In a recent online course about how to navigate the literary magazine world, the instructor gave us an assignment: Cut out a 1-inch square from a piece of paper and write the names of all those whose opinions on our writing we valued. If we couldn’t fit all the names on the paper, she said, we needed to edit our list.
When I read those instructions, I frowned. What did they mean? Was I supposed to treat this like some sort of acknowledgments list? Writers used their acknowledgments to thank everyone under the sun: spouses, parents, siblings, writing groups, editors, agents, pets. How could I possibly fit every name on a 1-inch square piece of paper?
I cut out the square. I stared at it. I looked back at the instructions.
“Make a list of people whose opinion of your writing really matters.”
I considered the statement, letting it settle into my brain. It mattered to me what some people thought. Those who engaged in the craft every day. Those who spent hours, as I did, weighing every single word and sentence to make sure each would offer the right balance to a story.
If I cared so much about the opinions of writers, then did I have the freedom to disregard the ideas of non-writers? What if some of those non-writers existed in close proximity to me? What if their opinions mattered in other issues but not in my writing?
Did I know any non-writers that closely, people who I cared for, but who didn’t spend much (if any) time writing?
I did, and the realization that followed startled me so much it made me sit back and blink.
I stared at the paper again and understood that within the edges of that small square, I’d meted out an immense responsibility upon people who didn’t even know I’d thrust it in their direction. When they didn’t take it from me, I began carrying it for them. The resulting burden weighed me down for years.
Sometime during high school, my father asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I wanted to be a writer. His immediate response: “Writers are a dime a dozen.”
His answer cleaved my childlike assumption that my parents would always support me no matter what I wanted to do. I don’t remember anything else from that conversation. His words, however, left my confidence bleeding.
I didn’t understand the practical aspect of what he wanted to tell me: writing, as a profession, required an immense commitment that didn’t always get rewarded with a proportional amount of money; paying bills took more than the occasional and irregular royalty check; he wanted me to live a financially secure life.
He loved me and worried about my future, like good parents do; after all the effort and energy he and my mother spent taking care of me, he wanted to make sure I could take care of myself.
For years afterward, anytime I tried to talk to my parents about my writing and they nodded with polite vagueness, I interpreted their reaction as indifference. I didn’t try to find out whether it could possibly be a lack of understanding, a lack of experience with the craft of writing. Couldn’t they see, I wondered, that if I wrote, I did it to express myself? To share myself with them and everyone else?
I thought my parents didn’t care about what I wanted. I believed every time they said they would read my writing and didn’t, that they did so as an unspoken parental reprimand, to “reject” my art. To reject a part of me.
When I got married, I assumed my husband would read anything I wrote. But I didn’t take into account the fact that I married a man of science, the polar opposite of everything creative. I played the “what if” game, listening to conversations between characters and combining words to move a reader both with story and the beauty of language. My husband noted facts and used objective information, creating solutions to make sure his patients lived.
After the first few years of our marriage, I came to another (errant) conclusion: My husband didn’t care about my writing either.
I knew he supported the idea of me writing. He gave me days off where I could take a break from the kids and disappear with my computer for a few hours. He helped with bedtimes when I took evening writing classes at our community college. He just didn’t read the products of any of those efforts.
I started blogging, using it as reverse psychology to force me to make time for my writing. (I thought if online readers expected me to post, I would. It worked.) My parents subscribed to the blog the day it launched, but they didn’t really read any of what I posted. It seemed like the more I learned about the craft, the less interested any of my immediate family became in it.
Looking back, I realize now that their seeming lack of interest worked in inverse proportion to my growing knowledge.
I wrote; I got better. I started making contacts through the blog with people all across the world, and someone asked me to edit some short stories. Years earlier, I had quit my job in a local publishing company to have my children, so the idea of editing from home seemed tailor-made for me.
I became a freelance editor. I started reviewing books in a professional capacity. And, of course, I kept writing.
I stared at the 1-inch square of paper and read the prompt for it several times.
“Make a list of people whose opinion of your writing really matters.”
For the first time in my life, I understood something fundamental about writing. If my parents and my husband didn’t write full time, why did I claim the right to demand their pining interest in my work? What right did I have to foist the burden of validation on them?
I realized I’d braided my expectations with the threads of family love, forcing them to intertwine. When I looked at that small square of paper, I understood that family love came from a completely different spool.
Without making any phone calls or grand, cinematic declarations, I took back all my expectations. Actually, I grabbed them and yanked them back. The knots formed by my distress at the perceived lack of support came undone.
I stared at the paper again. Whose name would go on the square? Who would be on my “#1inchlist,” as it came to be known in the course?
I thought about it for several minutes, and then I wrote down two names.
The first belongs to a wonderful writer with whom I’ve formed a deep friendship as well as editing relationship. We met when I read and reviewed one of her first books. I received a complimentary copy of the book and posted my thoughts. A few weeks after I shared my review online, the author contacted me.
I held my breath as I opened her email, but her polite tone put me at ease. She liked the constructive criticism I’d offered, she said, as much for the positive way I presented it as for the criticism itself. Would I be interested in editing her next book?
Almost six years and nearly 20 books later, we’ve come to appreciate and understand one another in the way that only writers can. She’s become a dear friend, and I’m privileged to work with her on her stories. Her indie publishing company has grown at an accelerated rate, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching and participating in that growth.
In my freelance career, I’ve experienced more success as an editor than I have as a writer. As I start pushing myself to write at a more aggressive rate, I hope to have the kind of prolific career that my editing client and friend has. Her name went first on the square because I admire her storytelling talent as well as her ability to build her company into a solid business.
I would like to emulate both.
The second name on the square didn’t take much thought at all. In my sophomore year of college, I wrote my first (and, to date, only) novel. The sappy-sweet love story made many friends sigh in longing for the real-life version to happen to any (ideally, all) of us.
One of my friends offered to help me revise the novel. By the time I reached my senior year I could see the book needed more work, so I took her up on her offer. Sometime during that process, I realized she was my writing soul mate. She understood far more about my story than I could ever explain in words, either spoken or written.
It was the first time I’d ever met someone who could look at my words on the page and understand what I wanted from them, even if I hadn’t put it on paper yet.
Our lives took us to different corners of the country for years, and now we live about 30 minutes away from one another. She’s my official editor on all of my stories and serious writings (including this essay). If anyone’s opinion matters, it’s most certainly hers.
The square still had some room on it, just enough for a third name. Looking for ideas, I went to the Facebook page for those of us taking that online lit mag course. Another student said she’d added her own name to the square, and I turned back to my piece of paper.
Of course, I thought. Shouldn’t my own opinion matter? I had spent the years writing and reading and revising and honing. I endeavored day in and day out in this space that is by turns abstract and concrete all at the same time.
I wrote “me” under the other two names, and with that, my square no longer had free space. My heart, however, had filled with gratitude for the people in my life. All of the people in my life: Those who write and those who don’t.
I see those people now standing in concentric circles around me. The ones in the smallest circle – the people on my #1inchlist – relate most directly to the craft and my goals for myself. The ones in subsequent circles matter too; they stand by me to support and honor what I do simply by their presence. We’re like the rings in a tree, where each ring represents a layer of experience gained and processed. Of wisdom earned.
Even the largest oak trees start as a small acorn – or, in my case, a sincere wish to write.
I’ve put my 1-inch list in a small frame that I keep in my writing studio. I look at it often and find it comforting, my own rabbit’s foot. It serves as a reminder of the need for support, for understanding, and my newfound ability to discern the difference.
Since 2005, Ekta Garg has written and edited about everything from healthcare to home improvement to Hindi films, and in 2011 she joined the “dark side” as a fiction writer and editor (although she does still help out nonfiction writers). She manages The Write Edge (thewriteedge.wordpress.com) as well as its three extension blogs of her weekly short fiction, her book reviews, and her parenting adventures. When not writing and editing, Ekta spends time with friends (the ones other people can see) and counts her many blessings, which include a husband who loves her and two beautiful daughters who astound her on a regular basis.
Read more in our essay series:
Losing mom and finding Flo
Producing manuscripts in sensible shoes
Writing into the mainstream: Learning the ABCs of writing about Cuba
Robin Black: Unsealing fate
The leisured quest: The art of slow publishing
The tao of the Three Little Pigs
Finding your voice
Defining a writer
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