It took me forty years to admit I’m a writer. First, I wrote it on forms that asked for profession. Then, I told telemarketers conducting surveys. Finally, I tried real people: women at my daughters’ preschool, my new dentist. No one called my title into question. Some people even started using the title in reference to me: “That’s Beatrice’s mother. She’s a writer.”
Then there was the day when I said, “I’m a writer,” and someone said, “Really? Would you read my novel?”
Since I had no idea how to say no, I slogged through page one of Wasted Lives, complete with typos, misspellings, and a main character named Dick. When I set the manuscript back into its shirt box, I lectured myself: I didn’t even know this man. Why would I spend hours plowing through his manuscript? I waited until I knew the author would not be home (these were the good old answering machine days) and then I left a message: “I can’t do your manuscript justice in the limited time I have. I’ll leave it on my back porch. Stop by anytime for it.”
The relief I felt at dumping the mess on my doorstep disappeared as soon as I received an email from a distant relative whose step-daughter wanted to be a writer. Might she get my opinion on her work? Evolution is a slow process, but I began the crawl. “I’ll take a look at the first chapter,” I said.
Thus, I spent a night with Jennie Longwood, a young, gorgeous virgin who meets her true love tending bar in a New York piano bar where she has gotten her first singing gig. Their sparks are only interrupted by a record company executive who asks her to stop by his studio in the morning. She takes the bartender back to her beautiful apartment and has an orgasm. Then I got to page two.
Dear Julie, I typed. How impressed I am that you have the discipline to see a longer work through to its end. I suggested she might sign up to take some writing classes.
For a couple of years, I cruised along unapproached by closet novelists. Then one night when I was running out the door, the phone rang. It was our new selectwoman, an acquaintance whose son went to school with my daughter. She asked for the name of a book I’d recommended at the busstop one morning. I told her and then said I had to run and (feeling boastful), added: “I’m off to my fiction workshop.”
There was a pause before she said, “That reminds me.”
I wondered if she’d seen the press release for my first book. If she would attend the reading I’d be giving at the library. Or maybe if she’d read one of the obscure but lovely magazines that had published my work recently.
Instead, she said, “I was just going through stuff and found copies of a novel I’d written. I was going to toss them out, but then I thought: maybe Carla would be interested in seeing it.”
Clever to frame it this way, no? The way she put it, I could lie and say, “Of course I would,” or I could tell the truth and say, “Throw it out.”
I wish I could say: Lesson learned. Just say no.
Instead, I read the first twenty pages and offered my stock advice about taking a writing course. Since then, I’ve had an almost total stranger send me his daughter’s collection of poems. Although she is only a ninth grader, I am sure you can see her promise. I’ve read shorter pieces for people who preface their queries with, “I’m not a writer or anything, but . . .” I’ve even (once) been PAID to review a manuscript.
But here’s the thing about real writers. Yes. I said REAL. They don’t ask just any ol’ person to take a look at what they’ve done. Why not? Because we’re writers. We understand the precious few hours we have in a day to get to work. We also hand off our work, not to someone we meet casually or someone who can’t avoid a biological link to us, but to other writers whose instincts we trust, whose input we value, whose works we would pore over in exchange.
So what can you do if you need someone to read your work (besides taking a class — still my #1 piece of advice).
- Join a writers group or form your own (I hung signs at a local library many years ago and wound up with four wonderful readers who also happened to become my friends).
- Offer to read other people’s work in exchange for them reading yours.
- Make friends with writers. We hang out at readings and conferences, but we also grocery shop and volunteer in our kids’ pre-schools, and take our cats to the vet.
- Of course, keep reading.
- Most of all, refrain from showing your work to find out if you are a writer, if you have what it takes. No one wants to read your stuff and deliver that verdict. It might take you a few decades to say it out loud, but if you are a writer, you’ll know it.