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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Writing to the writers in my life
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today