There are some writers I admire. By that I don’t mean writers who wrote books I love a lot—it goes beyond the books. I mean a writer I admire. A writer I look up to.
I’ve noticed lately that the writers I admire in this way have some things in common: They’re always women. They always write beautifully. They write brave things. They’re strong. They’re successful, yes, but it’s the way they handle their success that speaks to me. They worked for what they have—and they work, still, every day. They’re never entitled. They even seem humble, surprised sometimes by where they are (though I, as one of their admirers, am never surprised). They give to others. They’re generous. They’re not afraid to be human. They’re the models of the writer I want to one day be.
I’m very grateful to say that one of the writers I’m talking about blurbed my new book. Another one of the writers I admire has written me recommendations to colonies and is the reason, I believe, I had my first acceptance to the MacDowell Colony years ago, which set off many good things in my writing life. Another writer I admire talked to me on the phone about my book the other week and what she said almost made me float up to the ceiling and drift there, full to bursting, it meant that much to me.
One of the writers I admire is someone who used to write an anonymous advice column and give so much of herself to the world—and I know I’m not the only one who loves Cheryl Strayed, author of Torch and Wild… and Sugar herself from “Dear Sugar.” This week, while dipping to a bit of a low point in my writing psyche, I went to see Cheryl Strayed in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL.
The truth is, I wasn’t going to go. Not because I didn’t read every single “Dear Sugar” column from the beginning and cry every Thursday a new one was posted (here are the two that made me a fan for life because they struck me so deeply: “The Baby Bird” and “How You Get Unstuck”) and not because I have a “Write Like a Motherfucker” T-shirt, which I wore to the MacDowell Colony where I wrote the first draft of 17 & Gone like a motherfucker, but because I’ve been so frustrated with my writing progress lately, and scared of 17 & Gone entering the world, and just feeling myself in this flimsy space. I felt like I should stay home and wallow in it, I guess. And oh, was I wrong.
I’m so glad I went. Not only because my good friend Christine Lee Zilka joined me, and I love going to events with her (this is the second time we saw Cheryl Strayed together!), but because of what Cheryl herself said.
I didn’t write down all of it, only a single line, but it was around here that something in me shifted:
“It’s not my job to judge what I’ve written. My job is to write.”
I don’t know how to explain it except to say I heard it in a way I’d never heard advice like that before. I stepped back from myself and I remembered why I’m in this: Not to publish. Not to have people say nice things about what I’ve published. No. I’m not going to tell you why. It’s personal. And it’s enough right now to remember it.
Sometimes you’ll be somewhere, unsuspecting, and the thing you most need to hear will be said. I should have known “Sugar” would utter something I needed to hear at just the moment I would be able to hear it.
I think it’s important to have role models in your field—in craft and in life. By that I don’t mean kissing up and acting like someone is an untouchable god who can do no wrong. Admiring someone is different from fangirling all over her.
And then there are those moments you make an attempt to tell someone how much her work means to you. Here I am doing just that:
Thank you to Live from the NYPL for posting this photo of me getting my book signed by Cheryl Strayed.