Dear Lady in the Front Row Who Gasped

I was at the podium and you were sitting in the front row when I heard you gasp.  Some may not have heard it, others thought it was nothing more than a quick intake of breath.  I am going to call it a gasp because it changed my life.

You validated me as a writer.

I was one of four performers at a story-telling event.  You were probably there to see family or friends.  That’s the composition of the audience.  Few people come in off the street.  I was the last storyteller, so your job as a supportive friend was over, but you were kind enough to stay for the entire program.  My friends and family were in the audience, but you were a complete stranger to me.  That meant a lot.

My coming-of-age story was reaching its climax.  Abandoned in the middle of a lake, I had nothing but a frantic dog-paddle to keep me afloat.  I can’t say I felt tension building in the audience or that people were on the edge of their seat.  I had no immediate feedback until I heard you.

You see, I am pursuing story-telling as an alternative to the against-all-odds world of publishing.  I am a writer, or at least I thought so until my MFA program told me I’d be labeled “a hobbyist” unless I got something published.  At the same time, I learned publishing was a grim business with no pay.  The work-around was to embrace rejection as the noble pursuit of a writer.

A classmate asked if I wanted to join a competition to see who would be the first to get 100 rejection letters.  The record was one year.  Only dispassionate, impersonal rejection letters counted.  Any letter with the slightest whiff of encouragement – a closing line of “looking forward to hearing from you,” or the giddy (but now vanishing) experience of a handwritten rejection letter with a coffee stain on it – well, this was no rejection, but quasi-acceptance.

An MFA faculty member waved his ragged sheaf of ten years of rejection letters from the New Yorker. He was a successful, self-sustaining writer with his own Wikipedia page, but he seemed prouder of these rejections than acceptances.  He wanted us to know he was out there, aiming high and laying it on the line.

I get it, I’m never going to win races I don’t enter, but his locker-room pep talk fell flat.  I have experienced rejection, both social and professional, and have learned to accept it with grace and good humor.  But it has never occurred to me to rebrand rejection as success.

Yes, I can send my work off into the abyss and wait for months as some bleary-eyed editor slogs her way through a towering slush pile.  Even if I pass this first hurdle, I want more.  I want direct feedback, not from forgiving family and friends, but from strangers who have no vested interest in me.  Publication only guarantees that strangers will have access to my work.  This is not enough.

I needed a work-around to the opaque layers of publication.  Mark Twain became my mentor.  His early platform was built on his public story-telling.  He reveled in the audience feedback and used that to refine his literature.  He moved between the two worlds, each leveraging the other.

I joined a story-telling troupe, and with trembling hands looked into the eyes of my audience, beyond familiar faces to my target audience of strangers.  I scanned the audience for drooping eyelids, slumping shoulders, heads in hands, and was gratified to see none.  I happened to look down at you when I reached the climax of the story.

You gasped.  I had you.  You thought I was about to drown, didn’t you?

You made me a writer and a storyteller.

With grateful thanks,

Liza Blue


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  1. Richard on February 7, 2019 at 10:58 am


  2. Liz on February 7, 2019 at 12:09 pm

    I love this! There are so many things I want to say. 1) The social aspect of writing is something that’s not talked about enough. 2) So much gets published without the writers ever getting any response, and it always feels weird and disappointing when I experience that myself. 3) Meanwhile there’s a belief that a real artist doesn’t care about the response, and I think that’s such a shame. Not being unduly influenced by response is important, and artists have to fan their own creative flames, but isn’t it normal to want to connect, and isn’t it beautiful/fun/exciting/surprising/illuminating when connections happen? Could anything but love for our words and ideas be adequate response to what comes from our love for words and ideas? 4) Regarding warnings against hobbyists and other things said in MFA programs, I ‘m reminded of what Chris Abani said on a panel at AWP: “Forget all creative writing aphorisms. They’re useless. There’s not a good one among them.” And “Advice says more about the giver than the getter.” I realize I’m making his comments aphoristic, but they meant so much to me, and I’m passing them on because words and ideas elicit response.

    • Liza Blue on February 21, 2019 at 9:54 am

      Hey, thanks for your comment. I forget to check the blog since most readers get the essays via direct email. Am finding great satisfaction in story-telling. Five performances scheduled for this spring! I even get paid $200 for one! Never would have imagined this would be direction of my creative efforts. I actually didn’t mind being called a “hobbyist,” because I thought to myself, “I will be the best damn hobbyist ever.” HOwever, like the comment that the advice says more about the giver!!

  3. Makeda on February 7, 2019 at 2:06 pm

    I’m a friend of Frances and absolutely love your blogs. Please keep writing! *gasping from many miles away* =)

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