Thursday, December 15, 2011

Please Accept My Apology

On Monday morning, the eldest young Master Boyce woke up ill.

"I'm sorry you're not feeling well," I said as I tucked him back into bed.

Then the second one chimed in, his eyes gleaming with envy. "My stomach hurts, too!"

"I'm sorry to hear that," I murmured, shooing him along to breakfast.

He ate and got ready for school, all the while angling for a day off like his brother was getting. "I'm serious, my stomach hurts," he insisted. "I ate too much last night."

"I'm sorry," said I. "You'll feel better soon."

My son rounded on me. "Why do you keep saying that?" he snapped.


"You keep saying you're sorry! Every time we're sick or we get hurt, you say you're sorry."

"Oh," I said, a little taken aback. "I'm... sorry."

He threw his hands up in frustration and stomped off to the bus, his annoyance at me driving away his phantom stomach ache.

* * *

I apologize a lot--or rather, I use the words of apology, when I don't really mean them, at all.

"Dear Fanny: I'm sorry to hear of the loss
of your best kid riding gloves. I'm sorry, too,
that Mr. Watlingworth has not come up to
scratch, as I fully expected him to have done so
by now. I'm sorry to report Lydia is still
behaving like the veriest hoyden. Sorrowfully yrs,
P.S. -- Do write soon!

I'm sorry.

I'm sorry for your loss.

I'm sorry you're sick.

I'm sorry you fought with your husband.

I'm sorry things are hard for you right now.

I'm sorry the restaurant was terrible.

I'm sorry you had a bad day at work.

I'm sorry for saying I'm sorry so much.

I don't mean it. What I mean is, "I feel sorrow on your behalf." "I empathize." "My heart is heavy for you." "I wish you weren't sick." "I acknowledge the injustice of your situation." "This should not have happened to you."

Those are the kinds of things I mean, but I use "I'm sorry" as a lazy shorthand.

Some people are really bothered by this misuse of "I'm sorry," though not as much as the use of a word I won't mention. More than once the reply to my "I'm sorry," has been something along the lines of, "Why? You didn't do it."

I know I didn't do it. That's not what I mean. I think everyone knows that's not what we "I'm sorry"ers mean. We're honestly trying to express sympathy, but some people don't respond well to it when it comes wrapped up as an apology.

So, why don't I just say what I mean? It's a linguistic rut, a thoughtless habit. But I'm going to try to be more conscientious about the words I use next time I feel "I'm sorry" trying to fall off my tongue.

Do you say "I'm sorry" as an expression of sympathy / empathy? Do you find it problematic? Let's discuss it in the comments!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Baby Elephants

Fear not, dear readers. I have not, in fact, fallen into the abyss. I got caught up in November madness with kid sports and Thanksgiving (How was yours, by the way? Ours was great; thanks for asking!) and then Mr. Boyce and I high tailed it out of town for one of those decade anniversary trips... Phew! Anyway, I have Returned in Triumph--over what, I couldn't say, but here I am. Ta-daaaaaaaa!

So, while catching up on the mountain of laundry that vacations produce, I was thinking about this terrible cliché one hears authors spout about their book being their baby, or how writing a book is like having a baby, or some variation thereof.

I hate that.

It isn't true, and I'll tell you why.

Look, I've had a few babies in my time. Gestating a baby is rife with physical discomfort, but it's pretty low on the mental strain. Pregnancy is as much a biological process as growing fingernails, and you probably don't put much effort into making that happen, do you? Yes, parents-to-be absolutely worry and fret over their little ones, and there's a lot to do to prepare the nest for a baby's arrival. But, you don't have to think about actually making a baby. Gosh, can you imagine having to sit down and concentrate for hours at a time to form a baby's various internal structures and organs and choosing eye color and leg length and nose shape and... wow, I'm making myself tired just considering it. And the results wouldn't be pretty.

No, the baby will gestate just fine without any creative input from you, thankyouverymuch.

A novel, meanwhile, goes nowhere without the writer's full effort. Everything is created from scratch--the world, the characters, the plot. It's a heck of a lot of thinking work. And then there's the writing work. And the submitting work. And the marketing work. And the--hey, this is starting to sound more like a job than a baby.

Another point at which the book-as-a-baby analogy falls apart is the gestational period, ie, the time itself. That baby's only going to brew for so long. Thirty-eight to forty-two weeks in normal circumstances, and then, blammo! Evicted in a relatively brief rush of pain and effluvia. Hours (or days, for the unfortunate) later, and it's all over. Baby has arrived.

I put a lot of work into this one, but you can
have it for a reasonable advance, plus royalties.
The time frame for writing a novel varies from author to author. Some can hammer out a first draft in a few months. Others might take a year or more. Editing tacks on more time, and manuscripts can languish in the submission process for years (Ask me how I know. Actually, don't. It's too depressing.). I've known an author who was picked up by the first agent she submitted to, and more authors who rack up dozens of rejections before finally finding someone to represent their work. Then comes submitting (yes, again) to publishers. Editing (yes, again) with the publishing house's editor. Then sitting in queue for publication, and then--THEN! Oh, glorious day, publication. The book is finished and released to the world. It's over. No going back, no changing, no growing.

That baby, meanwhile, which you gestated and birthed in less than a year is going to continue to develop and grow and change and require your support and help and love for the next infinity.

Likening a book to a baby is too emotional for my taste. It gives the novel an unreasonable sense of importance in the grand scheme of things. I have manuscripts and I have children. The two are not even closely related.

Of course, I put heart and effort and sweat and tears and even a little blood (paper cuts!) into my novels. Of course, I want to see them out in the world for readers to enjoy. But in the end, writing is a job. Novels are the products of authors' hard work, ones we want to sell. Submitting is the process of applying for a paying job as a novelist.

Maybe some authors really do have similar feelings about their novels and their children, but not me. I have to give myself some emotional distance from the businessy side of writing; otherwise, I'd go mad. Gestating an actual baby for nine months is hard enough. I couldn't deal with the uncertainty and stress of submitting if I thought of each manuscript as a baby. Besides, what kind of mother sells her children?