Writing to the writers in my life

What I’ve found, on the whole, is that writers love all kinds of writing – including letters from readers like me.

Photo illustration by Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Over the years, when a book has spoken to me with particular power, grace, or charm, I have taken to pen and paper and sent word off to the author, communicating what their work meant to me. Contrary to popular assumptions that writers are too busy to respond to their readers, I have often found uncommon generosity of time and spirit among those I’ve written.

It all started in my 18th year, when I was entertaining my own visions of success as a writer. I was full of spit, vinegar, and high expectations, believing that becoming an author was simply a matter of pouring my thoughts onto paper, sending the masterpiece to a publisher, and waiting for fame to erupt and royalties to pour in. 

Then came the great disillusionment. After a year of ignominy, I wrote to legendary children’s author Lloyd Alexander, winner of the National Book Award, begging him for direction. To my delight, he answered, handling my ego like flannel, lest he put a crease in my aspirations:

“Advice is always very easy to give – but very hard to make it specific and meaningful, since we all have to work in our own ways.”

Likewise, he had something to say about my frustration after I described my fruitless yearlong effort at publication:

“When you mention that you’ve been writing for a year without being published, I hasten to tell you that I wrote seven times that long without being published! So, perhaps one piece of advice is: Patience.”

I was encouraged by the idea that a well-regarded writer would take the time to offer a bit of mentoring to a presumptuous teen. But Mr. Alexander was not a singular case. I continued to reach out to writers and, truth to tell, I didn’t always receive a reply. But when I did get one, the content was often loaded with consideration and even, at times, a measure of affection.

I think of the accomplished American poet William Stafford, who replied to me from Lake Oswego, Oregon. We actually had an ongoing correspondence for a while. Its impetus was a letter I wrote to him asking if he would be so kind as to inscribe one of his books for me. His reply brought an immediate smile to my face: “I am eagerly ready to autograph and return a book – it makes me feel like an author.”

But beyond this, he was liberal and heartfelt with his reflections when I asked him a question about the art of reading:

“I ... realize that reading, or listening, can be an activity, not just a passive receiving; and this implies that readers or listeners who are just passive may not feel the effect of some worthy pieces of language.”

Not all the writers I approached were willing to engage me, but I was grateful for their responses nonetheless. 

When I wrote Nobel Prize-winning Icelandic author Halldór Laxness, he got right to the point: “Thanks for your nice opening of a private discussion for which, I am sorry to say, I have little time at the moment.”

And that was that.

My list goes on – Stephen King, George Will, Barbara Kingsolver, Czeslaw Milosz (another Nobel laureate). These are real people, doing real work, achieving real fame, and yet, I can only assume that, if it’s true that people always find time for the things they love, then they clearly feel that responding to their readers is part and parcel of their efforts.

How I wish Shakespeare were still around. I have a few thoughts I’d love to share with him.

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