Pull up a chair, pour a cup of tea, and get comfy. I’d like to talk about kindness in the writing community. I don’t mean retweeting to give each other a boost or following a stranger back to be courteous. I’m talking about profound kindness that settles in your chest and warms you on cold, lonely days.
As writers, we are accustomed to hearing stories of crushed hopes, long shots, and tales of glorious success. We lean in to listen to them all. Stories of rejection make us feel less alone. We warm our hands over the heat generated by other writers’ victories. Each story reminds us we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
But knowing we aren’t alone isn’t enough to sustain us. We crave connection to other writers. We long for someone to acknowledge that we are out there doing this hard work, for someone to nod in our direction and tell us to keep going.
In search of literary fellowship, I’ve stumbled into several writing communities over the years. The kindness that greeted me each time is the fuel that sustains me on my writing journey. I’m about to point fingers and name names, so buckle up.
First, I’m looking at you, Nancy Johnson, my writing soulmate and dear friend. Nancy held my hand as I queried. She talked me through the anxiety of waiting, waiting, waiting, while my book was on submission. But two things in particular that she did for me inspired me to keep going, and I’m calling her out on both of them.
I asked my agent to wait until I had a collection of rejections from editors before sharing them with me instead of sending them piecemeal. As a result, she sent the first batch of passes to me in one long email, as I had requested. I read through them one after another. They weren’t awful. They included some lovely compliments, but they all ended the same way: rejection. I felt nauseous.
I forwarded the letters to Nancy so we could discuss them. She promptly called and left me a voicemail in which she strung all the kind things the editors had written into the loveliest blurb about my book. My novel sounded incredible! I have listened to that voicemail more times than I care to admit. It made me feel good about my writing again.
Later, as more rejections trickled in, Nancy stepped up with another thoughtful gift. “I know you’re doubting yourself right now, but it’s okay,” she told me as the wait began to crush me. “I got this. I believe in you enough for both of us.”
The thing is, I believe in Nancy just as much as she believes in me. So, when she offered to take up my burden, I let her. I can’t explain why, but it made me feel better. As I trusted her to believe in me, I was able to shake off the negative feelings and have faith in my writing again. I believed because Nancy believed.
Next up, I’m pointing at you, Milo Todd. Milo, a fantastic writer and critique partner, is the person I brainstorm all my writing with. He knows my books and my writing better than anyone.
After I had already revised my manuscript numerous times, a reader at my literary agency pointed out some problems – and they were big. I couldn’t bring myself to read the potentially harsh edit letter. Milo sensed my trepidation.
“Let me read the notes for you,” he offered. The tightness in my chest eased a bit.
Milo organized the problems into tidy bullet points. Even more importantly, he came up with potential revision strategies to attack each issue. “I didn’t want to show you the problems without offering some solutions,” he said.
That, folks, is a really good friend!
Next, I’m calling out Hank Phillippi Ryan, the multiple-award-winning author and Emmy-winning television journalist. Hank and I connected a few months ago when she judged a story slam contest I entered. After the event, she asked me if I was a writer. When I told her I was, she asked if she could read my manuscript. I nervously sent it to her.
Days later, as I was having a drink with friends, Hank called me. Cue the heart palpitations. I slipped away from my friends at the bar, my hands trembling as I leaned against a window. Rain poured down the glass, blurring the street outside. I held my breath.
Hank started by telling me she loved my book. (Always a good opener.) She spoke to me like a peer and gave me collegial suggestions on ways to improve my opening chapter. She thanked me for letting her read it, adding that she could now brag about knowing me before I was famous, a joke my fragile ego appreciated.
When I hung up the phone, a warmth swelled in my chest. Even my fingers felt warm against that cold window. Maybe my writing was good enough. Perhaps I would find a publisher for this book of my heart. Hank’s interest, her time, her feedback, and her sincere enthusiasm for my writing renewed my hope.
Last up, I’m calling out WU’s very own Therese Walsh for a quiet act of kindness that got me through a difficult time.
In March of this year, several things in my life collided. I lost someone I loved very much. I traveled to Europe a few days later. One of my kids was diagnosed with mono, another with the flu, and all of this happened while my book was being considered by the acquisitions board at a publishing house I admired. I was incredibly stressed and emotionally exhausted. And I was grieving.
I was also late with a deadline for a Writer Unboxed post to Therese.
The journalist in me cringes as I admit this publicly. Deadlines are sacred. I still feel ashamed for messing up Therese’s schedule.
At the time, I did not tell Therese why I was late. I didn’t mention the death, the illnesses, the travel, or the acquisitions board. Too often, folks don’t take time to consider what’s going on in another person’s life, particularly if that person’s actions impact you negatively. They usually just get annoyed or angry. But not Therese. Even though she had no idea what was happening in my personal life, she was gracious and did not reprimand me, although I deserved it.
She accepted my late post – and thanked me.
For some reason, her simple act of compassion amid a lot of stress and grief was like a balm on my many wounds. She reduced my anxiety level and my guilt, which allowed me to focus on my family, and calmed my nerves about the acquisitions board.
We writers experience anxiety, guilt, and imposter syndrome in ways that most non-writers can’t quite understand. So why do we keep going? What makes us send out one more query after facing so many rejections?
I keep going because of people like Nancy, Milo, Hank, and Therese.
Their kindnesses taught me lessons I still carry. I have more faith in my writing. I’m more resilient and better equipped to handle rejection and criticism. I now feel like a writer, like I belong here with all of you. And I’ve learned to cut myself slack when I need it.
In April this year, after years of writing, querying, and submitting, I accepted a two-book offer from Forge (Macmillan.) These stories I have carried around inside me are going to be real books. I thought my heart might burst when my agent called with the offer. After I ecstatically screamed the news to my family, can you guess who I told next? Nancy, Milo, Hank, and Therese.
These writers lifted me up and carried me when I couldn’t manage on my own. And they did it for no other reason than that they are kind. They are writers.
I see writers helping each other all the time. We critique each other’s queries and manuscripts and review each other’s books. We coach each other before pitching to agents. We help each other carry the load when the burden becomes too heavy.
Saying thank you to Nancy, Milo, Hank, Therese (and the many other writers who have helped me) doesn’t seem adequate, so I vow to pay forward the kindnesses they offered to me. As I move into this new phase of my writing journey, I hope I can live up to the generosity of the writer friends who helped me get here. I want to be worthy of the faith they put in me.
Have you been on the receiving end of writerly acts of kindness? What did it mean to you? Have you ever helped another writer? What inspired you to do so?