Notes to a Young Writer #2

I don’t understand

Why you wrote your piece like that.

Tell me more, she said.


Her response quivered with respectful question: Why did the title of my piece make a promise of the simple, fast way to becoming smarter when the piece said nothing about that? Why was there such a confusing disconnect, why was expectation so thoroughly thwarted?

Her question was actually written more clearly than that. It got right to the point: your title said this and the essay was not that at all.

The reader’s bewilderment pulsed dull, throbbing, somber red. I’d disappointed someone eager to learn, ready to take advice and guidance and apply it to their life.

What’s more, her disappointment was poignant and memorable. I imagined a young woman who is quiet, watchful, profoundly observant. She is creative, bold and wild in her mind and yet gentle, mild, and obedient to any and all authority in her life. Possibly she is the conforming one, the one that no one notices or pays much attention to unless she can do something for them. Perhaps she is the one who used to ask too many questions until a blow or shaming shut her down or she got tired of being the weird one that no one would sit with or that no one understood. She asks questions now on blogs because there is no physical connection, no relationship, no rick.

In finding what seemed guaranteed to enlighten, she thrilled to think that now, finally, she’d have the secret. Incredulous, she read the essay over and over. There was no such secret anywhere. There was no list, there was no step-by-step instruction on how to make your brain work faster, harder, stronger, make you the smartest one in the room, in the community, in the world, to make others notice you and listen to what you have to say.

Her message so straight, honest, and true, I went back to the piece to figure out what she meant. Was the title so misleading?

It’s so hard to admit this, but she’s right. On this blog, in so many places on the internet, never mind out in the real world, a clearly written promise is a contract between writer and reader. The writer asserts and the reader receives the goods.

In this case, that didn’t happen.

I disappointed a reader. My heart was pierced with regret.

I wrote back to her and in that reply, I tried to say clearly what I intended to convey in the piece, that a person can become smarter not by any ambitious, shiny self-improvement program, but by connecting with others. We are all of us expert; some of us are deeply experienced genuises in important matters while others are quieter, smaller, and equally brilliant in their own life experience and hard-won knowledge. Reach out, ask the question, listen and use what you hear as you will.

I learned a great deal from that simple, earnest question. I learned even more by responding and thinking further about it. In fact, I haven’t stopped thinking about her question and the way to answer it as honest, true, and powerfully as I can.

I haven’t gone as far with it as I will, but for now, for today, I promise to do my best to be straightforward, to forgo witty and self-impressive in favor of being clear and direct and saying what I mean as simply as I can do. What’s more, I promise to respond, to answer questions, to explain confusing parts and to admit when I’ve got something wrong.

A title matters. The words that follow are tethered to that title and any art that might accompany it. They are a shimmering contract of meaning, to share a connection and to learn, one reader and writer to another.

I thank P for her response. I appreciate her honesty and admire the courage that it took to write to a stranger, a writer who had let her down by applying clever, self-serving wit rather than sharing what is real, what another aches to understand, yearns to master.

With all my heart — and a big part of my mind — I urge P to keep on responding, to open dialogues with others, to raise her questions and to keep on asking them until she has the answers she needs. To me, she is already very smart, very accomplished, advancing on the journey that only she can take — and share with the rest of us cheering her onward.