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So, You Need a Gift for a Writer

  Last week was my birthday and, in lieu of my usual celebration (inviting people to keep me company before sitting in my apartment all alone with that weird guy in the skeleton mask and black robes), I thought it would be a fun idea to do a sale. But as the weekend went along, I thought back to all the birthdays I’ve had previously. And then I thought that it’s been awhile since I wrote an advice column.

  It was rather shallow self-reflection, now that I think of it.

Project Northwoods Washed Hands
Then again, I may be a very shallow person.

  Anyway, there comes a point in one’s life when you make friends with a writer. Not super-close friends, mind you—writers are a notoriously introverted lot and are, in many ways, like skittish predatory animals. Only instead of you scaring them and having them subsequently stalk you from the shadows to devour you, bones and all, you’ll casually offend them and they’ll murder you in their next manuscript.

  Hi. I need to work on my metaphors.

  Long story short, you’ll find yourself in a situation where you need to get a present for a writer you know little to nothing about. Perhaps she is a coworker who has been working on a novel and this is their going away party. Maybe it’s a birthday you’ve been invited to because someone is desperately lonely and needs to just feel something, anything, to stave off the darkness. Needless to say, there are things you should never, ever get a writer you only somewhat know. I helpfully list them below.

  Of course, you could always ask that author friend of yours what they’d like. You know—because everyone is different and all that. They may even like that lazy gift you’re planning on getting. Who am I to judge?

Fancy Pens

What You Think It Says: “Nothing says ‘I value what I write’ like a fancy pen, right? I mean, this is engraved with their name. It has to be important. It’ll never get stolen, and it looks sweet as hell. If they’re writing in a coffee shop, people will just inherently know that this is one author who means business!”

What It Actually Says: “My knowledge of you begins and ends with the world ‘writer’.”

  Probably the weirdest “writer” gift you can get someone is the fancy pen. Does it have an ergonomic grip? Self-cleaning tip? Have an engraving of the person’s name for… safety or short-term memory loss or whatever? Auto-erotic vibrator that gives you sensual feedback when you scrawl the world “penis” or its 10,000 slang variants? Great. Does it write better than a regular pen? No? Then why is it here?

  I know there are some people who love their fancy pens because of their ostentatious display of… I don’t know… wealth, or whatever. But the truth is that the vast majority of authors are going to be a lot more concerned about where their next meal is coming from rather than having a nice fucking pen. And that’s even if they use pens at all.

  I know that this is probably going to be a shock to a lot of people, but not every aspiring word-smith writes things by hand. And even if we do, what possible good is a gold-plated ink-tube going to do that a plastic one couldn’t handle just as well? On top of that, the more shit you add to the pen to make it fancy, the less likely anyone will use it for day-to-day activities. It ceases becoming a useful tool and turns into an ornament.

  Just don’t do it, okay?

What to Buy Instead: Ink cartridges. Find out what their printer model is and buy them an ink cartridge or two. Believe me, not only will they get more use out of it, but it also won’t break after two months of using it. That’s more the printer’s thing.

Fancy Journals

What You Think It Says: “Everyone needs a place to put their thoughts, right? So why not make it a really cool looking book? Yeah, that’s mostly like getting your work published anyway, right? I mean, the thing’s already bound and looks totally badass. Everyone in your writing guild is going to take you so seriously. You all have writing guilds, right?”

What It Actually Says: “My knowledge of you begins and ends with the world ‘writer’.”

   Combining all the uses of a spiral notebook but none of the functionality or portability, these leather-bound bastards seem to be the perfect gift for your writer friend. However, they lie. Just like with the fancy pens, writers do not automatically hand-write their stuff. I know plenty who do, mind you, but they tend to buy their own journals because they are very particular on the size, orientation, line height, souls of the damned trapped inside, etc. That’s way, way more work than you’re willing to put in to your half-assed gift idea.

  To put this another way, did you ever have a parent buy you wide-ruled notebooks instead of college-ruled? DON’T BE THAT PARENT. Side note: why do wide-ruled notebooks even exist? Is it just so that parents will screw up? That’s just cruel, Big Notebook. Cruel.

  Look, I’ll write things down, but it’s mostly on scraps of paper or in my school notebook. Why? Because that shit is lying around. I have three or four journals that I will never touch because that’s an extra step to getting something on paper. And even if I go through that extra work, what is it really for? So I can lug around a 500-page, cow-skin-covered tome the weight of an entire baby for some ostentatious “I ARE A WRITER!” moment when I whip it out of my backpack and give myself permanent back problems?

  Being a pretentious ass and merely looking like one are two different things, and neither one is particularly pleasant. Pass.

What to Buy Instead: A pack of spiral notebooks. Alternately, a ream of printer paper. Arguably there’s more use to the ream of paper, but both will see plenty of use.

  Hey, don’t look at me like I’m the jackass—you’re the one who decided to read about gifts to get someone on the internet. You could always just ask the person what they’d like.


What You Think It Says: “Hey, you’re a writer! You know what makes a good writer? Reading! I’m such a good friend!”

What It Actually Says: “My brain has flat-lined and so has our friendship.”

  This one actually has the most subdivisions of these three groups. So we’re going to break this down even further. Fun, right?

  Writing Guides/Self-Help: Unless specifically requested (which we’ve thoroughly established isn’t your thing), this tells the person getting the gift that you don’t really believe they have what it takes to finish up that manuscript. It would be kinder to just fry the person’s hard drive by “accidentally” spilling Mountain Dew on it, you miserable asshole.

  Books With a Writer Protagonist: Rather than spending even a moment of time on finding out what genres your friend is into, you’ve decided that they love to read books that star novelists. Why, exactly? Was Double Indemnity’s targeted audience insurance salesmen and murderous blondes? Do I have to be a magical stripping angel-killer to enjoy Bayonetta? Would I have to have my empathy center removed from my brain to enjoy a book of political punditry?

  That last one was probably a bad example.

  Whereas buying a writing guide is probably the meanest gift you can give, this is easily the laziest. Not only will you be murdered in the next manuscript your now-enemy will write, it’ll be right after you take the last of the coffee without brewing another pot you senseless ass.

  A Book From an Author They Like: Oh, my god… are you actually learning?

  Seriously, though, this is actually very nearly a good idea. However, it’s still not quite as easy as you may think. Whether the author is contemporary or not, you have to make sure that your friend hasn’t purchased that particular book already. The best part of this one is that you can always go one step further to make the gift really great by making it stand out.

  For instance, I have been gifted approximately a zillion H. P. Lovecraft books over the years—his works are in the public domain, most books of his are just the uninspired compilations, and all this really does is make my book collection seem a lot more racist and sexist than I think is fair. However, two of the best gifts I’ve gotten were related to Lovecraft—a first edition printing of a collection with the deeply scary and uncomfortable The Rats in the Walls and a copy of a play he wrote with his wife.

  But this is a lot of work to put into someone you probably only kind of know.

What to Buy Instead: A gift card. Seriously. It’ll save them the embarrassment of having to ask you for a receipt.

  Alternately, and this involves a bit more investment on your part, volunteer to read their manuscript and give them feedback. And no, “It’s good,” is not feedback.

  Or perhaps actually read their book and review it on the retailer website of your choice. This will probably wind up with you being given a much more satisfying role in their newest novel. Or they’ll just straight-up murder you rather than drawing it out. That’s what we call a “win-win”.


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