Thursday, September 21, 2006

DR: A Writer's Relationship with Readers

When her first novel came out last year, Mary DeMuth posed this heartfelt question about a writer's relationship with the public and with her readers.

Q. I'm getting stressed about how much to share--how to be open, yet guarded. I
do believe Jesus works through our authenticity and shines through our
weaknesses. I'm not afraid to be open, but I worry that my transparency will
welcome criticism and, perhaps, a reader's false sense of friendship with me.
I'm worried about being so available to others that I'll be overwhelmed.

Sadly, Mary's fears are well-founded. When you become a published, promoted author, you become a publicly owned commodity. You not only risk losing some friends from your "old world" who can't handle your success and celebrity, but sadly, you also sometimes wonder if the new friends you make aren't just using you to further their own careers, or are only interested in you so they can drop your name.

Most difficult of all, when you become an author, readers begin to see you as an expert--and a counselor. Not only in matters of writing, but in psychology as well. I often get letters from readers pouring their hearts out to me about some tragedy of their life. The compassionate Christian Deb wants to hold their hands and ease their pain. But if I do that, I quickly find myself in an ongoing dialogue. And I simply can't be in a running correspondence with all my readers! There aren't enough hours in the day! I've learned that if I reply with much more than --my heart goes out to you and I'm praying for you-- I risk being seen as a confidante or counselor, and next thing I know, I'm hurting the person worse than they hurt before because I "drop" them or "ignore" them or worse, give bad advice.

It's so hard sometimes to find that perfect balance between warm-loving-genuine and professional-and-stand-offish-for-your-own-protection. When I try to nurture my readers too much, I invariably neglect my family and my in-person friends. When I care for my family and take time for my long-time friends, I must keep my readers at a bit of a distance. It's a constant struggle!

I think all any of us can do is minister where you are at any given time. If you're speaking to a group, it's fine to put an arm around someone, to cry and pray with them afterwards. What I try to avoid are e-mail relationships with readers. They are draining and you risk allowing the correspondent to become dependent on you, when they should be seeking face-to-face counsel with a friend, pastor or professional. My rule of thumb is that I respond personally to every reader mail or e-mail once. After that, unless there's a compelling reason, I don't enter into ongoing correspondence.

On the other hand, an e-mail friendship with writing peers can be the most refreshing and affirming thing in the world. Such relationships can keep you from draining your non-writing friends and family members, and from being disappointed when they don't "get" what you're about.

I wish someone had warned me of the struggles I'd face with this aspect of being published. It would have saved me a lot of false guilt had I known ahead of time that I simply cannot be all things to all people. I'm learning, day by day, how to keep things more in balance and not take on guilt I don't deserve. Good thing, because I've got more than enough I DO deserve.

Deborah Raney is the author of A Vow to Cherish (Steeple Hill June 2006). Coming in January: Remember to Forget for Howard Books, now an imprint of Simon & Schuster.


At 6:49 AM, Blogger Sheryl said...

Thank you for that post Deb. Those are wise words, and not just for published authors.

Part of my job is phone support for the TV/radio ministry of my church. And I find the same type of situations happening. I think many people like the anonymity of phone/email prayer & counsel rather than face to face with a pastor or minister you know.

Thank you for sharing your heart so transparently.


At 8:43 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Great post, Deb. Lots of good things to ponder. I face this issue as a pastor's wife AND as a writer.

Thanks for the wise advice.

At 12:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm not published yet, and maybe never will be, but I peek through that door now and then when other writers are gracious enough to give me a look. This is an aspect of the published writer's life I hadn't considered. Thanks for shedding light, and giving some very good advice.


At 1:57 PM, Blogger Dan Edelen said...


It's obvious to me that the reason readers write and look for help is that they're not getting help from their local worshiping body. That's the real shame here. The sad e-mails writers receive proves the sender did not find the solace they needed from people nearby.

Writers are stand-ins. As to Sheryl's comment about the anonymity of the Web, again, this is a failure by Evangelicals to make confession safe, and to provide grace rather than judgment.

All life within the Christian walk must occur within the local church. All Christians need to diligently work to ensure no Christian has to go outside his or her church to find the help they need.

At 7:55 AM, Blogger Deborah said...

I'm in Dallas at the ACFW conference, so apologize for responding a day late to this topic, but thank you for your thoughtful feedback. Excellent points, Sheryl and Dan, about the draw of anonymity and the failure of some church's to provide a safe place to be real.

I also think sometimes it's simply because fiction is so personal and powerful that it speaks to those suffering from trials and angst similar to the protagonists', so the reader believes the author must know how they feel. It's amazing how often readers assume I have personally experienced everything I put my characters through. And I consider that an amazing compliment as a writer.

At 2:28 PM, Blogger Richard Mabry said...

Great post, as yours always are. This isn't confined to Christian authors. As a medical author and speaker, I got this all the time. There will always be people who want to be "friends" with someone they perceive to be "famous." Aside from feeling flattered at being thus considered, I have always tried to be nice within reason, but like you, have been forced to put a limit on the amount of continuing contact that follows.

Great to run into you a breakfast today at ACFW. Blessings.

At 2:49 PM, Anonymous BJ said...

You speak for all of us, Deb. And you say it so well.



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