The Dreaded Question

Afraid to ask a friend or loved one how their book is coming along? Kerry Ann Rockquemore gives advice on what you should do instead.

December 16, 2015

Dear Kerry Ann,

Both my husband and I are professors, and we were delighted when our daughter decided to get a Ph.D. She went to a top program in her field and got a tenure-track job five years ago.

Unfortunately, she is struggling with the completion of her book, and it is so painful for us (as parents and book writers) to observe. She has a contract from a top university press, she received positive reviewer comments and she’s had two fellowships where she was on leave to finish the manuscript. However, she still hasn’t finished, and we’re afraid she is going to be turned down for tenure.

I’m writing because she will be visiting us for the holidays, and I don’t know what to do. I wish I could finish the book for her, but I can’t. I’m not even sure if I should ask the dreaded question: “How’s the book coming along?”

Can I check her into one of your programs?


A Professor’s Parent

Dear Professor’s Parent,

I receive many requests from people who want to know how they can help their ________ (friend, partner, child, parent, etc.) who is in the midst of writing their first book but seems to be taking an awfully long time to do so. By “help,” they really seem to be asking, “What can I do to force my loved one to write faster and finish!” While I appreciate the desire to “check someone in” to our boot camp, one simply cannot force a writer to produce against their will or rush the process. So let’s explore some other possible ways to be supportive.

In your case, the reality is that your daughter’s book is her book to finish. I can tell that your desire to help in any way possible and your concern over her professional future come from a loving place. But like all boundaries in our relationships, there’s a line where your responsibility ends and hers begins. So I wonder if we can reframe your question. It’s not about whether or not you should ask the dreaded question. It’s about how you can have a supportive conversation with your daughter about the progress of her book in a way that expresses concern, offers concrete support and maintains a healthy boundary between the two of you.

Since I know there are lots of family members wondering how to approach the subject over the holidays, as well as academic writers who are dreading the question, I offer the following guiding suggestions for supportive conversations.

Start With Compassion

Requests about how to support book writers typically come from people who have never engaged in this type of major writing project, so they are unfamiliar with the process. But as an academic writer yourself, you have a distinct advantage because you can start by reminding yourself: a) how long and tortuous the book-writing process can be (especially the first book), b) what it feels like when you are in the midst of it, and c) what types of support felt helpful rather than annoying. If you can tap into those three feeling states, it will change the energy of how you approach the conversation from one of fretful concern to one of compassion.

That said, for you readers who aren’t professors but have an academic writer in your midst who has spent a long time on her or his book project, don’t worry. You don’t need to have written a book to support a book writer. What I’m suggesting is shifting out of the energy of vicarious fear, demanding an accounting of how she is spending her time, and/or projecting anxiety onto the writer. Trust me, she is beating herself up every day over the project taking longer than expected. She doesn’t need you to pile on the guilt and shame, nor does she need you to be her accountability drill sergeant. If you find yourself wanting to do either, recognize that desire is about you, not her, and shift to just being curious about what is happening in her life.

Create the Space for Real Conversation

If you decide you want to have a meaningful and supportive conversation about your daughter’s progress on her book, ask about it in an appropriate setting where you can have a private conversation and when there’s enough time to have a meaningful exchange. In other words,

  • Do not ask the dreaded question in the first 10 minutes of your daughter arriving at your house.
  • Do not ask the dreaded question as casual conversational banter over the snack table (“Did you get a haircut?” “How’s the book coming along?” “Wow, your cheese dip is yummy. Can I get the recipe?”).
  • Do not -- under any circumstances -- ask the dreaded question in front of a crowd of others (at the holiday dinner table, in the middle of a football game on TV or during a gift exchange).

All of these examples send the implicit message that the answer is one sentence and that you’re not interested in listening to what’s really going on in a writer’s life. You want the opposite: a quiet, private space where you can have a supportive conversation.

Ask Permission

This may be hard. But if you want to have a meaningful conversation with someone you love about her progress on a book manuscript, you need to ask if she wants to have that conversation with you. That means being open to the range of possible responses: she may be relieved to discuss it with you, she may be hesitant and/or she may be completely uninterested. You can simply say: “I love you, and I’m genuinely curious about your book project. I also know how hard it is to talk about a book project when you’re in the midst of it. So I’m wondering if we can have a supportive conversation.” Then stop talking.

If she says anything resembling “No,” “Back off,” “The best support would be to stop asking me about it” or “I really don’t want to talk about it,” that’s OK. It’s her choice as to whether she trusts you, wants to confide in you on this topic and wants to talk about it in that particular moment. If you are rebuffed, all you need to do is let her know you’re there for her if/when she wants to talk. That can be as simple as saying, “OK, I respect that and want you to know you can talk to me if you ever need to. I’m here to support you in any way I can.”

Listen and Reflect

If she wants to continue the conversation, encourage her to share how she’s feeling, what she’s experiencing and how she’s thinking about the project. Your job is to listen. By that I mean literally listen (i.e., don’t talk over her, interrupt her or give her unsolicited advice). But also try to listen deeply by staying open, being curious, asking questions and remaining entirely focused on her.

The reason listening is so important is that writers who are stuck in a project tend to self-isolate, and it may be the case that, up until now, the only conversation she’s having about the book is in her own mind. So her thoughts and feelings may come out messy and disjointed and/or sound irrational. But in that moment, writers just need to be seen, heard and understood. That means your primary job and greatest gift in that moment is to listen. If it feels as if you need to say anything, try reflecting what she’s entrusted you with. (“What I hear you saying is ….”) Or ask the kind of questions that encourage further sharing: “What is that like for you?” or “How is that impacting you?”

Offer Support

At a certain point in the conversation, you will be able to sense that the writer has fully described where she is the writing process, the challenges she is facing and where she may be stuck. At that point, offer your support by asking directly, “How can I best support you now?” Because you’ve been listening closely, you’ll have several ideas in mind. But it’s important to ask her first because she may need a very specific form of support.

Alternatively, she may be so stressed out that she doesn’t know what she needs. If that’s the case, then you can suggest several concrete forms of support. The most common types of support I see offered are: 1) household assistance (child care, cleaning service, help with errands, food delivery, etc.), 2) task support related to manuscript completion (editing, proofreading, formatting, etc.) and 3) social support (someone to call, a listening ear, a hug, etc.).

Close the Conversation and Follow Up

Once you’ve mutually agreed on the support that you’ll provide, close up the conversation. I recommend thanking your daughter for trusting you, being honest with you and allowing you to support her in moving forward. Over the holidays, it’s especially important to close the conversation, because you may have a house full of people and you don’t want to dribble intimate details into a public space.

Also, be sure that you quickly follow up on whatever support you’ve offered to provide. If you don’t, you reduce the possibility of future conversations on this topic. But quick follow-up has the potential to expand and deepen your relationship so that she knows you are always there for her and do what you say.

I hope that these suggestions will help you move from asking the dreaded question to having a truly supportive conversation. And for all the academic book writers out there who are already anticipating the dreaded question over the holidays, I hope these ideas help you to recognize that many family and friends truly want to support you and are often just looking for the best way to do so.

Happy conversations!

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity


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