Feedback is the lifeblood of a writer
By Dennis Jensen
STAFF WRITER | April 13,2014
Photo by Dennis Jensen
Pete Lajoie, the award-winning taxidermist of Shrewsbury, poses next to the mount of a great kudu, voted second-best in the world at the 2013 World Taxidermy Competition. Lajoie had a booth at the Vermont Outdoor Show, held recently in Rutland.
I was waiting for my haircut, my-once-every-six-months haircut, one day last week. I guess it’s a good thing Julie doesn’t have to rely on customers like me; if she did, she’d probably be looking for another occupation.
Anyway, the talk turned to the upcoming spring turkey season and the woman that had Julie styling her hair told me she read me, every week.
“Can I ask you why?” I said.
I was looking, of course, for some profound reason, a glowing assertion about how my copy was so great that, come each Sunday morning, she hurried down the driveway, grabbed her paper and, first thing, she opened it to the Outdoor Page.
She said something like, “My husband reads it and says to me, ‘have you read what he wrote today?’”
I didn’t push it. I guess I was just happy for the fact that she read my copy.
The fact is, readers are the lifeblood of any writer. They validate what we do; a writer without readers is like a host without a tick.
But, even after all these years, it comes as a great surprise when I hear a perfect stranger tell me: I read your stuff, every week.
Even better are those particular readers who neither hunt nor fish. Many of them are women who grew up in a household where hunting and fishing was a way of life. The conversation among the men of the clan, gathered for a meal, would turn to the outdoors and women listened and must have wondered, “What is this thing that drives the emotions so?”
Some readers stake no claim in whatever outdoor skills I may or may not possess. They read me, I’m told, because they like how I write more than what I write about.
Over the years, at social gatherings, at sporting events, on the main street of my home town, even at the place where I get my hair cut, I have been lucky enough to hear from readers.
Most of the time, the feedback is good and sometimes not so. But that’s OK.
I had an editor, some years ago, who called me into his office one afternoon because he got yet another letter to the editor complaining about a very-opinionated column I wrote. I thought, “Here it comes. He’s going to tell me to lighten up, that it’s not a good idea to anger your readers.” I already had an answer: Find another writer to peddle the soft soap.
What he told me that day was this: “We get a surprising amount of negative mail about your writing. But do you know what’s worse than mail from people who don’t like what you have to say? No mail at all. At least they are reading you.”
If writers have anything common in their literary bags, it is this: oversized egos. Work in any newsroom for a while and you will know what I mean. Any writer who claims not to care about feedback is either a liar or that very rare creature, a literary genius.
During more than 37 years as writer for two daily newspapers, certain subjects really got the blood flowing. I wrote about corruption in local government, exposed government officials who claimed to be what they were not and was lucky enough to interview some towering figures in sports — Muhammad Ali, Ted Williams, Mike Tyson, Andre Agassi, Larry Holmes, Ben Rodgers Lee and Archie Moore.
Vermont’s George Seldes, perhaps the greatest muckraker who ever lived, was a longtime friend. I even got to interview and spend some time with Dear Abby. She was a hoot.
Each personality was unique, but they all shared a common denominator, a steely, steady confidence that most of us can only dream of.
OK, so big deal, you might say. What’s the point?
The fact is, none of those interviews are probably remembered by longtime readers. But invariably I will bump into people on the street and they will tell me what they think about my weekly outdoor column in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus.
That is because Vermonters are so passionate about the outdoors. And nothing gets the hearts of Vermonters beating harder than the subject of whitetail deer. Here, in this great, green state, just about everyone is an expert on deer behavior.
I do, of course, have my critics. Some of them are polite. Some of them, reading these words, will shake their heads and claim that — there he goes again — I have strayed off-topic. I have no problems with those who disagree with me when I tell people what I believe. That’s what a columnist does.
I do have a big problem with the insults — some e-mails and letters so personal, so vile, they cannot be repeated in a family newspaper — that have been leveled at me over the years. It’s as if I somehow personally insulted them because I had an opinion. But that, I suppose, goes with the territory.
In closing, I want to send out a big “thank you” to all of those readers — those who like my stuff and those who respectfully disagree — who have been kind enough to let me know that what I write about matters.
No writer, not even a literary master, could ask for more.