I am currently working my way through Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking:
So far, it’s very, very worth reading. Reading about someone else creating, and struggling to create, has me doing creating of my own, and that, alone, makes reading this book a good decision. But it’s also a good decision for other reasons. You should read it.
Amanda keeps coming back to this concept: “On a good night, you couldn’t tell who was giving what to whom” (Palmer, 104). She writes it specifically about flowers. Flowers she gives as a thank you for dollars in her hat as the Bride, flowers at Dresden Dolls shows. She’s writing about the back and forth appreciation between artist and patron; and recycling that love: giving the flower to a third party, someone in need of that rose, or petunia, or daisy.
My senior year of college my American Literature professor, an extraordinary Polish woman with whom I am still in awe, invited a writer she knows to come speak at our school, a woman named Suzanne Strempek Shea. As with everything at my college, it was a small gathering. My professor suggested (in the same manner my mother “suggests”) I stick around afterward and speak with her since she is a writer and that’s what I wanted to do.
We had been assigned one of Suzanne’s books the previous semester. I’d read it in the way I “read” many books in college: read the first fifty to one hundred pages, skimmed some, paid close attention during discussions in class (can you believe I have a degree in English?). I felt weird about speaking to an author (one with actual published novels), let alone one for whom I hadn’t had the decency to finish the one book of hers I’d encountered.
But I had won one of her novels in a raffle that afternoon so I could use asking her to sign the damn book as an introduction. I cannot tell you what we talked about. I remember we both had somewhere else to be. She was very gracious in telling me I could email her whenever I wanted. Her email was on her website, she said.
Right. Like I’d ever have the confidence to do that.
About a year later I was working as a teacher in a seasonal outdoor school program. Which meant, amongst other things, that I was unemployed half the year. One of those bouts of unemployment occurred from Thanksgiving to Easter. I spent that first winter out of college drifting around my parents’ house while harrowing, frozen gales wailed without (I don’t like winter). To occupy myself I began writing a modernized version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion set in America with the full expectation it was going to be terrible.
At some point I thought maybe my story could go somewhere and I panicked about some of the concepts and language I was using and, dear gawd, what if my mother read it one day… or my grandmother? Gawd, what then?
That’s when I remembered something Suzanne had said at Caz. She said, as a writer, you can’t let what someone else might think hold you back. You’ve got to write it anyway. It’s your story, your voice, your authenticity. Forget about what would please your mother or your grandmother and just write. I was so overwhelmed remembering that piece of advice that I immediately, at one in the morning, looked up Suzanne’s email and wrote her to tell her my exact epiphany as it had happened.
She’d tossed a flower into the crowd that afternoon in New York, and I was handing the one I’d caught back to her to show my appreciation.
Little did I know just how much.
Some time later Suzanne’s book Sunday’s In America came out. I’d known of the project. Either she had mentioned it at my school, or else I’d read about it on her website (or both), I knew the book was out and that she was doing readings in the area. My sister, K, had heard NPR’s interview with Suzanne about the book. I mentioned to K wanting to figure out if I could get myself to one of the readings.
Excited, K was on board.
The only one we could both attend before I had to return to my teaching job in the woods was in an area of south central Massachusetts where no one goes unless they live there. In reality, it was probably only a little over an hour’s drive. It felt like K and I were driving forever. We eventually found the combination library/town clerk’s office/auxiliary firehouse/town municipal building, parked, and filtered into the library.
There were, maybe, twenty people there. Thirty, tops. K and I were clearly outsiders. All the (mostly older) ladies seemed to know each other. Many seemed to know Suzanne. But, as she grew up in the next town over and still lived there, it wasn’t surprising.
I don’t remember any of the reading.
Afterward, we were invited out into the hallway that ran the center of the municipal building where we could meet Suzanne, buy her book, and have it signed. When it was our turn, which was almost immediate — I think the nice town ladies were being polite giving the out-of-towners the chance to go first — I, very nervously, reminded Suzanne that we had met before, that her friend was my professor, that I had emailed her a few months back.
That’s when she said: “Rebecca?”
She stood and came around the table. I remember her being very tall. I don’t know how tall she is, but she felt tall; and I felt young. Very young. And insignificant. There was no reason for a locally known, published author to remember a recent college graduate/aspiring writer with severely limited Life Experience who was, at that moment, on a day trip with her Big Sister.
“I’ve been meaning to thank you for your email.”
What the fish?
She went on to tell me, when she received my email, she’d been struggling with the exact same thing. She was working on Sundays In America and was having trouble. She’d gotten stuck worrying what Other People would think of what she was writing. Then she read my email that parroted back the words I’d heard from her only a year previous.
“I printed out your email. It’s taped up over my writing desk. I look at it whenever I start to doubt myself.”1
At this point I was completely speechless.
Suzanne hugged me, repeated her thanks. I left amazed that my small, seemingly insignificant action, one done impulsively and spontaneously, had a very large, very real impact. My email, in part, gave a woman back the state of mind she needed to finish working on her book.
The one we were there to purchase and hear her read.
The flower was back in my hands.
That summer I finished my story. Not awesome. But finished. For me, that alone, was cause for celebration. And while that particular story has gone nowhere (it’s been on a bottom shelf for six years), the lesson I learned while writing it made the act itself worthwhile: The smallest act (poking a child’s nose, mailing a card, handing a stranger a flower) can do volumes of good.
It was a good night.
1My recollection of her words are approximate, but I am confident they capture the spirit of what she said to me that day.