Reverence Barrier – Contacting Established Writers
In the summer of 2010, I lived in poverty in Sydney, Australia for a month. The story is longer than is worth recounting here, but I had a residency in New South Wales that turned out to be a bust. I couldn’t afford to pay to change the ticket so I lived in decrepit hostels and spent most of my days walking around between free art museums and the bay, which were the only places quiet and calming enough to write a poem.
I’d brought a number of books with me that I kept in a bag which I chained to my bunk (yes, the hostels were that bad). One of those books was Pigafetta is My Wife by Joe Hall. I’ve since written a review of the book that you can check out at Diode, but, in short, the narrative weaves bits of Joe’s own life living in a trailer park in Indiana with the life of Antonio Pigafetta, who served Magellan. It’s a book about lostness, miscalculation, and searching for a pale kind of meaning in the things that befall us. I immediately latched onto the book once I’d read it.
I remember sitting in one of the galleries and debating with myself over an idea: I wanted to write Joe. I wanted to write him and say “your book may have been written for people in your immediate life, but it also was written for me, this person thousands of miles away, drifting through the Australian winter in extreme poverty.” Typically, I would never have gone through with such an idea, but I felt like I had lost so much already. Why not? So, I sat down and wrote, and, in doing so, broke through a sort of constraint I’d never realized I’d been imposing on myself: a reverence barrier.
I’m not sure when it begins, but at some point, I think many of us are taught that we aren’t in a position to contact people who’ve won a major a prize or published a poem we love in The New Yorker or Georgia Review or Ploughshares. I don’t know if it’s the natural distance the written word establishes or what.
For me, I think I held onto this notion even though many writers tried to disarm me of that. The first time I met James Tate, he was eating ribs. Mary Jo Bang initiated a extensive conversation with me about the sexual harassment panda episode of “South Park.” But even with such these sort of moments, it wasn’t until my first book came out that I felt the kind of legitimacy I needed to feel comfortable contacting established writers whose work I loved or whose help I needed. I think it is probably good that I’ve gone through different phases in shedding these inhibitions—I felt more comfortable contacting folks once I ran a reading series, then even more comfortable once I ran a journal, and now that I’m the lead content editor for LitBridge, I don’t get the jitters much. But I think some of my initial reverence and decorum might have held me back from accomplishing things earlier in my career. I see so many other writers struggle with this idea of when and if to contact writers they admire.
When thinking about whether you’d like to contact a writer whose work speaks to you, there are a few things to consider:
1.) While writers enjoy privacy, most would not say that a concise email expressing merited admiration is an invasion of privacy.
2.) This likely isn’t apparent if you haven’t yet published a book, but the response one gets from a book is often eerily quiet. Many magazines are not running the quantity (and perhaps quality) of reviews they once were.
3.) Writers with books out often are on the hunt for locations to read or share their work. By letting them know you’re out there and you’re reading their work, you offer an incentive for the writer to think about coming to read where you are.
4.) More could be said of this, but we no longer live in an era where a clear set of prizes, i.e. Yale Younger Poets, The National Poetry Series, guarantees fame and fortune. In general, most writing are working writers. A short, kind message can be an incentive to keep going.
This year I’ve been teaching my world literature course with a version of the Norton anthology. In the biographies, the editors always list and bold other writers that the authors were friends with. I often wonder if my students just imagine that these writers all went to the same conference one year or tapped into some mystical spirit realm where they became friends. But, clearly, this is not the case. The bonds between the writers were forged by exchanging words on the page, but also words directly with one another. They weren’t afraid to just put the letter in the mail, no matter how lowly they might have been at the time.
The happy end to the story in Australia is that Joe wrote me back. We’ve been good friends and exchanged work since. That friendship has been a great boon to me, but the lesson I learned from that experience holds value too: one is only as insignificant as one feels in the world of writing. Certainly, there are hierarchies of legitimacy in writing, and one should be respectful of the privacy of other writers, but overdosing on that kind of reserve can only hinder. Writers eat ribs. They watch Comedy Central. They get anxious and uncertain, no matter how established they are. It’s part of the job description. And, most importantly, I’m convicted that there’s no level a writer reaches where someone seeking to connect with the writer in some small way should be repelled by anxieties based purely on reputation. Don’t come with expectations about what that response may look like or how significant that interaction might be, but one of the worst things a young writer can do is feel cowed by those finding their way in writing around him or her. Don’t be afraid to hit the send button. Sometimes it can make all the difference.