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.

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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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