Dear Claire: On Letters From My Readers


I started writing in isolation. For me, it was the natural result of reading too much: those extra words bred in the pools between my ears, multiplying and evolving, and finally spilled out of me in a tidal rush. I read everything when I was young. I loved the privacy of being a reader, and how a book could be a shield between me and the rest of the world.  When I read, I felt reality melt away. It was the same when I wrote. Time flowed differently, moving at the pace of the stories I scratched out. I did not mind being alone inside those stories. I wrote for pleasure, because it felt natural, and because if I did not the excess of ideas in my brain would have nowhere to go. A hundred years ago, doctors bled patients to release the bad humors in their blood. My writing was no different. I was jabbing for a vein, trying to vent some of the pressure building up inside me.

Among other things, I wrote letters to the authors I liked the most. I was prepubescent, addicted to books about faraway lands, women in armor, talking animals, and terrible quests. My letters were unabashedly enthusiastic. I wrote to Beverly Cleary, Brian Jacques, Lois Lowry, Robin McKinley. These letters were long and very detailed, and always included a couple of questions.

Who draws the maps that are printed in the endpapers?
What character is your favorite to write about, and why?
Do you only write one book at a time or plan the whole series?

I was crushed when I learned that a writer whose work I loved was deceased, and could not be reached by mail. (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien missed out.) I sent my fan letters through the regular post, to the author c/o their publisher. The address was usually printed on the inside of the book, on the ISBN page. I remember dropping these letters into the mailbox, never doubting that they’d reach their destination.

Now that I am grown up, I understand how unlikely it was that these letters reached their intended recipients. However, once or twice there was a response. This was like finding a message in a bottle on the beach. It confirmed my belief that writers were real people, not mythical creatures. They received mail. They wrote back to children like me, answering my questions and thanking me for reading their books. I still have Brian Jacques’s letter somewhere, a response to a letter I wrote right after I finished Mossflower for the fourth time.

He said that the animal characters in his books were based on the people he knew. “For example, Gonff is me!” he wrote. That exclamation point pierced my heart. I read the Redwall series again, this time imagining Brian at his desk, laughing while he wrote Gonff’s dialog. I wrote again, asking more questions, this time about who the other characters were based on, and why he used so much poetry in his stories, but I don’t remember if I sent it. I think I felt, even then, that I’d been lucky to get a letter from the master’s desk. I knew better than to push my luck.

Because I was a reader, and he was a writer, and I understood that it wasn’t his job to become my friend, simply because I loved the books he’d written.

This was before the Internet, when the only way to get in touch with a stranger was to find them in the phone book or through their publishing company. Now, authors have their own websites. Twitter accounts. They share their email addresses and other contact information online. If you want to get in touch with your favorite writer, it’s not difficult to do that. My friend, the late Katherine Dunn, who wrote Geek Love, was my neighbor in Portland. Her phone number was listed in the white pages, which I know because I looked her up. I remember staring at the digits, printed in cheap ink on nearly transparent paper and wondering who in their right mind would have the gall to actually call her up and ask her about her novel.

When I was younger, that person would have been me. But that was when I was a reader, and a child. Now I am a writer, and I understand how fiercely we must guard our privacy. When I started writing for money in 2006, I was not thinking about anything except getting published. I wanted to get my name out there: I wanted to get paid. I wasn’t thinking about what kind of writer I might turn out to be. I was also completely unprepared for the responses that readers had to my work.

Up to then, my experience with readers was limited to close friends and other writers, or at least embryo writers, who went to workshops and took creative writing classes on the weekends. We read each other’s work seriously, with an eye towards craft. We knew how to give each other constructive criticism, each negative comment balanced by a positive. We never said things like, “I liked this,” or “Your main character upset me.” Our feelings were not part of the discussion. I wrote stories that were disturbing, lyrical, strange, and moody. Most of them were not very good. I didn’t aim to please my reader, because I had no idea who that person would be. I wrote because I liked writing, and the stories I made were reflective, I think, of my intense focus on my inner world. My stories were pointed at myself: my fantasies, fears, dreams. When I wrote, I felt like I was gazing at my own reflection. I saw myself as a nymph, with charcoal skin, drawing stars on its forehead. A fragment of nature. I felt powerful when I wrote, and full of magic. I created worlds, beautiful worlds, and tore them into pieces.

That sense of self evaporated when I got my first letter from a stranger.

You bitch.

It was a nasty feeling, like finding a hateful note on your windshield. Learn how to park. I read the letter several times, trying to understand what I’d done wrong. The story in question upset this reader: upset him to the point of profanity. There was no constructive criticism in the note, or even an explanation of what exactly was so offensive about my story. I read it a few times, face on fire, and then crumpled it up and threw it away. I thought, later, that I should keep this note, the way I was keeping all my rejection letters. If I had, I’d have enough to paper my bedroom. Because, apparently, what I write—the way I write—maybe the way I am—is enough to provoke a stranger into writing to me. And, paradoxically, although my writing is deeply private, even when it is published and read by millions of people, something about it suggests that I am a person who is interested in hearing from you. Yes, you.

Even though you’re not supposed to read the comments, I always read the comments. And I always open the emails, no matter what the subject line says. Maybe this is my inner masochist, but when I read these letters—both the wonderful and the abusive—I start to get a sense of what kind of writer I have become.

I recognized the brittle, devastating truth in your stories.

This essay articulates something that I’ve been trying so hard to get at. Thank you. I was in tears.

I am a writer who makes people cry, because I tell them the truth about themselves. I am a writer who infuriates people. My readers told me this. Because of them, I am learning who I am.

Whether I like it or not, the way I am seen by readers, and the person they think I am, is an important aspect of my development as a writer. When I committed to writing for money, and becoming a writer in public, I also committed to growing. That means expanding my conception of myself, improving the quality of my writing, and making an effort to connect with readers. Reader responses are not reviews, and they’re not criticism. They’re raw, usually spontaneous reactions to my work. They’re valuable to me because they make me feel like I’m sitting right next to the reader, watching them bite their lip or roll their eyes as they scroll down the page.

What have readers seen in me? More than I’ve ever seen in myself. When I write about recovering from heroin addiction or alcoholism, I get a small flurry of messages. People write to ask for help, compare their recovery to mine, or criticize me for not taking the same path they did. When I write something controversial, the comments section wonders if I’ve relapsed. I’ve been called horrible names. I’ve also been branded as a non-feminist, a liar, a slut, a loser who doesn’t deserve to have a boyfriend, an idiot, and a genius.

I once received a four-page letter from a woman, asking for help with her long distance relationship. She’d read an essay of mine, guessed my email address, and gotten in touch. Like me, she was coming to terms with the fact that her boyfriend was imaginary. She shared the intimate details of her relationship, asked for help, and then apologized for maybe overstepping her bounds. You don’t have to write back. It just means so much to know that someone else has gone through this and come out alive. I waited two days before I decided to respond.

The personal emails, especially the ones who encourage me to keep writing, mean the most. It takes time and effort to find my contact information, write a message, and press send. The person who’s willing to jump through those electronic hoops has something important to say. The least I can do is read it. Even if I don’t like what they say, or it’s stupid or hurtful, I read it. It reminds me that I can’t win over everybody—that my writing is not for everyone—and that I don’t need to be universally celebrated to be happy.

Most of all, these letters remind me that I am real. I’m not an imaginary or mythical creature, spinning yarns in a grove somewhere. I’m a person, read by people, and the porous membrane between us can be punctured by the messages between us. The more I share about myself and the bigger my stories get, the more responses I receive from people who identified. I make stories and I get letters. Is it a dialog? No. It is a new way to see myself: not isolated, and not alone, but connected, transmitting, and bright.

Image Credit: Pixabay.