I Know this Mooch Is True

So, no, you may not pick my brain!


It typically happens at the end of a semester, when the last book is signed at an event, or when I tell a new acquaintance that I’m a writer. "I'd love to take you out for a coffee," they begin, and I instantly know what's coming next, "and pick your brain."

At first, these invitations functioned as an ego boost. Who, I fiddle-di-deed, little ol' me?

Back when I was paying my dues, peddling my essays free of charge, and selling my "homework" to the Washington City Paper while still a student in the Johns Hopkins M.A. in Writing program, I jumped at the chance to pontificate with fans over a cup of Starbucks.

But now, two decades into my career, "Can I pick your brain?" is the Google Translate equivalent of "Can you give me all of your expertise for free?"

In other words, asking to pick someone's brain is a huge ask. Here's what author and essayist Chloé Caldwell had to say on the topic in a piece for Vice:

"Most professionals you reach out to charge anywhere from $200-$500 an hour for their time. So, when asking if you can pick their brain in exchange for a cup of coffee, what you’re really asking is…can I buy you a $5 cup of coffee in exchange for $200-$500 worth of your time? Does this not sound absolutely ludicrous to you? Because it sounds quite ludicrous to me."

I get it. I was once one of those eager beavers: at Hopkins, always asking my favorite teachers — published authors, all — to have coffee with me. Perhaps they were contractually obligated, or it was a simpler time, but I owe them a debt of gratitude I can never repay. Especially on a writer's salary.

Now I, too, am an instructor at Hopkins. Here’s what two of my bestselling-author colleagues there have to say on the matter:

"I try to make time when I can," says Tim Wendel, whose first book, Castro's Curveball, was written in the Hopkins program. "If I'm in the middle of a new book or the semester, it might not work out right away. But I remember how many of my mentors — Alan Cheuse, Nick Delbanco, Carolyn Doty, Alice McDermott, and others — were there when I wasn't sure what I was doing."

Michelle Brafman, author of multiple books, including the book-club mainstay Washing the Dead, sees it this way: "If I have the time, I will definitely grab a cuppa with a new writer/student/reader. Often, I'll find their work and passion energizing, or they'll turn me on to a new author or something groovy happening in the literary world. Plus, plenty of writers have, and still do, make time for me when I need some guidance. Karma, baby."

Clearly, Tim and Michelle are more generous than I. For simplicity's sake, let me refer you to what economists call a cost-benefit analysis. Meaning: Unless I magically turn into Susan Orlean, creative-nonfiction writers like me do not make a whole lot of money. So, the two hours I spend sitting with you means I don't have those two hours to hustle or pitch or write or even think about writing. The cost outweighs the benefit.

Lest you think I'm a black-hearted lady, you should know that I seldom do turn my back on burgeoning writers — with “writer” being the operative word. Please have written something. Nothing makes me more suspicious than someone who says they have an "idea" for a book.

Also, instead of asking someone if you can pick their brain, ask them precisely why you are interested in meeting with them. Do you need help with editing a manuscript? Are you looking for help in placing that tap-dancing essay? Are you wondering how to make it big in Hollywood?

If you have a specific ask, I'm here for you.

And if you're reading this column and suspect I must be talking about you? I am.

Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and the author of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.

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