First Reader

June 13, 2019 § 20 Comments

By Elizabeth Kelsey

After three years of recovering from a divorce, a surgery, and a layoff that had occurred simultaneously, I joined a writing workshop. I was the first student assigned to share my work, an essay about my estrangement with a sister, and my family’s history of mental illness and alcoholism. I was concerned about revealing vulnerable information about myself, but I was even more fearful about exposing my family. I told myself I could cross the publishing bridge if and when I came to it. For now, I had to be brave enough to share the draft with my classmates.

I’ve been a part of enough writing groups to know that the disaster-scenarios novice writers often consider rarely come true. No one was going to plagiarize my work: Writers are generally too consumed with their own stories to even think about stealing someone else’s. I wouldn’t be judged for revealing personal information: mining one’s dysfunctional background for material is par for the course. I reminded myself that a workshop setting has a high level of acceptance and confidentiality, and that the masterclass I’d joined was advanced: comprised of serious writers who’d had to apply to get accepted. If anyone knew these unwritten rules, they would.

I emailed my essay to Staples. Since I hadn’t my work in many years, even placing my order felt momentous. I was afraid of sharing vulnerable information. I’d also been wondering, if in the years between workshops, I’d lost my touch, that my classmates would inform me that I sucked.

As if to intensify my foreboding, the weather was overcast and thunder roared as I drove to pick up my copies. I whisked down my raincoat’s hood as I walked through the automatic glass doors towards the print counter.

A mountain of a young man took up the space behind the desk, his long dark hair in a ponytail.

“Name?” he asked.

“Kelsey,” I said.

He nodded, smiled, and pointed his finger in the air in a gesture of recognition, and then placed a carton on a counter. The carton’s shape reminded me of a Dunkin Donuts Munchkin box. Instead of breakfast treats, it contained something far sweeter: my work. He pressed the box’s tabs to reveal 10 copies of my essay, neatly stacked and paperclipped.

As I fumbled with my wallet, he asked what I thought of the print job.

“Very nice,” I said as I whipped out my debit card.

“It was good,” he said.

The chatter of other customers, the beeping of office equipment, suddenly ceased. I looked at him, stunned. He had read my work.

“I know I probably shouldn’t have read it,” he said. “But I saw the first page, and I couldn’t stop. I had to see what’s going to happen next!”

He didn’t pick up on my clenched jaw. In fact, he smiled, expecting me to be flattered. Speechless, I concentrated on remembering my PIN. The clerk handed me the receipt and said, “I like your writing style.”

I thought of his eyes scanning certain sentences of that essay, his mind becoming acquainted with my family in ways many of my friends, and even my psychotherapist, were not. I felt as violated as if he had touched me. But it was too late to slap his hand away.

I got in my car, shut the door, and took a deep breath. Once I drove off, I gave up my attempt to make a left turn out of the parking lot: it was too complicated. Here I was, finally revealing some of my most intimate traumas, and my first reader was the Staples clerk?

I catastrophized: Would this weird guy track down a family member and share what I’d written, disrupting a tenuous peace? Would he stalk me? I’d submitted the document by email—would he publish my unedited first draft online, destroying my copyright?

The first people I usually shared my work with were friends who were also writers. In this case, though, the process was out of order: One of my first readers had been a stranger. In therapy, I’ve explored healthy boundaries: which people to let into my life, and who to keep at bay. But as someone who writes creative nonfiction, I must reach a comfort level in which I let in anyone who reads my work—whether my dearest friend or bitterest enemy.

I considered complaining to the store.

As days passed, my horror decreased. I couldn’t believe the Staples guy admitted reading my essay, but his easy confession showed guilelessness. Perhaps he was a writer, too. In his awkward way, he was just trying to connect.

From now on, I’ll make the copies myself. But the biggest takeaway came in that terrifying moment when my classmates pulled my printed essay from their folders, ready to critique. Part of me was relieved my work had already been seen by another…and that he’d been a fan.


Elizabeth Kelsey is a member of GrubStreet’s writing community in Boston. Her essays have appeared in O, the Oprah Magazine; the Boston Globe; Eating Well; Runner’s World; and other publications. She is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio, where she focuses on topics such as the opioid epidemic, changing marijuana laws, and mental health.


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§ 20 Responses to First Reader

  • ccbarr says:

    this is offensive to me. Her hoity toity friends were good enough to read her work but not a mere peasent? People work jobs like staples to avoid hunger and homelessness. No where on the job application does it say “must dump dreams&aspirations to work here”.I’ll be sure to avoid this lady’s work.

    • Hege says:

      I believe this comment misses the point, which was that when strangers (who have signed no agreement of confidentiality) read your work, it opens you up to all kinds of scary scenarios of what he/she could do with the info they access. This has nothing to to with the ability of the clerk to read and critique writing.

      • ccbarr says:

        Dont writers hope to sell their work to common strangers ?

      • Hege says:

        You may or may not want to have a piece or book published down the road, after weighing the consequences of it. But then you have given your explicit consent to it. Consent it the key, here, as in many areas in life.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Wow, I didn’t get that at all. She seemed shocked that an intimacy she hadn’t expected was happening, and work she was already feeling nervous about sharing was up for comment before she was mentally ready. I don’t think it had anything to do with the man’s job, just that it was a surprise.

      • Jeanie Cobb says:

        As a creative writer I can relate to how she felt. You wrote, you want feedback, but you are terrified to put it out there. The fear comes from doubting yourself, not your ability to write. I believe the Staples guy was trying to compliment her, and truly meant no harm with his actions

      • She emailed her essay, which would have given me pause right there. I email text only to very close friends.

    • Jen S. says:

      I smell a troll. However, in case you are serious with this ridiculous comment, it is about CONSENT! I do not like my husband reading my work without asking, never mind a stranger. I chose who reads my work and when, no one else. That man violated Staples’ code of ethics (YES, they have one).

  • dennyho says:

    And we thought no one looked at our photos either when we dropped them off for developing all those years ago…I don’t know if I could have held my tongue as you did. Enjoyed this piece.

  • My best moments working in retail were when I could make a connection with someone, and my worst moments were when someone disregarded my humanity on the job. This essay reminds me of the latter.

  • Kristen Paulson-Nguyen says:

    Congratulations Liz!

  • laninatere says:

    I made actual out loud sounds while reading this, with empathy for both characters (feelings ought be complicated like that!) Sharing oneself is an act that requires mutual consent, and wanting to connect with someone who has revealed themselves in front of you is natural, instinctual.

    This piece is so human.

  • TammyB says:

    I love this story! It is awesome that he started reading and couldn’t stop. We find readers in strange places sometimes. Bravo!

  • What an excellent, vulnerable piece. Thank you for sharing it. You have another fan here!

  • Elizabeth–What a wonderful piece on vulnerability and that first reader — in this case, an unexpected reader! We all bring our different expectations to the page as writers when we give birth to our words — and when we share them . Thank you for your courage in sharing this.

  • Hege says:

    Vulnerability a fear is always part of of being read. When you’re not sure if you can trust the reader, even more so. You made me feel all the feels here.

  • Grace says:

    This is a brave, nuanced piece about a writer courageously sharing her writing and feeling ambivalent and even anxious about it. The turn in the end is really important, too. Thank you for this essay, Liz, your honest and vulnerability as a writer.

  • Kat says:

    Liz, what a fantastic piece. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Ruth Carmel says:

    It’s hard enough to shake the words out of your silent brain and commit them to paper. And then to face sharing them. But for someone to read them without your permission, or even your guessing they might…yeah, that would feel weird. The beauty and terror of writing, right? You turn your thoughts into tangible things, things that can scatter and get lost. At best, your words will go so far you will be known by people you will never know. Yikes. One suggestion: a cheap high-speed black-and-white printer. It’ll suffice until you print your memoir, and by then, you’ll be inured to strangers reading your mind.

  • Pallavi says:

    What a great piece. I came across this post just when I published some of my posts for the first time. Feeling vulnerable, fragile yet confident and excited. Your writing resonated so well with me.

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