Pay it forward and thank a writer: A guest post by Cinthia Ritchie

Growing up, I read all the time. I read while riding my horse and when I was supposed to be feeding the calves. I read during baling harvest and on the long bus rides to and from school. What I remember more than those books, however, is the first time I connected with an author. I was eight-years-old and sitting in a poplar tree reading My Friend Flicka when suddenly it hit me: Mary O’Hara struggled with the same feelings as I did.

For years I wanted to write her a letter, but I never did. Unfortunately, that pattern stuck and throughout the next 30 odd years, I read books that caused me to laugh, moved me to tears and even scorched pieces of my soul, and all the while I wanted to pick up the phone, call the author and say, “Hey, listen, are you free for lunch next Tuesday?”

I never did this. I was too shy, and I was afraid too, that old negative voice from my childhood taunting me: Who do you think you are?

Indeed, who did I think I was to imagine Margaret Atwood, Jim Harrison, Mary Gordon, Lauren Slater or Susan Cheever would want to hear from me?

But that all changed after my sister died eight years ago. It suddenly hit me that time was running out, that there was no guarantee in life, that if someone’s words moved me it was my right, my honor, my obligation as a reader to reach out and say: I heard you.

The first author I wrote to was Kathryn Harrison, both because I loved her work and because my sister had sent me Thicker Than Water a few months before she died. I was nervous writing to Harrison and drafted at least 10 emails before finally summoning up the courage to hit the Send button.

Two days later, Kathryn Harrison wrote back and thanked me for my “very kind words” about her work. And a few weeks after that, someone sent me her own note of thanks for a poem I had published in a literary magazine. I cried reading that email because I knew exactly how that woman felt.

Since then, I have tried to make it a habit to thank the authors and writers who move me. I send little notes and let them know how much their words meant, and sometimes, I must admit, I become carried away. “Thank you, thank you,” I’ll write. “You are beautiful, you are wonderful, and your words have changed my life in ways you will never understand.”

Sometimes I even sign these, “Love, Cinthia.” Because I do love these people. I hold their words in my heart.

There were times when life got in the way and by the time I revisited an author’s work and thought, once again, that I must send her a note, it was too late. This happened with two of my favorite writers, Judith Moore, who wrote the memoir Fat Girl and Caroline Knapp, who wrote the memoir Drinking: A Love Story. I still regret this. I truly believe that had I ever met either of these remarkable women, we would have been great friends.

Anne Sexton once said that all writers are connected and that our words come from the same place, be it God or some type of creative universal force, and our jobs as writers are to write and somehow, our words would find themselves to the very person who needs them the most. Perhaps that is true because I’ve noticed the oddest thing: Whenever I thank a writer, I’ll soon receive a thanks of my own from a reader in Kansas or Canada, Germany or Texas or once, even South Africa. It’s almost as if I’m setting off a type of writerly pay it forward. And always these thanks come when I’m at a low point, when I’m feeling alone and lost and ready to give up.

Since I began seriously writing ten years ago, I’ve received hundreds of letters and even a few phone calls thanking me for my words. Each was a gift, and each was cherished. My favorite was from a high school boy who commented on a newspaper column I had written about my love of solitude. This boy wrote that he had always felt ashamed for wanting to spend so much time by himself, that he had always felt different. Then he thanked me. He said he no longer felt so alone.

This is why we all write, not for ego or recognition, not even for a paycheck or a few free copies of whatever literary journal has picked up our work. We write to touch people, to open their eyes, to let them know that somewhere out there is someone who feels as they do.

Which is why I think it’s essential for writers to reach out and thank other writers. Our job is so often solitary and thankless, and no one congratulates us on completing another page or cleaning up another chapter. We send our words out in the dark to editors and publishers we’ve never met, and from there they are carried into the homes of people we don’t know. Writing makes us vulnerable. We receive so much rejection, so much criticism. We are all carrying such heavy loads of doubts.

So each time you read something that touches you, that makes you laugh or cry or see the world in a new way, please take a few minutes to send a quick note to the author. It doesn’t have to be long. It could be a Facebook posting or even a Tweet. It could be as simple as saying, “Thank you for your words.”

7 thoughts on “Pay it forward and thank a writer: A guest post by Cinthia Ritchie”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    That was wonderful, Cinthia. I too, have held back from writing authors because I assume they are inundated with mail and want their solitude more than anything else. As a reader, I don't want to feel like I'm obligating them to correspond (or feel guilty about not corresponding). And yet when someone contacts me about something I've written, I'm moved. So why the double standard? You've given me something to think about and a reason to reach out in future.

  2. Writing is a solitary gig. I love hearing from readers, every time, even when it's critique. Go good work by Cinthia ratcheting up the courage to communicate with the writers who move her. She's right, life is short.

  3. What a coincidence–yesterday I started to write an author and chickened out. Okay, Cynthia, I'll go write that email as soon as I finish this.
    And thank you for your columns in the Daily News; I really enjoyed them and sometimes they touched a nerve that made me think, yes, I've felt that too.

  4. The first time I wrote an author, perhaps 15 years ago or more, I was stunned to receive a letter back from her (in the days before email)–so much so, that the thought of replying to her frightened me.

    But now I write to authors regularly to let them know how much their words touched me. In fact, I wrote several this week just before reading Ms. Ritchie's post. Serendipity is afoot! Author websites and email make it easier to communicate these days and I take full advantage of them.

  5. I loved this part, so well said: "We are all carrying such heavy loads of doubts." With a modicum of success, I don't feel nearly as many doubts as I once did, but I still remember the gut-wrenchingly cold feeling they would leave. And I know they're never far from the surface…

  6. A friend once wrote to a famous poet (Richard Wilbur) to say how much he valued his work. My friend expected no response but Wilbur wrote back to say that the letter had really picked him up at a time when he was feeling unsure about his writing. Who'd have guessed?

    John Morgan

  7. This is such a great example of why Cinthia’s work glows with that hard to define quality in good writing that people always call “heart” —a kind of authentic humanity, I suppose. This desire to stay connected to others is worth even more than talent for a writer. The cliché is that an open, fearless writer like her “wears her heart on her sleeve”. Hah. Cinthia wears hers dangling from a lanyard around her neck so that it is always right out there ready to feel and record whatever brushes up against it. It’s easily bruised, of course. But isn’t that also what a good writer does? Take some lumps for us? Never put a sock on it, Cindi. Never.

    Rich Chiappone

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