ecently, I met a woman I like and respect—I’ll call her Carol—for lunch at her invitation. She suggested we eat at a quiet restaurant “where we could hear each other;” nevertheless, I am not at all sure she heard me that day. A Methodist minister, Carol had called and introduced herself to me a few years earlier, shortly after reading my prose memoir about a trip to Tuscany that led to my reluctant return to the religion of my upbringing. I hadn’t felt an immediate rapport with her. Maybe I was too jocular; maybe she seemed a bit too intense, but we just didn’t click. She was enthusiastic about my book, however, so I was determined to like her. I took a workshop she offered on women finding their voices, and she invited me to attend her book group when they discussed my book. We also served on a committee together, where I gained admiration for her clear-sightedness and compassionate ways.
At this lunch, our conversation focused on seeking silence, on meditativeness, and on the difficulty of doing nothing. She’d been staying at her family’s cottage in the woods for a few days, trying to do as little as possible, to simply be—however difficult that might be, even in seclusion, for a woman who was used to a full life of family, friends, and serving a new congregation as pastor. As a writer, I agreed that it was sometimes damn near impossible to clear a path of silence through a world jam-packed with distractions.
Toward the end of our time together, Carol said she wanted to talk to me about something, and I had a strong feeling that this “something” was the reason she’d wanted to get together. Carol asked if I’d ever met So-and-so, a woman of her acquaintance, and I said no. Well, So-and-so had been adopting special needs and other nearly unadoptable children over a long period of time, and she’d been writing about her experiences with them.
“Oh, my God, please,” I fervently prayed, “please don’t let her ask me what I think she’s going to ask me.”
“I’ve been encouraging her,” Carol continued, even though she must have noticed my wincing. “I think her story is really compelling and deserves to be read.” She looked me in the eye with a small, excited smile, as though preparing to bestow a precious gift, and said, “She says she needs a ghostwriter, that she can’t do it alone. Would it be all right if I gave her your number?”
The shock on Carol’s face when I said no made it clear that she’d never considered the possibility I wouldn’t be flattered and delighted, that she had no idea that her request was an imposition. Here’s what I wanted to say: “If your friend had fascinating and mysterious physical symptoms, and I were an M.D., rather than a Ph.D., would you ask if she could call me at home for a free consultation?” Friends have suggested that one way to answer such a request (for I receive many) would be to say something like: “I’d be happy to help her. My consultation fee is $X per hour.”
“The shock on Carol’s face when I said no made it clear that she’d never considered the possibility I wouldn’t be flattered and delighted, that she had no idea that her request was an imposition.”
But I wouldn’t be happy to help her at this point in my life. I’ve recently retired from teaching college writing—creative and otherwise—for the better part of four decades. And because I am not, nor do I want to be considered, a complete jerk, I need to say that I was a generous and nurturing teacher. I lavished time, in-depth comments, and encouragement on my students’ writing. That was my job, and it was a job I loved, even though I yearned for the day I could lavish the same level of attention on my own writing.
I still felt a little guilty, nevertheless, for saying no, and found myself trying to explain my refusal in a way I thought Carol would understand. Using semi-ecclesiastical diction, I said that, since I’d retired, I hadn’t felt that I was living up to my calling as a writer.
She expressed surprise. Hadn’t I published a book of poems only a few years after the prose memoir? What could I possibly mean?
I wanted to ask, “Is there such a thing as praying enough for a person who believes in God? Aren’t Christians admonished to ‘pray without ceasing?’” That’s how I feel about writing—that there is no such thing as enough. Sure, I do other things—meet friends for lunch, read books, keep in contact with my adult sons, volunteer, cook meals with my fiancé, teach Tai Chi, and maintain my home. I choose to do those things because they balance my days and enrich my life. But I didn’t say this because, finally, it wasn’t my job to make her understand. It was my job to write and to protect my writing time.
I know I’m not the only writer—especially not the only woman writer (after all, aren’t we supposed to be endlessly giving, eternally nurturing?)—who receives such requests on a regular basis. How frequently are we told of someone’s aunt, niece, little brother, daughter, etc. who is so talented and whose writing is so amazing, they know we’d love to read it and help them get it published? I’m sure that they think “getting something published” must be easy. After all, we do it, right?
“To me, writing is everything—or nearly so—the one constant beloved of my life since I became an adult. And the bulk of the time I have left ... must belong to me, to my writing.”
Am I a bitch for saying no to people who want my time for free, who think my writing time (if they think of it at all, which they probably don’t) is so unimportant that I’d jump at the chance to midwife the poems and prose of the writing geniuses in their lives into publication? Rather than read the work, I often make suggestions of periodicals and books that have been useful to me, not to mention online sites (like WOW), where they can find helpful classes on writing and publishing. But, even as they nod and thank me, it’s clear as their eyes glaze over that’s not what they’re looking for. They want me to be a fairy godmother waving her magic wand over what is already brilliant and perfect and making it appear in print. I’m fairly sure they don’t dream that their attempts to pimp me out to friends and family are impositions. It’s only writing, right? Not rocket science or brain surgery.
But to me, writing is everything—or nearly so—the one constant beloved of my life since I became an adult. And the bulk of the time I have left with a brain still sharp enough to construct a worthy line or sentence—two or three more decades, if I’m lucky—must belong to me, to my writing. And if saying so makes me a bitch, then so be it.
Judith Sornberger’s most recent poetry collection Practicing the World was published by CavanKerry Press in 2018. Her full-length collection Open Heart is from Calyx Books. She is the author of five chapbooks, most recently Wal-Mart Orchid (Evening Street Press). Her memoir The Accidental Pilgrim: Finding God and His Mother in Tuscany was published by Shanti Arts in 2015.
Judith has taught creative writing in many venues, including prisons, colleges, and universities. She also created and taught in the Women’s Studies Program at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania before retiring to a life of writing, reading, and teaching Tai Chi.
More Tales from the Trenches:
My Writing Coach in the Looking Glass: Overzealous Mentor or Moneymaker? By Lisa Mae DeMasi
Finger Gone Rogue, Writing Gone Mute by Rhonda Wiley-Jones
Millionaire Daydreams by Cortina Jackson
My Favorite Rejection Letter by Tatiana Claudy