About two months ago, I accidentally downloaded a book onto my Kindle. Truly, I had no idea that I purchased it until I looked at my email the next day and saw the notification from Amazon. When I saw the email, I actually went so far as to try to see if I could return it because I had no idea about it's premise and the title didn't really strike me as all that interesting. Aside: I'm not a huge non-fiction reader. I do read some of it mostly to stretch my brain, but generally my reading is all fiction. Anyhow, a couple of days later, I had nothing I wanted to read at home, so I picked up the Kindle and began WILD: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed.
I would like to go on record as saying that this book is one of the best I've ever read. Strayed is a master of the personal narrative and I devoured that book, immediately bought another of hers and began lightly stalking her on Facebook. When I read this book, it was as if I was there. I was the one hiking, I was the one dealing with a lifetime of pain, hurt, bad decision making and heartache. I was the one with feet ground to hamburger by ill-fitting hiking boots. There are few books I have connected with as personally and totally as I have WILD and I have full faith and confidence that this connection is solely due to Strayed's incredible command of the descriptive technique and unabashed revelation of inner self.
When I finished WILD, I praised it to the skies to anyone who would listen and I felt like I had made this magical discovery, a secret that only I knew. I actually went so far to write Cheryl and thank her for writing the book and that is something I have never, ever done before with anyone whose work I've read. Thanks to her recommendations online, I've read some amazing essays, short stories and personal narratives. Her column "Dear Sugar" on The Rumpus.net is somewhat akin to Dear Abby, only grittier, more honest and definitely funnier; I plowed through the collection of Dear Sugar columns the book Tiny Beautiful Things is made of, loving every minute of it.
Recently though, I read something on Cheryl's Facebook page that rubbed me wrong upon first pass. I'm paraphrasing here but what I took away from her comment was how irritating it was to her and other writers when people say that she "came out of nowhere" and was "unknown" etc. Initially I thought "Oh, just get over yourself. Be thankful people love your book. Who cares if they don't know that you've actually been a working writer for years?" Sheesh, what an insecure egomaniac. Many other long term, yet "undiscovered" writers also chimed in about feeling the same way. I commented that I didn't think it was ill-intentioned when people make these kinds of statements, but that many of us don't have much exposure to anything other than mainstream resources for new authors to read and that we are for the most part celebrating their work as new to us, not new in general.
However, as usual, I began pondering Cheryl and the other writer's comments, and tried to think about this from their point of view. Writing is hard work, no matter your subject or style. The great novel was never written simply because someone who had a good idea was able to string some words together. It takes time, effort, dedication and patience to write anything, let alone to write something that's actually good. I do not consider myself a writer by any stretch, but even the basic issue blogging I do takes up a fair amount of mental and emotional energy, as well as time. I guess if I were actually a full-time writer who was already published many times over well before Oprah ever got wind of me, I'd be a little chafed that I was being called "unknown" too.
I do stand by my opinion that it doesn't matter what the public thinks about you being discovered or if you're known or unknown to the masses, but I do think I understand the frustration a little more. There are lots of thriving, active literary communities out there and as I delve deeper into them, I find hosts of people who are yet undiscovered that could easily be the next big thing. I also find myself feeling the need to spread my "book feelers" further than the Oprah show, the New York Times bestseller list and whatever my friends are reading. Thanks to Cheryl's public dedication to honing the craft of her writing, I may actually take the next step and join a writing group, which, to be honest, scares me to death, but is probably something I need to do if I want to grow my own modest skill.
I'll leave you with this quote from Thomas Jefferson that I think is apropos to this post, as well as pretty much any other aspect of life too. Interesting, isn't it?
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