Auld Acquaintance

By Poison Ivy,

At this time of the year, most of us have just given presents, written cards, or e-mailed all our friends and our relatives with the season’s greetings. Sometimes the lists have to be pared. We have fallen out of contact with someone. Or their lives and ours have diverged and we find we have nothing much to say to each other. Sometimes we wish the list could be pared, as the same negatives may hold for family members, but we still struggle to keep up the link for the sake of family unity or peace. And then of course there are all the business gifts and cards that are given to be polite or to promote our work relationships. These fall off naturally as we move from one situation to another.

But probably the saddest removal from a holiday list occurs because the person has died. This happened to me when I was just out of college, and a dear friend crashed his little car fatally in a snow storm. (He’s the reason I have driven the car equivalent of a truck ever since.) Just this year I had to remove the name of an elderly cousin, the last remainder of a connection to a part of the country that our family now no longer occupies. And I was looking through some old folders and found correspondence from a writer who has since passed away, and from another who surely has as well. Shredding their letters gave me pause. I didn’t want to erase these traces of their presence on this earth.

One letter in particular seemed full of wisdom and intelligence. This lady had a writing track record and had considered writing romances, but had concluded that it wasn’t for everyone. She also felt that much of the critiquing that takes place within Romance Writers of America chapters was useless. Many writing groups have these critiquing subgroups. They exist for the simple reason that editors at publishing houses do not have the time to give would-be authors detailed feedback about their writing. The problem is that the opinion of another author is not necessarily the opinion of an editor or, more importantly, of a reader.

I was reminded of the difference between a reader’s point of view and an editor’s when I looked at the cover of an old sweet romance from a big name romance publisher. It was a pretty cover, which is why I tore it off and kept it when I threw the book itself in the paper recycling bin. (If you’re shuddering at this action, you may not realize that unsold mass market paperback books are routinely cover stripped and tossed out. And most bookstores do not bother to recycle the paper.) Yes, the cover was charming. But the story was very badly written. It was a typical kind of story and I enjoyed reading it even so. Yet anytime I started to dip into the book, the extremely poor use of language was very jarring. I ended up getting rid of the book on that basis. But most readers would do as I initially did, and note the awkward, stilted language subliminally, but keep reading for the plot and the characters. Most readers of genre material are reading for plot and characters (and locale), not for the beauty or originality of the language. And that’s the reason that the opinion of another writer on one’s writing is not worth much, because most readers are not writers.

This letter from a dead lady about the value of romance writing critiquing definitely struck a chord with me. Here was someone whose intelligence and taste fairly leapt from the page. We had been casual acquaintances at best, and I had no reason to keep her letter any longer. But I was impressed by it, and also moved by the inevitability of change.

Most of the time, I am an enthusiastic de-clutterer. Ever since I discovered that one can remove reminders of past pain from one’s life by removing anything associated with that time, I have been gung ho about purging possessions. Oh, don’t worry. My house isn’t empty. But I don’t own any crutches or canes from leg injuries, for instance. Bad enough that I had the injury; no need to keep a souvenir around. There aren’t closets full of old clothes, either, although there are a few representative tokens. (Shoulder pads, anyone?) This year I have been purging old paper files. It’s a wonderfully freeing experience. I even figured out what to do with old greetings cards that were so pretty that I had been reluctant to chuck them (scan them, and toss them out anyway). And now I am working through the correspondence, just at the time of year when old acquaintances are remembered and toasted.

So, here’s to those ladies of romance who have passed to the next level, whatever it is. May their words be remembered even if the physical evidence must vanish. I hope your writing made you as happy as reading it made me.