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Ain’t No Valley Low Enough

Dear Betsy-

Here’s a question that falls into the “there are no stupid questions” but it in fact it might be a stupid question. If you have never published (or sent anything out for that matter) but you have taken a writing workshop with someone who has literary clout, should you mention it? And I mean just state it, not say he/she fawned all over your writing or thought you were the next Aimee Bender. Or is that a Who Cares?

Thanks,

Name WItheld:

Dear Who Cares:

First of all, to set the record straight, there are such things as stupid questions. I always hated it when teachers said there were no stupid questions. There are and we all know when we hear one because we slap the palms of our hands to our foreheads and shake our heads or rolls our eyes. That said, I like your question. And no one has asked it.

I think when you mention that you’ve studied with this famous writer or that famous writer, there is an implicit endorsement of your work on the part of the writer. Presumably, this famous writer would give you a blurb. That’s about all you could hope for, but those blurbs are hard won and much beloved by publishers. Let’s say the famous writer barely knew you were alive or worse hated your work, I think I’d still mention it even though it’s false advertising. Look, you’re trying to stand out, why not say: I’ve studied fiction writing Charles Frazier, Charles Baxter and Charles Manson. No more, no less. It’s a credential.

Who have you studied with and would you mention it in a query letter?

48 Responses

  1. I have no idea who Aimee Bender is but John Locke followed me on twitter. And Betsy Lerner emailed me. The two biggest biggies so far.

    Does a “studied” approach appeal to you?

  2. Molly Giles was my honors thesis adviser. And yes, I most certainly mention it.

    • Molly is the best. I learned more about writing from her comments than any other source. Plus she’s one of the best writers around.

      • Thumbs up to Molly, my prof at SFSU. She told me I was a born novelist, words that helped me stay the course to acceptance of 1st novel.

      • I’ve mentioned Mollly in query letters, as well as other well-known writers I studied with, including Frances Mayes, Carolyn Forche, Michelle Cliff, Stephen Dunn, Julie Jensen, and the list goes on. Sometimes I separate the names by genre, sometimes not. I busted ass/crossed many a bridge to the big city to study w/them. I’m not about to waste my capital, I figure somebody will be impressed or have read one or more of them.

  3. I haven’t studied with anyone well known, but I get pretty good feedback from a couple of magizine editors with some regularity, and a successful novelest is a friend and sometimes mentor. I think I would mention both in a query letter. Would that be too blatant?

  4. For many years, I studied with John Rechy, Pen Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award winner, at a private workshop held in his home. I knew him quite well and was, in fact, one of his prized students. I DID include a mention of this in my recent query letters as follows:

    …studied creative writing for 7 years with Pen Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, John Rechy.

  5. I studied with one of the 40 under 40. She then mailed me a handwritten note encouraging me to “please ask” if there’s anything she can do to help, followed by, “I never request more work for myself, so you know I mean it. Call me.”

    Thank you for saying I can mention her without sounding like a twit.

    (and thanks to the person who ask this question)

  6. Gordon Lish and I almost always mention it and I think it makes a difference, though I don’t know if it always makes a positive difference. It was a long time ago and is still the brightest feather in my cap.

    • I nearly hit Gordon Lish with a ladder while in a lift with him, and he said ‘Jimminy Crickets’ to me, and that was the extent of things.

      I almost went bowling with MJ Hyland (booker nominated author) but there were no spaces at the bowling alley, so we went for tea instead.

      My ambition is to have an adventure with an author that is akin to a Wonder Boys scenario, and we both get book deals at the end of it.

  7. An author I met at Bouchercon has been helping me with some of the weaponry problems (among others) in my WIP and said to ask me for a blurb when I needed one.

    I’m not sure if I’d mention it in my agent queries, but maybe my eventual hypothetical agent could mention it to the hypothetical publishers?

    (she also suggested I enter the CWA Debut Dagger, but the synopsis has me tied in befuddled knots . . . )

  8. No but Matt Dillion once asked if I wanted to smoke a splif with him. Does that count for anything?

  9. I’m participating in the Humber School for Writers Correspondence Program in Creative Writing, the January to August session. David Adams Richards will be my mentor during this time. He’s rather a big name in Canada where I live. He’s written many novels, non-fiction books and articles. A few years back he won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Mercy Among the Children and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award.

    A few drafts ago, I had my work reviewed by Gail Anderson-Dargatz, another big Canadian literary name.

    There’s another well-known author here in the Great White North whose name I’ll not mention, who is a fairly close acquaintance.

    Finally, when I favorably review a book on my blog, I e-mail the author. Perhaps when I have a draft I’m ready to query one of these people will want to return the favor.

  10. Studied with Valerie Vogrin (a wonderful teacher) and Alan Weir, though it was so long ago he likely wouldn’t remember me.

    I’ve had very brief email correspondences with Carolyn See and Franklin Burroughs and a couple other authors, who might be persuaded to contribute a blurb someday, if I were to be extremely optimistic.

    I lived in the same neighborhood as Isaac Bashevis Singer, but didn’t find out until long after I’d moved away. God, if only I’d started my habit of morning walks in my feckless youth, I might have met him on the beach or at the Pantry Pride. I have long admired his work.

    I once went drinking with Bono and The Edge, after (verbally!) persuading their bodyguard to let them take off with me; not sure how that bit of intelligence would fly in a query.

  11. I am so glad Name Withheld asked that question. And glad to hear the answer, because it confirmed my instinct.

    So, I’ve studied with Donald Antrim, Brian Morton, and James Lasdun. And with Stratis Haviaris, but that was ages ago. Oh, and with Frank Bidart and Robert Polito, but that was in college. Which also was ages ago.

    You asked!

  12. By “studied with” do you mean “drank with”? An important clarification, hypothetically speaking.

  13. Timely question! I am, as a matter of fact, gathering blurbs (and by “gathering” I mean sleazily groveling) from some notable literary folk for my website revamp, and I’m actually too embarrassed to state their names at the moment (but stay tuned, because the fucker’s gonna launch in a week or two).

    I should preface this with the caveat: I have this ever-the-bridesmaid thing going on with some super stars, but I’ve always felt icky leveraging it. But, fuck it. I’m not getting any cuter–I’m going after the best man while I still have a rack.

  14. My plan is to get all of my friends published and then hit them up for blurbs.

  15. My mum met John Lennon in Regent Street when she fell over in front of him and he picked her up. I’ve also had an email from Betsy Lerner. I didn’t know whether to reply (I wanted to) but I had a feeling that the wonderful Betsy likes to have the definitive (and last) word.

  16. Kathy Bates hugged me in a bathroom once and I try to work it into every conversation and letter I write. Plus I sat next to Margaret Atwood (she ordered the shrimp) at a restaurant for 4 hours and I think that counts for a lot.

  17. I nearly ran into Rudolf Nureyev gliding down a Paris street in leathers in the 80s. That’s my artistic training in one long stare.

    • Funny. I came face-to-face with Baryshnikov in the late 70’s. I had just seen The Turning Point on the big screen and had become instantly infatuated. Sadly, it was not to be. With one snarl, he crushed my young, pattering heart.

  18. When I was a waitress at The Colony in Kennebunkport in the fifties I served hors d’oeuvres to Imogene coco at a reception in her honor. I also waited on Hugh O’Brian and a tableful of his guests at dinner. He was wearing red suede shoes. He asked me if I wanted his autograph. I said no thanks. That was before tip time. Nobody’s ever accused me of being very smart.

    As far as studying with fancy writers. None.

    • I waited on MacGyver back when The Lion’s Head was in existence. I was so smitten, I could barely take his order. I had no idea who Pete Hamill was, let alone that he was sitting at the bar.

  19. I studied many moons ago under Mark Medoff who wrote Children of A Lesser God. He did tell me at the end of the class that I could make it as a writer if I was willing to work at it. It was an endorsement that has lived in my memory for more years than I’m willing to admit but there it is. Would I mention it in a query? Not unless the agent I was querying wanted to know who we studied writing under. Even then, since my genres don’t mesh with Mr. Medoff’s I’ve always considered this pretty much irrelevant to bringing it up in a query for whatever reason. And, as for asking him for a blurb one day, I doubt if he would remember me after so many years and there is that thing about my genres being diametrically different from his. Because I went the practical route and majored in journalism and mass communications, I did indeed earn a living as a writer–as a newspaper and magazine journalist and advertising guy–before switching careers completely. I still write and am represented but publishing my novels has continued to elude me. Hope, however, springs eternal.

  20. Once again, I am in the wrong universe when the right question comes along. Attended an event this past weekend with a local “well known” media person who projects this image of being connected to the Right People. His wife – my friend – was, supposedly, home not feeling well. By 9:30PM, he was completely over-served and trying very diligently to run his hands over every part of my body. I quickly realized that if I did not get him out of this event we would both be featured in the police reports. Bundled him into my car, got him into his gated yard and left him attempting to open his front door within the hour.

    Now, instead of benefiting from his network, I’m part of a circle of friends gently talking to his wife about her safety and legal options.

    On the other hand, while this experience isn’t query-worthy it could be useful for a WIP.

  21. Like anyone who gets an MFA, I studied with six or seven writers as part of the program. I would likely only name the two who measurably impacted my work, Fred Leebron and Elissa Schappell. I’ve attended several writer workshops since the MFA working with Antonya Nelson, Liz Strout, Pinckney Benedict and Rob Spillman. But I worry that listing all of those names would make me sound like a dilettante, particularly given the time span, a decade, during which I studied with them.

    The whole query letter thing gives me hives because I have an innate distrust of self-promotion. A partner at a law firm I was interiewing with third year in law school pulled me aside to say he’d never heard a candiate do a poorer job of selling themselves. When they asked me what my best subject was, I said, I don’t know but I can tell you my worst. Low expectations work for me. My whole life has been about proving my mother wrong.

    • At the risk of pissing you off, I’m here to tell you that if you’re going to “sell yourself” at all, then do it well. Walt Whitman wasn’t too big to hustle blurbs and sell the shit out of his work; neither should you be. Slap some calamine lotion on those hives and flog it, baby. That’s real humility, not pretending you’re less than you are. Don’t make me start quoting Marianne Williamson, ‘kay?

  22. It never occurred to me to ask that question, or any of its derivations.

    What if you’re an unpublished nobody (or as-yet-to-be-somebody) in a dedicated writer’s group with a bunch of famous writers? Should you mention that?

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