Dear one who sent me this note:

It’s hard to be confident in my writing when I read the works of geniuses like Andreï Makine or Irene Némirovsky. I read and I wonder if anything I write will ever be as good. But I’m trying to not be discouraged and to keep writing. Thank you again for all of your advice…


To this, I reply:
Oh cher étudiant,

Do these words come from the same woman I once described in a recommendation letter as having an “abundance of intellectual curiosity” with “the ability for sound discernment?”  It’s so simple to recognize talent and bursts of greatness in another; nearly impossible to see ourselves reflected with pleasure.

You do know that “I’ll never be as good” is a refrain from your own Songbook of Fear and Despair.

If you write to surpass your literary ancestors you may succeed. Or, you may not.  But you’ll certainly grow a weed of discontentment because, wild word child, how will you measure that kind of benchmark? Will the yardstick be labeled “sales” or “critical acclaim” or “awards won?”

Is this desire coming from the same woman who once argued in a paper, “They Can Save Their Self-Righteousness for a Better Cause,” that critics might censure literature while not realizing it could be their own unfamiliarity with perspectives from societal margins which creates literary discord, rather than some artistic failing by the writer?

You will write from the heart, with developed technique, because you can’t sleep at night until you have your say. You will write and rewrite and rewrite again because you’re building your personal House of Words and “as good as” be damned because your work is yours alone crafted with all the voice and character that sings from your own sacred self-space.

When you feel faulty, write ten pages, twenty pages, and put them away for one month. When you think you’ve got nothing to say, look at what you once wrote and highlight the passages that still make you smile.  When you feel sorry for yourself, remember the great failures of your literary heroes: Némirovsky was accused of anti-Semitism in her work, and Makine “was growing desperate” to be published before his first work was accepted.

We’ll keep this correspondence just between us because someday, when you know in your heart that you are a writer, you’ll be startled by your insecurity.  I look forward to reading more of your work, even that which you can’t quite stand yet.

Speaking of reading, Makine’s new novel, The Life of an Unknown Man arrives in June.  Do you want to read it together?

A Woman of Letters

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