To my twenty-years-ago self; or, Unworldly

I’m about to turn 43. Inspired by Claire Andersen’s poem, I decided to write a letter to myself at 23. Twenty-three-year-old Cathy has just graduated from the creative writing program at U.T. Austin and is looking for a job that will allow her to write four hours a day (eventually, in order: hostess at Bubba’s Lone Star Cafe, operator at Harkness Answering Service, clerk at the University Co-op Bookstore). It is 1994. Here is what I would like to say to you, Cathy of twenty years ago.

Dear Cathy,

You’ve been writing fiction since you could write. I know how hard you work and how dedicated you are. I know that you’re in Austin because all you wanted to do when you graduated from Yale was write and U.T. offered you full funding. You didn’t think of grad school as a career move, just a way to buy yourself two more years of writing time. Writing is really the only thing you want to do. And we both know you’re good at it. Nobody at U.T. has ever suggested you’re not an excellent writer—although some people have quietly complained about your arrogance.

I want to tell you something you don’t know. When you graduated from your Master’s program this June with a manuscript and a diploma you didn’t bother to pick up, you had only done half the work required of you. You wrote, and you wrote steadily, and you wrote purely: not without thought of publication, to be sure, but with the assumption that writing was the work and publication the reward. You sent out your stories on the principle that all you had to do to succeed was call attention to yourself. Not that you were unbowed by rejection; you got a lot of those little slips, and the way you protected your ego against that onslaught was to keep private and keep writing. In short, you were and are unworldly, and you cultivate that unworldliness.

What I need to tell you is that you are right. Writing is your life’s work. And in not learning how to grow yourself an audience, you are only doing half of that work. You are about to spend twenty years writing and writing and writing. Every time you finish a book, you’ll send it out to an assortment of agents and publishers, and you’ll get rejected almost every single time (there will be one or two heartbreakers that don’t work out). Every time you’ll come to a point where you lose interest in trying to find a home for the book you just finished and return your full concentration to the one you’ve just started. You’ll never learn, Cathy, how to keep on going and make progress in the face of discouragement; you’ll never learn how to be a great writer and a great self-promoter. In twenty years, you’ll try publishing yourself in the belief that it will open doors. It will open some doors, but it will also be much, much harder than you anticipated to find your readers.

I’m not saying it’s too late for me now. But self-promotion is not a muscle I tried to strengthen when I was young, and sometimes I despair of working it up to full functionality. Young Cathy, I love you for your belief in yourself and your commitment to your writing. I just wish you had been a little more open to the possibility of learning that other half.



  1. Mr. S says:

    Not that I know anything about the business, but I feel that, yes, you could do this. It seems to me it would involve some sacrifice of self-concept, which is hard for a writer in particular, but anyway is hard for people like us. Like perhaps it would necessitate not thinking of oneself as someone who knows only good and interesting people. I don’t know, advice here is stupid since I’ve never tried it myself. This is meant as encouragement, for what it’s worth.

    • Cathy says:

      Thanks, Mr. S.! It IS encouraging. The idea of sacrificing self-concept is an important one. I’ve told myself I have to expand my idea of what a writer is. Very hard to alter our view of ourselves, even if it’s potentially productive to do so.

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