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Why I Talk to Strangers
In my first post on Harriet this year, I suggested that I would eventually write a post about why I bother to respond to emails I receive from strangers. Tonight, after answering a number of questions from strangers during a campus visit to Sterling College in Vermont, seems as good a time as any to address the matter.
With that mind, here is a list of the top 10 reasons why I talk to strangers.
#1: Because bravery should be acknowledged. At Sterling College today I signed a book for a 12-year-old girl. Her father had brought her to my reading, and she sat in the back of the room, listening carefully and smiling occasionally in a shy and alert way. I liked her from the beginning, and I liked her even more when she came up to the podium after the reading with a copy of Smith Blue and, after a little push from her father (barely perceptible except that I had a similar kind of parent and so recognized the nudge that was meant to remind the young lady that this was her world and she could ask for what she wanted), she asked if I would please sign her book. It is no small thing to walk up to a stranger and ask them a question. And as I have been on both sides of the podium, I know that it is scary scary scary sometimes to walk up to someone, or to write someone, and ask them for a moment of their time. When someone is gracious enough to take the time to speak to me or write to me and let me know they’ve taken the time to read my work and that they want to ask me a question or tell me something or just get my signature on a little piece of paper, it seems only polite to take a moment to respond.
#2: Because I believe that in the world of writing none of us are strangers. I suppose there is something sensible about the idea that we aren’t supposed to talk to strangers. But people are writing me because they’ve read my work, which reveals things about me I’d never otherwise tell anyone, and when they write they usually tell me things they’d never otherwise tell anyone. Maybe it’s a little bit like getting into a sauna. You’re naked with a bunch of strangers in the world of literature. You probably aren’t going to get all chatty and become BFFs, but it is widely accepted that you should at least acknowledge each other.
#3: Because I take the role of teacher very seriously. If someone asks me a question about craft or process or access that I know, it seems that the least I can do is point them in the right direction. This is a world of access, so I don’t necessarily think that I need to invite the interlocutor to my home for a week-long seminar. But a web link might be in order. If I leave a restaurant carrying more left overs than I can possibly eat and someone asks me for food, I’m likely to pass what I have along. Why not act the same with knowledge? It’s cheaper, and knowledge leftovers don’t do very well in the fridge.
#4: Because of Letters to a Young Poet. “…try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.”
#5: Because of Gwendolyn Brooks. Once, twice, three times with Brooks I was that 12-year-old girl being nudged into asking to share some communion with a writer I admired. Each time Brooks was gracious beyond measure. If only to repay her kindness, I do what I do.
#6: Because when I was lost on the back roads of Vermont tonight it was comforting knowing that I could get out of the car and walk into the gas station and ask what direction I should head in to get to the highway even though I knew I could probably get all the information I needed from reading the map and so I probably wasn’t going to get out of my car and walk into the gas station to ask what direction I should head in to get to the highway.
#7: Because there have always been and will always be “stupid” questions. Thank heavens. Taking the time to articulate answers to questions that appear obvious at the time can reveal new insights to me. Why is the sky blue, people must have asked for a long long time. It’s only because of the people who took the time to answer that “pointless” question that we know what we know now.