This month we have three examples so far of letters to persons or entities who have tried to dampen enthusiasm for writing with criticism, by limiting opportunities or by nurturing self-doubt. Thank you Writing It Real members David D. Horowitz, Harriet Cannon and Pat Detmer. I know WIR members will enjoy your words as have I, and I hope your letters inspire more letters for posting each week this month.
David D. Horowitz’s Letter to a Person Trying to Dampen His Enthusiasm for Writing Poetry
December 25, 2021
Dear Professor WD:
I don’t celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, or Kwanzaa, but this holiday season I want to again thank you for the gifts you gave me. Your instruction taught me to see poetry as the intersection of language and music. You reaffirmed my love of rhyme as aesthetically legitimate, partly by painstakingly and sympathetically reading drafts of my poems during your office hours. You introduced me to the poetry of Philip Larkin, who profoundly reshaped my understanding of verse. You emphasized a powerful set of poetic preferences: precisely described physical imagery; distinctive verbs; radical concision; less obvious rhyming; enjambement resonating with two and three meanings; avoidance of clichés; and attending to a poem’s tone—that complex blend of a poem’s sound, sense, and narrative prejudice.
You were a magnificent teacher. I could never forget that first day of Introduction to Poetry Writing, my one creative writing class during my undergraduate years at the University of Washington. You described your class policies to twenty-five or so students, encouraging us to stay in the class—except for those who assumed they were geniuses, whom you said would have no need of your course, as they had nothing to learn. My heart grinned. Yes, I had what to learn. And straightaway you illustrated the importance of precise, distinctive physical detail by citing two examples from students of earlier classes. First, you quoted a young woman who had referred to a squirrel standing upright on her lawn one morning as “a little grey coffeepot.” Then you quoted a young man who’d written that during his first orgasm, he felt like “my spine sneezed.” So vividly and enduringly—and endearingly—you made your points!
And you were generous with your time—during office hours and, in the next two or three years, you scrutinized my new poems and offered unflinching but thoughtful guidance. What a gift your guidance was!
Yet, your guidance sometimes veered into condescension and insult. This was particularly true in later years, after I’d published your book of poems. Too many times you’d capriciously remark, “Don’t imagine anyone will care about your poems after you die”; “I have a mind to destroy your publishing company”; “What a disappointing step back your new book is”; “Poetry is really a trivial art, and your problem is you take it seriously”; and “You can’t actually believe your poems will help make the world better.” Yes, Professor, perhaps naively, I think now and then some of them do. Indeed, your poems, which I enthusiastically published, made me and many others better poets and people.
You would sometimes remark to me, in a tone of gently chiding mockery: “But I don’t write poetry anymore. I write essays about travel, and I serve as an opera critic and soccer correspondent.” I never fully believed the part about not writing poetry anymore. Sure enough, after you retired you composed some of your finest poems—just before your untimely death at sixty-nine in October 2005. So, Professor: why all the cynical disdain for poetry, for many other poets’ efforts, and for some of your students, whom at times you deemed “airheads” and “barbarians”? Did underappreciation of your work make you more likely to disparage, deflate, and denigrate? I daresay it did.
Now, I claim no moral superiority in this matter: I sometimes rant to myself about overpraised mediocrity and undervalued talent—especially in poetry. My judgments can be hasty and unfair, and I stand humbled when I discover good poems by poets whom I recently ridiculed. I’ve been on the end of your and others’ barbs, so I aim not to indulge needlessly hurtful criticism. Not infrequently, poets whom I’ve deemed untalented persevere and begin writing genuinely good poems. This has deepened my humility about judging others’ work. I’m not an aesthetic agnostic, and occasional criticism can help and guide. But tact, encouragement, and complimenting matter, too. Not that you never complimented—but that impulse seemed to wane with your age, and that will serve to warn me as I myself enter old age.
Thank you, Professor, for your magnificent instruction and creativity, informed by unflinching commitment to aesthetic excellence. Not everything you said reflected your empathetic side, but experiencing your harsher edge was also part of my education.
With profound respect and gratitude,
David D. Horowitz
Harriet Cannon’s Letter to Bullies Dampening Her Enthusiasm for Writing
Dear Madam, Mister and They at Random House, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster and Hachette Book Group,
More power to y’all in 2022. Do we have a choice but to wish you well? Maybe just maybe if we pander and fawn, query someone who knows someone or happen to be the niece of a world-famous entity, we’ll be among your chosen. Power is as power does as the adage suggests. You can do whatever while normal people authors secretly wish you’d take a flying leap into space and bust your balloon on a sharp tack.
Back in the day, you left small presses and indie publishers be to ply their audiences in community bookstores. No need then to hook the little guys off the stage like a scene from an old vaudeville comedy. But along came covid. Rather than generosity and collaboration one sees in other industries, your inner Grinch rose, like Jabba the Hut to fast freeze small and self-publishers like Han Solo. You offered a fat plumb, discounting Ingram’s prices to indie bookstores. Small publishers can’t compete and are now lurking in an unflattering corner of the bookstore store or in the back of beyond.
Shame on you.
A former Fan
Pat Detmer’s Letter to the Most Common Dampener of Our Enthusiasm to Write
It’s me. I’m not surprised I haven’t heard from you, because I know it takes a certain kind of openness to write and respond to letters like the one I sent, and I’m not sure you have that in your quiver. I’ve seen your website, your well-posed pictures, your cheerful blogs, but I know better. You’re a fraud. You thought you could write a 70,000-word piece of fiction from the leavings of something you started 20 years ago, send it off to the only literary agent who might remember you (you’d given her a ride to the airport after a conference, also 20 years ago), and then expect to hear back from her after she agreed to accept your pitch and the novel. But nothing has happened. Is two months a lifetime? Only if you’re waiting. If you live in New York City and have other things on your plate, two months around the holidays is probably like a minute, and a New York minute at that.
So now I question not only the novel but the pitch. When I wrote it, I remembered the gist of a promotion for a first work of fiction I saw a few years ago. The author was 70, a good marketing hook. His first novel! And he’s 70! So, I mentioned my age in my pitch, put it right out there: 71, I said, “and I believe in new beginnings.” But the marketer in me wonders if they might think, Could this person deliver a series? Or even another book? I mean, she’s 71!
But does it really matter, getting published? The journey, the act of writing, of going past my comfort zone, those were my goals, and I did it. I’ve always been a short-form writer, personal essays and humor columns my specialty, and when I finished this thing, I was transformed. I felt invincible; now, unfortunately, invisible.
But I’m being overly dramatic. I’m writing this because I knew I needed to hear from you and know the truth of what you’re thinking right now. I’d been holding my angst at bay for the past month, but now I admit that my positive and airy attitude has deflated, my sure steps are tentative, and I don’t know what to do next.
I’ll save this on my desktop as a Word document without giving it a name. It will self-title “Dear Author,” and when I open it tomorrow, I hope I’ll laugh at my whiny, grim mood. I hope I’ll think, “It’s a new year! You can do anything you want! Pitch again! Start another book!”
I think I’ll leave the Dear Author title on the document. But can I really call myself an author? I’m not published, so I’m not sure.
But still, I write.