An Open Letter to Writers: (Don’t Do What I Do!)

I realized something today that I have known for a very long time, really, but not entirely consciously. I am prolific if any writer is. Ignoring my inability to finish a project and send it out into the world. Someone once gave me the book The Midnight Disease which is about hypergraphia–a “disorder” in which the sufferer cannot stop writing. And she was probably right to give it to me.

But when I write to communicate with others (as opposed to journaling or the writing I do in the margins of my books)–whether it’s essay writing or personal letters or novels or, say, blog posts–I have two very distinct modes of writing. And I’ve finally realized that they have very distinct affects on their audiences. And boy do I wish I had clarified this for myself years ago. But there we are. We learn what we learn when we’re ready to learn it. And so I’m passing it along in case it’s relevant or helpful to any of you all.

I had my first profound writing success when I was a junior in high school. I wrote an essay for a contest on the topic of “Kindness.” The essay was about a small but powerfully meaningful act of kindness that a boy showed me in second grade and how that act of kindness impacted my life. I wish I still had a copy. I would post it. I had won writing contests before that. I was considered a good writer as soon as I could write, but that essay was published in the local paper and the response to it was breathtaking. I started getting letters from all over town . . . people writing to thank me for sharing that story. I even got a letter from a Minister who had read my essay to his congregation. I never knew before that moment that my words had any power to move people in that way.

I think I keep this journal because I sometimes get that same feeling . . . Like I am sharing something that is meaningful and touches people. Maybe uplifts or changes them in a way that is not bad. Even though I talk so much about hard things. But I don’t always get that feeling. Sometimes I really don’t like what I write. Sometimes I get the feeling that other people don’t like what I write. Even if there’s nothing wrong with it, it feels off somehow. I have had this same experience with essays. My writing is always “good”, my papers are always well-reasoned and organized. But sometimes they really anger my teachers. And sometimes they invite more dialogue. I write letters to people and sometimes they get angry with me and don’t want to have anything to do with me anymore, and sometimes they draw the other person closer and we share a real connection.

So here’s what I have sussed out as the difference: sometimes I am open and vulnerable in my writing, and sometimes I am just “right”–however that is defined for the particular type of writing I am doing. If it’s a paper, then my claim is intelligent and well-reasoned. If it’s a letter, then whatever the topic in question is, I have presented my views in a way that it would be hard to rationally argue with. If it’s a novel draft, then my writing is technically sound and impressive. But right does not equal good. And even less does it equal productive.

Being “right” is a defense mechanism for me. It allows me to feel valid despite an underlying suspicion that I can be a kind of nasty person on occasion. And I showcase “rightness” in my writing when I need that validation. When I am in an argument with someone, or I am exploring a topic that scares me or that I don’t feel entirely secure with, or when it’s just something like writing fiction that feels so important to me that I don’t honestly believe I could really do a good job with it.

But feeling open is what allows me to connect with others. And in order to be open, I have to be vulnerable. I have to be willing to talk in an honest and authentic way about the moments in my life that have meant something and about my own, sometimes overwhelming, sense of frailty and failure. But when I can get to that place, and probably when any of us can, the writing that comes out has the power to connect with others, make them feel seen, change their hearts. I think this is what real communication is about. Have any of you struggled with this?


About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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6 Responses to An Open Letter to Writers: (Don’t Do What I Do!)

  1. abwestrick says:

    Boy, have I struggled with this! For years my writing earned rejection letters. It wasn’t until I dug deeply into myself and dared to be vulnerable, to explore those vulnerable places, that my writing began to connect with readers.
    Thank you for mentioning hypergraphia. I hadn’t heard of that disorder. I wouldn’t say that my need to write has reached the status of a disorder, but I’ve often described myself as one who can’t stop writing. The recognition that I can’t stop — that I’m going to write no matter how good or awful the product is — led me back to school. I figured that if I was going to write anyway, I might as well learn to do it well. I needed to grasp what “voice” meant and needed to absorb everything I could about crafting a piece worth reading. It’s been an awesome journey, and I’m especially glad to have met you along the way!

    • Yes, that lecture on voice was one of the most memorable of my five residencies at VCFA, Anne. And I’m struggling with that issue of vulnerability in my writing, too, because I’m discovering that when I’m most open and vulnerable, people don’t necessarily appreciate it and it hurts more when there’s so much of me in it.

      • pamwatts says:

        Oh, Lyn. I’m sorry. That’s the thing that really sucks. You put something true of yourself out there and the reason it feels vulnerable is that you feel like someone might see you and not love you. But I have faith that for the right people, that vulnerability is important and valuable. And the other people don’t matter so much.

  2. pamwatts says:

    Me too, Anne! And I remember your graduate lecture on voice was excellent. There are, perhaps, some lessons that I have to hear over and over again before they really start to sink in.

  3. abwestrick says:

    I also have to hear lessons repeatedly before they sink in. And I’m with Lyn about how hard it is to put yourself into a vulnerable place. Sometimes that sort of openness makes others feel vulnerable. But it can also lead to healing. Right now I’m reading a book called AUTHORS IN THE CLASSROOM by Ada and Campoy, and it’s gotten me to do a bunch of writing exercises on issues related to oppression and privilege. The process of working through these exercises has been eye-opening, making me especially aware of my ignorance, and at the same time (I hope) leading me to a new place in my understanding of self and others. It’s all a process. Such a process!

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