Today I received an email from a freshly graduated student about a blog he’d been writing for the past two years that he wants to get published as a book. It was about being an only child—a topic I recommended he consider transforming into a memoir after he turned in a wonderful English 101 essay about growing up alone. Ever since, he said, he’d been writing. He included a link to the blog, clearly hoping—despite assurances to the contrary—that I would read it and somehow singlehandedly applaud it onto bookstore shelves.
This is the first of several such emails that I’ll likely receive this summer, in addition to similar requests I get from faraway former students, colleagues, and even total strangers during the school year. Would be writers email me. They show up in my office door, boxed manuscript in hand. They bribe me with lunch. But something about graduating—commencing Real Life, I guess—translates especially as the supreme opportunity to magically turn what have thus far only been vague dreams—of writing their memoir, of publishing a collection of devotions, of becoming a children’s author—into reality.
For me, though, summer is my big work-time as a writer. As soon as I get my grades in, I’m frantically writing away toward midsummer deadlines. In a little over a week, my college daughters will be coming home, and I’m embarrassed to say—though I love them both dreadfully and have been missing them ever since they returned to school after Christmas break—I’m dreading their return. The summer seems, for me, already used up, with all the things I need to get done during it, and I resent everything—even things I love best, like daughters and gardening—that takes me away from the computer.
So, I’m faced, as most writers are, with a difficult task I’ll probably never get exactly right: How to convey the reality of my summer (indeed, of my life as a writer)—that I have neither the time to read a single post, not to mention four years’ worth of blogging or a manuscript two reams thick, nor the power to circumvent for them or myself the arduous tasks of revising to make a book readable and securing an agent to get the thing sold—while simultaneously heartening and supporting those who, inspired by my own modest successes as a writer, want to follow in my footsteps?
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke models my ideal response in his Letters to a Young Poet. I would like to embody his kind voice and take time away from my own writing to compose letter upon letter of encouragement and advice to those who approach me for writerly advice. But Rilke was writing back before the internet made it possible for would be writers to readily locate and assault him with salvos of manuscripts and queries. And Rilke didn’t seem to have to do any other work in his life besides write poems. And poets write, after all, poems. Short pieces—shorter, quite often, than a single blog post.
I was also much impressed when, after a reading from her memoir, Ellen Gilchrist took on question after question from the would be memoirists in her audience, somehow validating every asker as a writer and spurring each one to keep at it, keep writing, keep sending things out, keep doing—or start doing—the hard, often fruitless but always rewarding work of getting one’s thoughts and stories onto the page and into others’ hands.
My advice, finally, is canned, as were perhaps Gilchrist’s comments at readings and maybe even Rilke’s advice—which was, after all, published in book-form for every wannabe poet to read. I have an email in which I detail the steps I myself took in seeking publication for the first time, and I send it out, slightly personalized, to each asker. I have a spoken version for office door and phone conversations. It’s easier to be kind and encouraging, I find, when I plan it out.
Now, if I could just figure out a loving way to tell Lulu and Charlotte I’m too busy to make them the fantasy breakfast they’ve been dreaming of all semester…
What do you tell aspiring writers who come across your path or your email in box?