Writer to Writer: “You Just Made My Day”
March 30, 2023 § 33 Comments
By Charlotte Wilkins
When I sent a note of gratitude to author Laura Davis about her memoir The Burning Light of Two Stars, I said her writing was “close-to-the-bone.” Her heartfelt book examines the harsh reality of aging alongside her ailing and challenging mother, and I told Davis how on so many pages I’d read my own thoughts and emotions about my difficult mother, her illness, and death. Laura’s response to my note? You just made my day. I’m so grateful you took the time to write to me and so gratified by what you shared.
Wait a minute, I thought, I’m the one who’s grateful because your multi-dimensional depiction of your complicated mother—the way you made sure we also saw her beauty and felt the sweet moments—made me see how in my own writing my one-dimensional portrayal of my mother was unfair, blaming, and boring.
I get stuck in a box of my own making, bouncing off the cardboard walls, poking peek holes with my pen, alone, lonely, thinking Failure. Again. My poor-me-nobody-cares forgets that it’s impossible to be alone in this 7+ billion-person world. I forget we’re all connected whether I like it or not, and we all want to be happy, not lonely and disillusioned. I’m finding that gratitude helps me build community, one person at a time. This way we’re not overwhelmed by crowds, a doable step perhaps even for an introverted writer. We may think we’re building community lurking around an online group, hitting the “like” button often, but that never really fills the hole in our hearts.
Austin Kleon in Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered suggests that “If you look back closely at history, many of the people who we think of as lone geniuses were actually part of a whole scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas, and contributing ideas.”
Daniella Mestyanek Young’s Uncultured: A Memoir brought an unexpected realization. The correlation she drew between her years in the Children of God cult and the army made me wonder about my participation as an adult in a cultic organization. Daniella’s book raised questions for me: Why didn’t I see that organization for what it was? What in my childhood blinded me from not only not recognizing a cultic atmosphere, but predisposed me to be drawn to it? Did the family I grew up fit the criteria of a cult? Daniella’s courage to ask the hard questions of herself and bleed the answers onto the page led me to explore a period of my life I’d written off as just another stupid thing I’d fallen for. Instead, a profound realization about my primitive need for connection was revealed, another layer of “family” was exposed, and I wrote my appreciation to Daniella and we exchanged ideas. She responded: All that to say, yours is probably the most gratifying review/response that I have received to date, because you specifically pointed out the ways that it made you think.
A good book makes us think not just about the characters on the page, but about our lives, and the universality of suffering and joy, illness, old age and death.
The takeaway for me from these expressions of gratitude and ensuing exchanges with six women authors, five of whom generously responded, is it’s a win-win.
Here’s a couple of things I think about as I stumble into this communal practice of receiving and giving:
Feel it: Any writer knows that some days it’s a struggle to get one sentence on the page, let alone polish an essay or finish a book. Authors like to hear how their book specifically touched your life much more than “Loved your book!” Jeannine Ouellette’s last sentence in her response to my note of appreciation for The Part that Burns was, It means more than you know.
Find it: A passage or sentence or two that resonated and helped clarify something in your life or writing. I came across single sentences in memoirs that changed how I view a relationship, approached a difficult scene, or showed me why I need to reveal the equally lousy in me.
Connect it: Share how that author’s writing resonated in your life and perhaps stimulated you to write deeper into an aspect of your life, made you realize what was missing in your story, or open a new door of exploration. Most of us write to connect, to call to action, or to help others.
Later in Kleon’s book he writes: “A lot of writers I know see the act of reading and the act of writing as existing on opposite ends of the same spectrum. The reading feeds the writing, which feeds the reading.”
Like a mobius, we readers gain realizations, questions about our own writing, and skills by reading other’s work. When we pass on words of recognition and gratitude, and the author reads and take in that sincere energy, they feel heard, fulfilled, and perhaps fueled to write again. The circuit is a seamless connection and continuity we all benefit from.
Charlotte Wilkins is a retired psychotherapist, a longtime meditator, and emerging memoirist. Her essays have been published in Memoir Magazine, the Brevity Blog, and Social Work Today. She lives in Connecticut with her spouse and two ridiculously precious cats who do nothing to earn their keep.
[…] Writer to Writer: “You Just Made My Day” […]
Loved this piece– such great advice. The metaphor of the mobs strip truly resonates.
Thanks April, the mobius has always fascinated me, seems to express life itself.
Your steps to sharing your response to a piece of writing are definitely now in my wheelhouse. Thank you, Charlotte!
You’ll make some author’s day, Rene. Pass it on!
Beautiful 🙂 To let authors know how their work touches you, makes them more approachable, more human, closer somehow, it increases the thread between emerging writer and publication 🙂 Thank you Charlotte.
I love what you said ” . . it increases the thread bewteen emergin writer and publication.” Beautiful.
I appreciate your concrete advice to be specific in feedback — and your encouragement to let an author know the impact of their work. Charlotte: This essay is beautiful and helpful; thank you.
Amanda, I feel as writers we want to know we found the words as we told our story that touched someone’s life and heart. That’s why specifics as you pointed out are key. Lovely.
I feel the specific is key because authors work so hard to find the best words to tell their story and reach the reader with the univiersality of connection. Thank you.
Wonderful, Charlotte! I happened to read this just after sending a note to a fellow writer about a beautiful essay that moved me. Thanks for highlighting the importance of reaching out and connecting, especially in these isolating times.
Such a good point, Deborah, we are still experiencing isolation and this gives us the reader, and the author, a way to feel heard, valued, and connected. And you just made your fellow writer’s day! Lovely.
I’ve written to authors a few times and forget how meaningful it is to do so. I think I get lazy and move onto the next book once I finish the last page. Your article makes me want to pause and linger with a book after I finish reading it and perhaps think of what phrase or passage or development that touched me and share that with the author. Thank you for this important reminder.
Polly, I love your idea to “pause and linger with a book” a savouring of a sentence, scene or passage enriches our reading experience. Then it’s easy to send that off in a note. And you’re right it’s a win-win.
Great piece, Charlotte. When I was at AWP, I met several of my heroines. Face to face with Jeannine Ouelette, I told her how brilliant I though her memoir was. I admit, I was a little star-struck. “It is always meaningful for an author to hear that her work was good,” she said. I love the fact that you go further and talk about how specificity makes praise more meaningful. (And I did take a selfie with Jeannine!)
Ha-ha. A selfie is wonderful and Jeannine is so modest. How special to meet your heroines in-person. I hope to do the same one day!
Charlotte, this is a wonderful reminder of the power of connection. I love your suggestions for ways to share your thoughts with other writers on their work. I’m going to keep them handy – and start reaching out myself.
It’s a two-way feel-good practice, even if there’s nothing coming back.:) These suggesetions are just a few things I realized upon reflection, you may create others. But ultimately you’re right, we all want to feel connected and appreciated so go ahead and reach out! Thanks.
Love this! How fun to get a heartfelt response when attempting to encourage someone else. I appreciate your echoes of the hope for connection I have long experienced. I’d love to share my memoir, The Mother Gap, with you.
Jessica, connection is so important for all beings, isn’t it? Your book is a beautiful tribute to the power of forgiveness.
Thank you Charlotte. Were you able to read it? I was planning on sending you a copy.
Charlotte, I love this. Your specific examples of how you express to each of the writers the ways in which their work changed your perspective is spot on. It takes a little bit of extra time, but a writer knows genuine engagement when she sees it. How lucky these authors are to have you in their audience! Best of luck il with your own writing, and thank you for this.
You’re right Michèle, it takes a bit more time but it’s worth it considering the time the author spent putting her life on the page. Thanks for your insightful response.
Loved your book!
Just kidding, Char. You are a teacher to the core, lady, and I love the eloquence and impact of your writing. You make beautiful writing look easy and obvious but, of course, it’s not. How much thought, feeling and effort went into your statement “I’m finding that gratitude helps me build community, one person at a time.” Beautiful. Simple. Beckoning. I love you, Char. Charge on!
I’m laughing reading this, Jen. I couldn’t ask for a better cheering section than you. And the book? I’m writing on!
“I’m finding that gratitude helps me build community, one person at a time: I never thought about gratitude building community. Interesting concept that gratitude can be an action and not just a feeling.
Another thing that resonated with me in the in the comment which said “linger with a book after I finish reading it and perhaps think of what phrase or passage or development that touched me”. I didn’t realize how often I feel and book and how often I need to linger with that feeling.
Gail, thank you for these great reflections and the recognition of the value of lingering as Polly pointed out.
“Appreciation is what we feel in the moment. Gratitude is what we remember.” (Louis Schwartzberg) Both can go beyond the spoken words to acts of kindness and generosity.
Thank you for this quote and your call to action. Lovely.
What I love about this—beyond the fact that it is beautifully written—is you have brought out something I never thought of as a writer and a reader. Reach out to the author, so simple and complex. It becomes a bridge to other writers, helps us feel a part of something bigger and not just a solitary person writing on paper and tapping on keys.
Cindy, you express so beautifully what is at the core of this piece, that gratitude can be a ” . . . bridge to other writers, helps us feel a part of something bigger . . .” I feel heard with your words, thank you!
Charlotte, I love this post so much. As i begin my more formal literary citizenship this year, you’ve given me a clearer roadmap. I read so much and get so excited about other people’s work that I rave and rave about them, now I feel like I can be brave and interact as a not only a reader, but a writer, too. Thank you!
Kris, I find writer to writer to be such an energizing gift. We know how hard this craft is and sincere appreciation is such a boost. I hear your commitment to give and take in gratitude for the effort. You just did it for me.:)