Billy Coffey

writer, observer, learner

“You just don’t look like a writer.”

flagprofileI stopped by the local bookstore over the weekend to speak with a friend and ask a favor—Would it be possible to schedule a book signing sometime in the next few months? We chatted a bit about the particulars and then he excused himself to fetch the store manager, leaving me alone at the front with a young lady working one of the cash registers.

“So you wrote a book?” she asked me.

“I did,” I said.

“What’s it about?”

“It’s about a man whose job is cut right at Christmastime.”

She turned up her nose. “That doesn’t sound very uplifting.”

“Oh, it is,” I told her. “He might lose what means much, but he finds what means more.”

“So, it’s like a real book.”

“Sure is, pages and everything.”

The cashier muttered a “Huh” and left our conversation at that, turning to adjust her bookstore smock and straighten the stickpin near her collar. Life Is Short, Read Much! it said. My friend still wasn’t back with the manager, so I passed the next few minutes perusing the new releases on the table beside me.

“You just don’t look like a writer,” girl offered, eyeing me from my boots to my hat.

“I don’t?” I asked her.

“No, not really.”

“What’s a writer look like?”

“Well,” she said, “like…not you.”

“Ah,” I answered, nodding as if her definition had cleared that up just fine.

“We had a writer in here last month,” she said. “You could tell. She has glasses and short hair and was dressed all in black. And she used big words. Really big words. I couldn’t understand much of what she said.”

“My hair’s short and I my hat’s black,” I tried. But that wasn’t enough.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “You look just fine. For a regular guy, anyway. But even if you dressed like a writer, you wouldn’t act like one.”

“I wouldn’t?”


“How’s a writer supposed to act?”

“Like…not you.”

Ah, again.

“I want to be a writer one day,” she said. “But I don’t think I can ever act like one. I’m not that smart.”

I was about to say something, but just then my friend returned with the manager in tow. We worked out a tentative date and time, and he even offered free coffee for the occasion. Who says writing doesn’t have its own perks?

The cashier was gone when we were finished, her shift over for the day. That was a shame. I wouldn’t have minded spending a few more minutes with her, if only to explain why what she said was simply not so.

Because she was wrong, you know. Wrong about most everything she had said. I consider myself a guy who writes rather than a writer who’s a guy, for one. Big difference there. It means that if the bottom ever falls out or the well ever runs dry, I’ll still be me.

But more than that, she was wrong about how a writer is supposed to dress or act or talk. Very wrong.

There’s a grave misperception that writing must incorporate some sort of rules of eligibility.

You must have a college degree, some say. Or you have to be smart. You have to display a melancholic disposition or be a tortured soul. You have to be this old or this young.

Not so, I say.

True: not everyone can be a writer.

Also true: a writer can be anyone.

And that’s something important to keep in mind the next time someone says you can’t.

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  1. What you need is some good drug store glasses and a tweed sportscoat with the patches on the elbows. And perhaps a pipe…

  2. Maybe you should have shown her your tattoo. All writers have tattoos, right? Oh, wait. All bikers have tattoos. Nevermind.

  3. I’m thinking a Mark Twain get-up might do the trick next time…. and perhaps a pipe.

  4. Billy – I have all the equipment Katdish mentioned, and have even been known to use it on occasion. :-) Maybe you should hire me to stand next to you in future, and look like a writer.

    While running a writing course once, I came across this story:

    A young man went to a professional writer, and asked him to read his work. The writer did so, and told him “This is terrible, you will never make it as a writer. Give up now.” The man went away heartbroken, and never wrote again.

    Years later he ran into the writer again. He reminded him what he had told him. The writer said “Oh, I tell everyone that.”

    “But why? I stopped writing because of you.”

    “Then I was right that you would never be a writer. If you were a real writer, then you wouldn’t have stopped writing, just because I told you to.”

    Or something like that.

  5. I say it was the wolf tattoo that threw her……

  6. Nah, Kathy. He needs longer, crazy, wild afro hair.

    Like Philip Yancey.

    Then he’ll be a real writer.


    • Yeah…come to think of it, Malcolm Gladwell is pretty afrotastic as well. But if Billy needs an afro to be a successful writer, I’m afraid he’s out of luck.

  7. Hmmm. I have a college degree. I’m smart. I tend toward the melancholy occasionally. I even wear glasses and use big words periodically. Reckon that means my book’s gonna be published?

  8. Oh, your conversation with the cashier pushed buttons. I don’t know why I feel blindsided when asked what something I’ve written is about. I try to be prepared, to give a concise answer. Always feel I could have made it sound more exciting. You did well…..and look just right, I am sure.

    LOVE your closing and the truth about the myths we all believe about writers.

  9. and maybe a tweed fedora (adding to what Katdish said- she cracked me up!)

    I met Anne Rice a few eons ago and she was dressed all in black and had very long black hair with black thick rimmed glasses. She looks very different now that she has “come back to her faith in God”, like a sweet old grandmother about to offer you a sweet tea and hold the baby for you while you drink it …different clothes, glasses, and hair-do.

  10. you mean you weren’t wearing your tweed jacket with the leather elbow pad thingies?

  11. Love the end (when don’t I, eh?) – and I prolly don’t look like a writer either (though I DO wear glasses). Needed this reminder. Thanks, Billy.

  12. reminds me of “Ratatouille” – “anyone can cook.”

    I think Katdish is right. And you’d have to post a picture.

  13. Whoa dude! Billy, I seriously needed that like an organ transplant this morning. I have very much had the mentality that whatever I do then I have to BE that. So if I write, I have to BE a writer, if I share with the world what I’m learning by just being alive, I have to BE teacher. I’m Katie who just likes to write, make jewelry, study Greek and Hebrew and the host of other things I like to do. Wow, so you are a guy who writes, not a writer who is a guy. I’m gonna chew on that one for a good long time. Good thing its a three day weekend.

  14. Not everyone can be a writer. But a writer can be anyone.

    You sure sound like a writer to me!

    My dad smokes a pipe. I’m going to borrow one of his. Maybe I’ll look like a writer then. Or at least feel like one.

  15. Strange how we get these ideas in our heads… As I read, I was thinking how we do this with people in regards to being a Christian. Some people think “well, your not a judgmental, spiteful, vindictive, narrow-minded crazy- you can’t be a Christian” or we don’t dress or look the “part.” Sadly we do it as Christians to others too, “they don’t look like someone who would go to church or want to know Jesus.” We all need to get over ourselves and the preconceived ideas…

    Good stuff, Billy. Thanks.

  16. Wow. Somehow, we were thinking about the same thing this morning. And we both wrote about it. Hmm. We must be writers!

    I’m a 38 year old mom who writes in her spare time. I don’t dress professionally, and I refuse to wear my much needed glasses. I’m little and puney, and have a lot of hair. I don’t talk with big words. I like for people to be able to understand me. But I’m still a writer. Because I write.

    And so are you. Even though you don’t wear enough black and you have a huge tattoo.

    That girl needs to get a clue.

  17. “…and he even offered free coffee for the occasion. Who says writing doesn’t have its own perks?” Hey, I got that. Coffee. Perks. Does that make me smart?

    You better watch out if ya wear Wranglers at the book signing, some folks might think that is your name tag… Hey, ain’t nothing wrong with cowboy hats and boots. I wore both right outta the womb and across the stage for graduation and up to the alter for my wedding.

    Love the story and the comments…


  18. I just loved how the cashier couldn’t tell you specifics as to why you didn’t look like a writer.Very good thoughts on not letting what we do define who we are.

  19. People say I don’t look like a basketball player. So I lace up the shoes and whip their butts. :-)

  20. Love this Billy. I guess I probably don’t look like a writer by her definition either. I love your comments at the end because sometimes, I don’t feel all that writerly, as if I don’t have the right credentials.

  21. I’m guessing she was thinking “hipster” when she thought of a writer. Perhaps?

    It’s funny how many things we can tack on before we legitimize ourselves as writers…

  22. Just goes to show you that stereotypes go on and on. I’ll always believe ‘you can’t judge a book by it’s cover’.

  23. Okay, I’m a sucker for the telling of a good story, and you just told one here. Your ending actually had my eyes welled up with tears. You would’ve thought that someone who works in a bookstore would’ve learned by now never to judge a book by its cover. Thanks for the encouragement this post brings, and the wisdom too.

  24. Hmmmm, maybe a beret would help? You may not look like a writer…but you write like one!

    God bless!

  25. Well, now, imagine the reaction if you’d said you’d written a poetry collection!

  26. I hope you get another opportunity to talk to the cashier. It sounds like she could use someone to lift her up.

    I was also reminded of a book written by Betsy Lerner called “The Forest for the Trees. An Editor’s Advice to Writers.” She’s dealt with every “kind” of writer you can think of including the intelligent, not so intelligent and the tortured souls. In it she gives a lot of great advice for writers — all kinds. I’ve read it twice already and plan to again.

  27. I have also been told that you are what you do. So if you write you are a writer. If you dance, you are a dancer…..

    Sure you may not get published but you are still a writer.

  28. This cracked me up! When people ask me what I do, I still say I’m a CPA. I feel like making things up from time to time, mostly because I’m usually told I don’t “look” like a CPA. And I agree. I don’t feel like one either. And it’s funny. I’m a Christian, a wife, a mom, and a writer way more often than I’m a CPA, but that’s the label I’ve lived with for so long, so it just comes out. I won’t ask what a CPA looks like, but I know people always agree… not me.

    I agree with Katdish. You need a tweed jacket with patches and a pipe. Just because.

  29. Billy,
    I think it is summed up by this quote:
    “God doesn’t call the qualified…He qualifies the called.”
    God bless!

  30. Barbara Frazier

    July 6, 2010 at 9:55 am

    I love the way you look and I think she needs some more training in customer service!

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