A writing teacher of mine reported that writer Ursula K. Le Guin delighted in the letters she received whenever she published a short story in one of the various science fiction or fantasy publications that exist. She anticipated hearing her readers’ questions, challenges, and enjoyment; and so years ago, when she published her first piece for The New Yorker, she looked forward to hearing from a new readership. What she heard from that readership was a deafening silence. Not a single letter appeared.
This story made conscious what I’ve probably always known: writers don’t just like to get paid for their work, they like to know that someone reads them, too. So though I am compulsively resistant to sending anything that could be called fan mail, a situation arose recently that – urged along by the Le Guin story – caused me to rethink my stance.
Six weeks ago, I was spending a great deal of time on the “I suck” end of the Writer’s Continuum (the other, more buoyant end being, “I am a genius unparalleled”). It felt relentless enough that once or twice I considered chucking this whole writing enterprise. Then I encountered, in a months-old issue of Poets & Writers, a delightful, inspiring essay that returned some hope to me.
I basked awhile in the grace brought by the piece, then happened to glance at its author. It was written by none other than Marion Winik. When I moved to Austin, Texas in 1989, Marion Winik, was already something of a local celebrity. She was a regular contributor to Austin’s weekly paper who wrote personal essays that never failed to make me laugh. So when a new friend invited me to submit something of mine to her writing group, and mentioned that Marion Winik was in the same writing group, I was awestruck and particularly grateful to have made the cut.
As it turned out, Marion and I only attended two, maybe three group meetings in common – before she went off to have her second kid and I moved to Pasadena. But I continued to follow her career, from her memoir about her husband dying from AIDS and a subsequent Oprah appearance, to a number of commentator spots over the years on NPR, all leading to June of 2012 when her words uplifted me at a time when I needed them a great deal.
There was nothing for it but to write Marion Winik a fan letter.
I’m glad I did. She said it meant a lot to her to learn that something she’d written had been meaningful in precisely the way she’d intended.
It is easy for me to think that those in the public eye are somehow Other, and Above the rest of us. But when Ursula K. Le Guin says it matters so much to hear from her readers that the silence she encountered The New Yorker readers soured her on it a bit, well – it’s a reminder that though one’s writing is hopefully not undertaken with the reader foremost in mind, to hear back that one’s efforts have made an impact brings about a satisfying conclusion to the process the writer set in motion.