Writer in Residence

When Readers Write

By Suzanne Methot

Whenever I do a book event, people tell me things. Sometimes they tell me a bit about themselves or their families. At other times, they disclose traumatic experiences. I respond by holding the moment, connecting with them, and communicating my best wishes for their healing. In-person and virtual events make it possible to fold the moment into the group experience and keep it universal, because there are other people listening or waiting in line, staff hovering, a bit of noise (real voices or the chat box), and a table or an Internet connection making space between us. But when readers write letters – well, that’s a whole different thing.

I remember the first letter I ever received from a reader. I’d written a review of Gordon Sinclair Jr.’s book Cowboys and Indians: The Shooting of J.J. Harper and conducted a sidebar interview with the author for Windspeaker, Canada’s national Indigenous newspaper. The letter arrived a few months after the review ran, so it was early 2000 sometime. The reader mailed it to the Windspeaker offices in Edmonton from a maximum security prison in Manitoba, and Windspeaker sent it to me.

The letter was short and cryptic, and I wasn’t quite sure what the writer was saying. Did he have something to say about the J.J. Harper case? Did something in the review or interview remind him of his own story, and did he now want to tell me that story? Or did he just like my writing and want a pen pal? I know incarcerated people rely on letters to ward off depression and isolation, and I know that letters provide a tactile and sentimental connection to the outside world. But this letter didn’t seem like something I could take on at that point in my life. The letter writer was looking for something, but whatever that something was, I knew I couldn’t help him. I didn’t reply, and I felt bad for a long time afterward.

But I shouldn’t have. Writers have a public facing role – and that means we have to be good at boundaries. By setting boundaries, we name our limits in the face of other people’s expectations. Setting boundaries also keeps readers safe.

When a children’s book author sent me a letter sometime in 2000 or 2001 about the guest column I’d written for Quill and Quire, she explicitly told me not to write back because she “didn’t want to become a task” in my in tray. I stared at that line for a long time. I’d only recently escaped a dysfunctional family, and this was the first time I’d ever been on the receiving end of (a) clearly stated boundaries that were focused on my needs and (b) clear communication that wasn’t fraught with hidden agendas or unresolved emotions. I mean, it was life changing.

It was also nice to know that she agreed with my take on being one of very few working Indigenous writers in Canada, having to review books by my peers, and wishing that small presses and Indigenous-run publishers would edit their books with a bit more precision. When I wrote the column, I was unsure what readers would get from it, because I didn’t think anyone else had these problems. It helped to know that the letter writer was having the exact same issues with children’s literature and the very small children’s literature community in Canada. There are way more children’s book authors in Canada today, and a lot more Indigenous writers too, but the letter showed me that Indigenous issues were also Canadian issues. It was nice to know that we shared the same hopes for our communities (and for Canadian publishing).

After my last book was published, I received a lot of letters by e-mail and a lot of private messages on various social media platforms. Most of them were easy to respond to. People need to be seen for their sacredness and their imperfections. They want to know they’re not alone on their journeys. They want to share a bit about themselves and make a connection or ask a question. Some of them are working on their own books. I write a personal response – never a form letter (thanks anyway, Facebook) – and we’re just two humans co-existing.

When people disclose trauma and ask me to talk with them, I say no, because I’m no longer working as a helper in an agency or educational setting. But I’m also aware that reaching out to connect with me might be the first time they’ve reached out to anyone. So I make sure to ask them if they have any support, and I suggest some ways that they can find support. “No” is not what they need to hear, even when it’s no from me.

Most people meet their friends at work. Writing can be intensely isolating work. But our public facing role makes the workplace exchange a lot different. When readers write, we respond – but we need to make sure we’re aware of what’s involved in the exchange.


Photo by Sue Hughes on Unsplash

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Suzanne Methot is the author of Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing. She has worked in adult literacy and skills-training, as a museum educator, and as a teacher, creating a classroom program for Indigenous students experiencing intergenerational trauma. Born in Vancouver and raised in Peace River, Alberta, Suzanne is Nehiyaw of mixed Indigenous and European heritage. She lives on Gabriola Island, B.C., on the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw Nation.