Welcome to I Have Notes, a newsletter featuring essays, advice, writing and craft discussions, and more. Sign up here to get it in your inbox. Past editions include Knowing When to Share Your Work, The School Writer Visit That Changed My Life, Talking About Care and Craft With Bryan Washington, and When Other People Don’t See Your Creative Career as “Work.”
This is a free edition, but Atlantic subscribers get access to all posts. To support my work and gain access to my full newsletter archive, subscribe to The Atlantic here.
Dear I Have Notes,
Here's my burning question: How do you convince yourself that you have something important to say, something that other people will care to read? Did you have this hesitation at first, or were you always confident that what you care about is important, you can convey it in writing, and others will find it compelling? Did you just take a deep breath and start pitching, or was there some other way you got started? (I guess those were several burning questions.)
— Nobody Gave Me Permission to Do This
Dear Nobody Gave Me Permission,
I’ll begin with your last question because it has the most straightforward answer: I did just start pitching one day, in part because I couldn’t afford to wait. (This is not a very romantic writing origin story, but what can I say; I’m a practical person.) At the time, I was taking care of my baby and toddler during the day and going to grad school at night. Every spare moment I had went to freelancing or working on my half-baked book proposal. I’d given myself permission to try to launch something that resembled a writing and editing career, but I understood that this was a time-limited venture—if it didn’t happen soon, I was going to have to do something else.
I know that I was fortunate to be encouraged by friends, fellow writers, and instructors who said that they saw something in my work. Without them, and without my self-imposed deadline, I might not have found the nerve to pitch at all. I truly had no idea whether I was ready, or whether anyone would find what I had to say “important,” but the fact that others believed in me made it easier for me to believe in myself. Once I started sending work out, again, I was lucky: Sure, I heard no (or just … nothing) from editors far more often than I heard yes, but every yes I did get seemed like affirmation, a sign that perhaps there was space for the work I wanted to do. Each new byline gave me the push I needed to send out another pitch, and another, and another.
All these years later, I still struggle with terms like important and necessary. These descriptors are beloved by publishers, spotted on book jackets alongside phrases like in this moment and now more than ever. Even when perfectly true, the follow-up question seems obvious: “important” to whom? Who’s open, who will happen across it, who may genuinely want or need to hear what a particular writer has to say? All of this varies so widely from author to author, project to project. As you publish, one thing you quickly learn is that every piece of writing is nothing more or less than your very best shot at the time you take it: You cannot know if or where it will land.
So what allows me to continue putting work out into the world, unsure of its fate, but still hopeful—sometimes even reasonably certain—that it will matter to someone? First, there’s the now-familiar sense of urgency that comes over me when I’m working on something I believe has merit; usually, if I feel that way, I can begin to imagine others feeling the same. Experience plays a role as well: Every time I’m fortunate enough to publish something I care about and it’s read by someone who needs it, or someone who learns from or connects with it in some way, I’m reminded of why I do this. I believe that I can and will do it again.
In the poem “Publication Date,” Franz Wright wrote: “One of the few pleasures of writing / is the thought of one’s book in the hands of a kindhearted / intelligent person somewhere. I can’t remember what the others are right now.” I may never feel wholly assured of its “importance,” but I know that I want my work to be accessible, to reach as many people as possible. And I always want this to come through in my writing—if you happen to read something I’ve published, I hope you will be able to tell that I have considered you. That I have spent time thinking about what, if anything, you will take from what I’ve written. That I believe you are important. Because it’s not enough to just have something I want to say; if I’m going to bother to publish it, I have to think about what it may provide to someone else, consider why they might care and what they need from me in order to do so.
When I find myself consciously thinking about an audience—when it is not just an afterthought or a distant, nebulous concept, but bound to my intentions for a piece—I often view that as a signal that I am ready to work on it with publication as the explicit goal. Not because I write to please anyone else, but because thinking about the audience for a particular project is one way to consider my hopes for it and why I want it to exist. By the time I share my writing publicly, I’ve already gone through quite a long process of considering why it could matter, perhaps even be “important,” to readers. And so I worry less than I might otherwise about whether they will feel that way, because I know that I have not forgotten them—I took them into account as the story came together.
It is a writer’s job to be curious, to observe, to question, to try to better understand and give language to some of the vast and varied ways of being alive in the world. The fear that I will fall short, that I will fail to convey my ideas in a way that resonates with readers, is real and ever-present, but I have realized that it is also part of the draw and the ongoing challenge. I’m addicted to that tension I feel when I’m working on something I hope will provide clarity or hold some meaning for others—or just make them feel a little less alone—but don’t know whether I will succeed in the attempt. There is always more to learn and more to do. I cannot think of a better job than this.
Not everyone who reads your writing will find it convincing or compelling. Every writer has to grapple with this fact, and decide whether they are going to write anyway. The hope, always, is just that those who are curious or care about many of the same things you do will be willing to accompany you for a little while, whether they are joining you in pursuit of some deeper understanding or simply swept up in the story you’re telling. I’ve encountered many such readers, people who have engaged so thoughtfully and generously with my work. I have to believe that you will, too.
And this is something I’d encourage you to think about when you feel unsure of the importance of what you’re writing, or when you experience what E. B. White called that “memorial chill on casting off” on a new project that terrifies you: Yes, there will always be those who don’t get or care about what you’re trying to do, but remember that you don’t write for them. You write for the readers who will get it (or will at least try to), the ones who are open to following where your story leads and being surprised—perhaps even changed—by what you have to say. You just need to find one person who understands and appreciates what you’re trying to do and why, and then you look for the next person, and the next, and the next. They will be there. We will be here.
Thank you so much for reading, as always. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please consider sharing it with a friend or two.
Do you have a question about friendship, family relationships, writing, or creative work that you’d like me to answer? You can send it to email@example.com. You can also just say hi / recommend a book / let me know if there’s anything you’d especially like to see covered in I Have Notes—I would love to hear from you.