A few weeks ago, I had to do a presentation in my CRW class about a short story writer who I admire. I immediately thought of Stuart Dybek, one of my favorite writers and the author of the beautiful short story collections I Sailed with Magellan and The Coast of Chicago. We weren’t supposed to look for critical analysis about our author (as writers, we aren’t supposed to care about that stuff, but being an English teacher by day, sometimes I feel like I have a split personality). Rather, we were supposed to explore interviews, letters, and personal testimonies about the writer’s process, and his or her own thoughts about writing, the idea being that learning about another writer’s process might help to inform our own.
Emboldened by this assignment, I thought to myself, what better source than the man himself? I tracked down Mr. Dybek’s email address, introduced myself, told him why I admired his work so much, and then asked if I could ask him a few questions about his writing process.
See, this is one of the great things about being in an MFA. In my previous life it never would have even occurred to me to send an email to one of my writing heroes, but having spent the last three years surrounded and taught by actual working writers, it didn’t seem quite so ludicrous.
But I didn’t actually expect him to write back. He’s a big-shot author, after all. But then, less than an hour later, I saw his name in my inbox. My reaction was to emit a high-pitched squeak.
I had always suspected, based on the compassion that is apparent in his writing, that Mr. Dybek is a good guy. And my suspicions were confirmed. He generously offered to help me with my presentation and asked me to send him some questions; he even directed me to some interviews he’d done to help me along.
So what did I do? I wrote back a nattering, inappropriately long email, filled with many-parted questions and punctuated by long rows of exclamation marks and fawning praise (even though I meant ever word), which essentially made me out to sound like an eleven-year old girl with Bieber Fever. If Gmail had the capacity to punctuate the “i” in Jessie with a heart, I most certainly would have done it.
I’ve never actually talked to a celebrity, besides a few cast-offs from The Real World I’ve run into in Wrigleyville bars, and I didn’t think I’d be the type to melt into a mumbling fool the second I got the chance, but really, you should have seen this email. God only know what I would be like if I met him in person.
But guess what? He wrote back again! Not only that, he mercifully ignored my silly questions and adolescent tone, and answered my serious questions with a depth of thought that I wouldn’t expect an award-winning, anthologized author to bestow upon a nameless grad student.
It meant so much to me, this willingness to help, and it proved to me once and for all that the best way to write with true heart is to have one of your own.
Thanks to his help, the presentation went great, but the more valuable lesson I learned is that if there’s a writer out there whose work you adore, why not tell them? You never know—they just might write back.