It’s common advice to seek out leaders in your field to get ahead. It’s this idea that you can learn from the best, of going to successful sources to map a way to your own success.
This gets a little difficult when you work in an industry like movies or music. But in writing? It’s different. I would die to speak to Hanya Yanagihara or Mohsin Hamid or Eileen Myles or Gillian Flynn or Paul Beatty. That would make my life. While some of these writers might be accessible on social media or have an email, most on this level are unavailable – and would they ever stop to share thoughts on writing with me a little nobody? They would never. They’re busy! I’m busy. There’s also so many interviews these people have done that make most question answering moments moot as they have turned to the public to relay advice instead of pausing to speak writer to writer.
Yet, sometimes these people actually respond. It’s the craziest thing: you cold email a writer and, sometimes, they write back. Perhaps this is the medium speaking, that we who write like to read and write and read and write: I am unsure. What I do know is that, earlier this year, I sent Chloe Benjamin – who wrote this year’s bestselling The Immortalists – an email and she actually emailed me back. I still can’t believe that.
“I had the pleasure of reading The Immortalists and was so struck by so much of the book,” I explained, going on to mention how wonderfully she juggled characters and time. How did she do manage this? What advice does she have?
“Hi Kyle,” she emailed back. “Thanks so much for your kind note! I’m thrilled the book resonated with you, and wish you the best of luck with your work.” She added that she was open to craft questions, I thanked her and relayed a few, and never heard back. That’s fine! She is undoubtedly busy, with her writing and life and whatever: I was lucky enough to get a response to begin with.
Then it happened again, with an even more unlikely writer: David Sedaris. I wrote him a letter – by hand – to the address on his website. I didn’t think anything of it, I really didn’t care too much to know what happened, and I sent it away. Jump ahead five-ish months later and he…sent me a postcard from fucking France to answer one of my questions: what is he reading at the moment?
The funny thing about this situation is that his response is delightfully pointless: it’s a sharing of what he’s reading now, yes, but it isn’t anything that wild or surprising or different. There was no element of discovery but a little toot toot to Elena Ferrante, which is as funny as it is a non-rec. Still: it’s the thought that counts and a moment like getting a postcard from David Sedaris lights you on fire inside.
Also: “The only writing advice I have is: write.” This is a lesson, packaged up so adorably succinctly. We often as people trying to get ahead ask questions of the successful to “get” what it is they do. But what do they do? They do. No one got ahead asking questions about how to do something. They just did it. That’s the message in here which, yes, I am doing but one always has to wonder about silver bullets or some sort of leg up. Sadly, those don’t exist. We just have to do the work.
Still, whether a little rec in reading or practice, I still wonder about why writers write back. Benjamin offered a wink at herself and Sedaris offered an adorable “Aw, shucks.” So why respond? Why go through the work of taking time out of your day to simply acknowledge the other end? Is this a form of personal public relations that my non-successful life has yet to understand? Unsure. I am thankful for these moments but I’m unsure why they happen.
(To be fair, almost anyone who emails me a genuine question on this website or via Twitter will always get a response. I don’t get that many but the few I do get will get a response.)
It reminds me of a little LOL footnote in literary history where a sixteen year old in 1963 sent 150 novelists questions on symbolism. 75 authors responded. Can you believe that? These weren’t shitty authors but major figures like John Updike, Jack Kerouac, Ray Bradbury, and more.
What’s funny is the responses were mean or condescending or quite unnecessary. “This is not a ‘definition,’ it is not true,” Ayn Rand wrote back to the kid, critiquing his note from the outset. “And therefore, your questions do not make sense.” Can you believe that? How fucking rude.
Here’s a selection of other rude things authors wrote back to this kid.
MacKinlay Kantor: “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.”A bit of a shock, right? Can you imagine someone sending you some questions about your expertise and you take the time to respond only to shit on them? Do these so-called important people not have nothing else to do? What is going on here?
Ray Bradbury: “This is a question you must research yourself.”
John Updike: “It would be better for you to do your own thinking on this sort of thing.”
Jack Kerouac: “Come off of it—there are all kinds of ‘classics’—Sterne used no symbolism, Joyce did.”
Ray Bradbury: “Not much to say except to warn you not to get too serious about all this, if you want to become a writer of fiction in the future.”
This is by no means what happened to me but it raises my question even higher into the open space of my mind: why write a budding writer, a reader, a fan back if not just to wave down from the clouds? Is a response to benefit the admirer or the object of admiration? Is this just a means to get more writing out into the world, even if it isn’t actually useful as it’s personal and private?
We may never know. I hope, if I am so lucky, to answer as many notes and questions and general queries as possible – and to make sure each of them is worth it for all involved.