Over ten years ago I discovered a book that I loved. I saw that the author was coming to a bookstore near me, and I went and he signed my book and was so lovely and encouraging that I shared that I, too, was a writer. This was a big deal. I wasn’t calling myself a writer then, even though I had written hundreds of poems and a couple novels and a few published freelance articles. But I wasn’t supporting myself as a writer because I had a “real job” and so I considered myself more of a closet writer.
Telling this man I was a writer was a big deal for me.
He was encouraging. He wrote the most lovely note in my book telling me he couldn’t wait until he would read my writing one day. (It might have been something he said to everyone, but hey, it was music to ears.) He even gave me his email address so I could “keep in touch.”
I’m not sure I ever really did “keep in touch.” I know that’s something writers say sometimes. I know now all these years later that I really appreciate the people that write to me, but because of my work and schedule and other reasons I’m not always able to answer. But I do appreciate it. I know that other writers do, too.
So after the book signing event I think I sent him a note saying it was nice to meet him and I wished him much success with his book. I think he replied “thanks.”
I kept writing, and eventually I published my first poetry book, The Difference Now.
The book was a big deal for me, not because it was going to be a bestseller (it was a poetry book, after all), but because it was the first time I had really put my work “out there.” I used to destroy my writing. When I stopped doing that, I published a few poems. I was happy about the fact that I overcame a certain negative influence that had been constant in my life.
I shared my book with some people. I still do this. With my latest book, I sent out a few copies to people I just really adore for a variety of reasons. I don’t expect them to write a review or give me a shout out or anything like that. I send it to them because I like them and sharing my poetry is one way I say that. (I am a poetry geek, after all.)
So I sent my book to this writer. I sent a note reminding him of his kind words to me and thanked him for his encouragement. I didn’t expect a reply. I really was just letting him know that I kept writing as he suggested and now I was publishing something.
I thought perhaps that if I did hear from him, he would be turned off or disappointed because the book was self-published. People were then. They aren’t now. Ten years have really changed the indie world.
But he wasn’t turned off or disappointed. In fact, he loved my poetry. We exchanged a few very wonderful and kind emails.
And then: snobbery hit.
He asked me which poets I had studied. I told him the answer and he didn’t like it. Despite that he had loved my poetry before that moment, he said “you can’t write without first studying the masters.”
I disagreed. I told him how I wrote for twenty years before reading other people’s work. He used words like “brilliant” and “unique” before this to describe my writing, and yet in finding this out asked how I know my writing is original.
Doesn’t the word “unique” also mean “original”?
But whatever, this exchange became more than I could have even imagined. A favorite author went from not knowing my work to loving my work to not loving my work in an instant. He continued to pontificate that his students (his “for money” job was as a teacher) irritated him with talk of their dreams of the writing life. They weren’t being realistic, and he was sick of it, that you had to read and study for years and how dare anyone think that they can write if they didn’t do a certain list of things that he thought they should do.
I tried to understand the logic of saying you liked someone’s writing, even calling it brilliant, and then changing your mind upon hearing that they took a different path to get there than you would have. Or maybe he wasn’t changing his mind. Maybe he was just annoyed that I didn’t grow up the way he did, where poetry was introduced in a preparatory school with an approved curriculum and a seasoned professor. He went on to lament about his students who seemed to think writing was cool and fun and not a job.
But what did this all have to do with me?
Look, we all come to this differently. My encounter with Mr. Big Shot Writer (yes, he’s had a couple more books published over the years) showed me how emotional people can be when they don’t think you “earned” the right to write.
If you’re an aspiring writer reading this, don’t believe it for a minute. Should you continue to improve yourself? Sure. Should you study? You bet. But do know that there are different writers, different styles, and different paths to get there, and when I say “there” I mean wherever it is you’d like to be. Because the reality is that writing can take you places. Along the way, you’ll meet a variety of writers, some that will knock your socks off with their words and some that make you want to run to get away from them. Be kind to them all.