On the phone, the woman mentioned teaching experience. I've got that. But most 22-year-olds don't, and it made me think she'd guessed my age wrong. I just hope it isn't a problem. It doesn't have to be -- it can be an asset -- but one never knows.

Other than that, I'll be working on articles and stories. I'm to the point with the current novel where it's as long as the previous two. Of course, the previous two were YAs, which means that this one is not nearly done. But there's a good big chunk of it. And the work is going well. But I've been reading Michelle's Master's thesis and making comments. It's helpful to Michelle, I hope. It's definitely helpful to me: it just drives home once again how much I shouldn't be doing that. It's not just her topic, either. It's that if I'm going to put that much work into writing something, I want it to be something that lots of people will enjoy reading, not just a select few of my friends and family.

It's a nice contrast to nuclear physics, really. If someone says, "What do you do for a living?", guess how long the conversation continues if you say, "I'm in grad school for nuclear physics." Not very long, at least not as a conversation. As a monologue from the other person, sure. Sometimes they start bashing you over the head with how much they hated physics. (Nobody ever says, "I had a really great high school physics teacher! Loved physics! So I went into management." They must be out there -- I just don't know them.) Sometimes they think they've caught you out: "Going to make bombs, huh?" They expect either, "Yeah, what of it?" or "No! I'd never do that!" They expect a fight somehow. Instead, I used to roll my eyes and say, "No. Bombs are boring." Because from a scientific standpoint, they really are.

But when someone says, "What do you do for a living?" now I say, "I'm a freelance writer." And then they can ask what I write, and the conversation can be as deep or as shallow as they like from there. But nobody harangues me about their English teachers' deficits, even though I know there are some pretty lousy English teachers out there. And nobody accuses me of killing trees (which is a good thing, because instead I mostly kill electrons, or merely enslave them to do my bidding).

I was trying to instruct one of my friends in casual conversation yesterday. Do you know how hard that is to do? He wanted topics. Safe topics. I think the problem is, there is no safe side. Conversation, if you're nervous, is always a tightrope. This friend was saying that he doesn't ask people questions because he doesn't want to ask something that's too personal too soon. Well, that's fine, except you fall off the other side in making the person think you're not interested in talking to him/her. It's all about practice and gauging the individual person you're talking to. You can't treat conversation with general rules -- well, not many of them. Things like, "Don't pick your nose" are good. But honestly, can you think of general rules? The things that you just take for granted at a party or wherever it is that you meet people? Tell me if you can. My friend will be most grateful. I ended up suggesting that he can talk about the arts: books, movies, TV, music. Those things are indicators of people's personality, so you can get to know each other better, but they don't have to get deeply, intimately personal. I just don't know. I start a lot of friendships "wrong way out," talking about deeply divisive subjects. It works for me, or else it doesn't, and either way, I'm generally okay. So I don't really know how to school someone in neutrality.

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