Can you imagine a famous writer corresponding with a no-name writer through a series of hand-written letters? Can you imagine such a correspondence lasting six years and the writers never meeting? Recently, I asked my creative writing students to read an excerpt from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainier Maria Rilke. These 10 collected letters chronicle the correspondence between Rilke and a young, aspiring poet Franz Kappus. Rilke reads Kappus’ poetry and advises him on matters of writing, relationships, and life. Wouldn’t it be nice for every young writer to find so much support and feedback from someone considered an expert?
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the idea that digitally sending a piece of writing to a magazine, agent, or publisher can sometimes feel like sending writing to black hole, where the writing disappears. In the post, I meditated on how this ever-growing reality affects my attitude toward submitting work, but lately I’ve been spending more time thinking about how this trend of little-to-no-feedback affects a new generation of writers: my creative writing students and other ambitious young writers all over the world.
It’s true that a writer who’s going to “make it” needs to believe in him or herself first, without seeking validation from others. Conviction in one’s own abilities has been necessary since the invention of the printing press, when writers finally had the means of being able to share their work with others. However, I think very few aspiring writers would choose to continue writing if they hadn’t received validation and confirmation from someone – preferably someone who would know – that they should pursue writing.
A writer who decides at age 16 that her dream is to become a published novelist may keep writing for the next 10, even 20, years without ever receiving any professional feedback on her work. If she’s lucky enough to be able to study writing at school or have access to writing group, she might receive feedback from peers, classmates, or instructors. By reading the work written by her peers and by other great writers, she’ll probably figure out a few things on her own.
At some point, she may decide that her manuscript is polished enough to send to agents, contests, and maybe even small presses. Her manuscript could be excellent, but she wouldn’t know if the right person doesn’t see it. Given that her manuscript most likely sits in a pile with thousands of other manuscripts, her work may never see the light of day.
On the other hand, her manuscript might need a lot of work, but how will she ever know how to improve her writing? This young woman may be an otherwise talented writer with potential, but how is she to know where to shift her focus if no one is willing to give her even a sentence worth of feedback? What is she to do when many agents send form letters that read something like this: “Your writing is great, but your manuscript isn’t quite the right project for us.” Is the manuscript really great? Or does every person receive the same letter?
I’m sure that many people would argue with me, saying that no worthwhile writer should write to please an audience or publisher. For the most part, I think this is true. But doesn’t every writer want to make his or her work accessible to some kind of audience whether an audience of one or an audience of millions?
One way for the writer to escape the powerful gatekeeper is to consider self-publishing, which doesn’t require the approval of anyone but herself. But let’s be honest: very few people will buy a self-published book (or any book for that matter) unless they hear from a friend or a trusted source that the book is worthwhile. So why would the writer go through all the hard work and put forth the money that self-publishing requires if she didn’t have at least a hint from potential readers that all the work hours and money would be wisely spent?
I fear the lack of feedback in a society that makes it easy to avoid giving feedback is actually hurting the society’s creative future. The people who want to write will find a way to keep writing, but won’t they be better served by some tether, some correspondence with the gatekeepers, the people who decide what’s worth reading and publishing?
When my students ask me about what it’s like to continue writing outside of a creative writing class, I feel terrible letting them know that they will never, beyond this semester, find the same level of feedback and encouragement. It’s true that not all writers should be encouraged, but many of the students who shouldn’t be encouraged will eventually find that out themselves or simply lose interest in the pursuit. The ones who won’t give up are the ones who may not yet be prize-winning writers, but who still have so much to learn and need to be encouraged so that they can grow into the prize-winning writers they dream of becoming.
(Photo by Terwilliger911)