Thursday, December 9, 2010

Work in Progress: How Hard Is It to Say Thank You?

We’re artistes. We have a certain temperamental aura that may include dark moodiness and intense brooding. We’re under-appreciated and under-paid, and yet we see ourselves as necessary to any society. Yes, yes, yes—but can’t we be polite, especially since we live in a very, very, VERY small community?

By small community, I mean that I no longer am failed to be surprised when someone remembers meeting me a dozen years at AWP. By small community, I mean that I would pick up a book written by my Bread Loaf roommate who I met a zillion years ago, who I haven’t spoken to or seen in those zillion years…yet I’m still generally aware of what she’s writing. By small community, I mean that at a certain point in a writer’s career, you could meet any other writer and within five minutes of conversation, find a common writer-friend—more than one, in fact, one you both adore, and one you both think is a pompous so-and-so. We are all packed together in this difficult (but oh-so emotionally rewarding!) profession, so can’t we try to extend some courtesy?

In the summer, I decided to email writers after reading books that I liked, curious to see what happened. (Personally, I love emails from readers!) One person never responded, and trust me when I say that her book was not even remotely so important that she had that luxury of ignoring a reader. Another writer was a best-selling author with a new book she was promoting, so I’ll cut her a little break—but then why didn’t her very professional, bells-and-whistles website have an automatic response set up? On the other hand, I sent a message to Emma Donoghue, author of ROOM, a book that has been getting a ton of attention and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, for God’s sake, and she—surely a very busy person at the moment!—found the time to respond within 24 hours, with a personal email response.

People remember this kind of stuff.

I remember when students send a quick thank you email at the end of the semester (after the grades are in, please), and that may (who am I kidding—WILL) affect my deliberations later if someone needs a letter of recommendation when I’m feeling pressed for time. Or someone wonders if I have any suggestions for where to send their long story that they finally finished. I will go out of my way to help someone who seems to feel—shock!—grateful for my assistance, as opposed to someone who seems to feel entitled to it. Yes, in the classroom, it’s a job. But afterwards…remember what I said above, about that small world: I will remember you. So how hard is it to write up a quick thank you to your teachers at the end of the semester? The teachers I know work very hard at their jobs—often draining time from their own work to ensure a successful class—and students are short-sighted—and rude (there, I’ve said it!)—not to acknowledge that.

I’m also surprised to see how few thank yous I get after I speak somewhere. Of course, there’s one thing if you’re getting paid big bucks to appear—nevertheless, if you’re getting that much money, you’re probably in high demand and you probably could have chosen not to appear. And anyway, how hard is it to write a quick message so someone feels appreciated? I write those thank yous to people who invite me to speak, and I promise that it doesn’t take very long.

I also write a thank you note to editors who publish my work. Talk about under-paid and under-appreciated…. I especially appreciate when they’ve worked with me on the manuscript to made it better or when they’ve caught my errors. Frankly, I also think the editors should be grateful to us, too—it surprises me when every now and then I would get an acceptance letter, then maybe a letter about buying more copies, then copies in the mail…no personal note. No, “we’re so proud to publish your story in our journal.” Again, not that hard to write a note.

Recently I read on Facebook about a writer/teacher who noted that she was doing a presentation to her class about how to submit/find an agent, etc—and that she was also including a section about how to give BACK to the literary community. That’s the best thank you of all: Start a reading series. Donate money to a small press. Buy books and more books. Volunteer to screen manuscripts at a journal. Man a booth at a book fair. Don’t always take-take-take—give-give-give.

I know that there are plenty of writers who do thank people, who do appreciate those who go out of their way to be generous with time, energy, and assistance, who do give back to the community. And no one likes an insincere suck-up, so there’s a bit of a balancing act.

But the bottom line is that there’s no bottom line when it comes to thank you. Expressing gratitude is free! Who doesn’t like being thanked and feeling appreciated? Maybe all these thank yous and notes don’t lead anywhere specific (i.e. Important Editor at the New Yorker: “I remember that Leslie Pietrzyk sent us a nice note when we wrote her that thoughtful rejection letter five years ago, so let’s get one of her stories for our 2011 summer fiction issue”). But you never know. And anyway, the real reason to send out a few thank yous is to make our small, emotionally-rewarding-but-also-emotionally-brutal world, just a tiny bit more pleasant.

So, thank YOU for reading this blog! I appreciate that there are plenty of ways to spend your time, and I'm grateful that you spend some of it here.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.