Tuesday, July 04, 2023

Ask Aunt Dorcas: On Being "The Book Writer"

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

Here's something I'd like to hear about from other writers. I shy away from meeting people because as soon as I say even my first name they say, "Oh, the book writer." (Maybe if my name was Mary Martin I could hide better.) Next question is, "What are you writing now?" 

Today, as many times before, I walked into a room and saw people looking at me and whispering. I get tired of it. How do other writers handle these things? What is a good answer? I thought maybe when people say "the book writer" I could say, "are you a book reader?'

You're good at stirring up a discussion. Maybe you can stir something up on this from a variety of writers. I'd love to hear any thoughts or advice.

--"Gladys Hostetler”

Two authors, Emily Smucker and her mom, Dorcas, sat at their table at the fair and wished for a little more fame and recognition.
You can find their books at 

Dear Gladys,

This immediately brings to mind the first time I met you. You were a middle-aged woman who had just traveled from Pennsylvania to northwestern Ontario. I was in my twenties, an aspiring writer.

It was evening.

I met you in the second-floor hallway of the Northern Youth Programs guest house as you were being shown to your room. Laden with travel bags and accessories, you looked weary.

I chose that auspicious time to go all fan-girl on you. “Are you. . . Gladys Hostetler??!! Oh, I’m so glad to meet you! My name is Dorcas, and I like to write too!”

You were unbelievably and undeservedly kind.

I hope you got a really good night’s sleep.

Years later we were in the same class, taught by Harvey Yoder, at the CLP Writers Conference. We did an exercise together—pulling a story from our childhood, I think—and we had a fun conversation, more as equals than the hallway meeting.

First , the writer’s perspective.

We had no idea, did we? We were like Job’s young friend Elihu in Job 32—

 I too will have my say;

    I too will tell what I know.

For I am full of words,

    and the spirit within me compels me;

inside I am like bottled-up wine,

    like new wineskins ready to burst.

I must speak and find relief;

    I must open my lips and reply.

We too were full of words, so we wrote and published, happy for the opportunity to release the words into the wide world and have them found and read.

We didn’t know we were placing ourselves in a one-dimensional mold from which we would never escape, or that we were giving up the privilege of being anonymous. We might be photographers, gardeners, or experts on Roman history. We are wives and moms and daughters.

But we are known as The Writer.

We wanted “fame” in the sense that we want our books to be purchased and read, but we didn’t ask for the whispers when we walk into a room. This is hard to talk about except with fellow writers, because it comes across as “poor little famous me; it’s so annoying to be recognized.”

But sometimes the things we want have side effects we didn't expect.

I know people who are perfectly fine with being known and recognized for a single thing. They walk into a room and Oh look! It’s the missionary! The evangelist! The singer! That’s their identity, and they seem to revel in it.

Many of us writers, however, are introverts, and fame, even if it’s small and contained, unnerves us. We want to be known well, in our many dimensions, by those close to us, and to be anonymous with those outside that circle. Being a writer messes with our sense of self and even our sense of safety. The “writer” label is too complicated to embrace as our whole identity, and we know we are many things besides.

I am not as introverted as many writers, and I enjoy a bit of recognition, which I attribute to a lack of attention as a child. But it quickly becomes too much. I remember a REACH conference in Pennsylvania where I wanted to walk around with a paper bag over my head after about half a day because I kept catching people looking at me with a gleam of recognition in their eyes.

Then I went to a BMA summer convention and this didn’t happen at all, so it’s all about appearing in the demographic that reads your books. It's not like I'm Taylor Swift and can't go anywhere without being recognized, in case you wondered.

I’ve had some truly weird experiences with fame and recognition. Generally, I am easy to ignore. I’m not cool or fashionable or the person who walks into a room and takes over. I’ve had times in a group or social setting when I was obviously not worth noticing or talking to by others until suddenly people found out who I was. When I was “Dorcas Smucker!” I was worth attention and conversation. When I was just me, I was invisible.

That has taught me that the “writer” persona is an illusion that people carry in their own heads and project onto me, and it’s important that I know who I am. Dorcas Smucker feeding the cats is not the same person as “Dorcas Smucker!!” recognized in a public setting.

Here's how I respond to “Oh! The writer!” when it happens to me: much as I cringe at being one-dimensional, I like to express gratitude that they actually read my stuff, which is truly a gift. Then I try to shift the conversation to them as quickly as possible. Name, where are you from, what brings you here, what is your connection to the bride/conference/speaker/deceased? Usually by that time there’s some point of connection, something besides me and my writing, to provide a conversational rabbit trail.

My response to “What are you writing now?” is to panic inside and want to burst into tears, especially if they ask if I’m finally writing that Mennonite fiction book I’ve talked about for years. I don’t have the time or coherence, in the moment, to explain all the ideas that haven’t worked out, all the demands on my time despite the children being grown and gone, all the delays and frustrations with the printer, all the time it took for my brain to sort of recover after my husband’s life-threatening injuries, all the life transitions we’ve been through, and all the obstacles to pursuing creativity.

I believe I’m not alone in this, that The Next Book is a touchy subject for every writer, and we all wish that no one would ask until about a week before the book is released--polished and ready and complete.

This brings up another peril of being a writer: readers feel like they own a piece of you. Not everyone, of course, thank God, but many readers feel that you’re obligated to release at least a book a year, inform them of details about your family that you don’t have permission to share, take a look at their manuscript and give feedback, write their uncle’s life story, and write an article about their favorite subject.

If you haven’t learned to say No, you’re in trouble. And you have to do it graciously enough that you don’t lose a reader and future sales.

Now for the other side. You’re a reader. You love Annie Brubaker’s books and feel like she understands you. She makes you think and laugh. You’d love to meet her someday.

And then she walks into the room at the rehearsal dinner. Oh my stars. Yes, it has to be her. You had heard rumors that she’s the groom’s cousin and sure enough!!

You squeal a bit and elbow your sister beside you. “Look who just walked in! Isn’t that…?” And then Annie Brubaker turns and looks at you, and you catch her eye—aack! How embarrassing!  You wonder if this is how Peter felt when the rooster crowed and Jesus turned and looked at him. 

Now what?

My advice is to be up front and matter-of-fact. Don’t stare, but go talk to her if you have the chance. Express your appreciation but don’t squeal like a teenager at a Justin Bieber concert. Here’s a sample script: “Excuse me. I’m curious if you’re Annie Brubaker?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I’m Sarah. I just want to tell you I appreciate your books, especially the devotional for new moms.”

“Thank you.”

At that point, if Annie glances over to the buffet line, end the conversation. If she maintains eye contact and asks if you have a new baby, you can keep talking. Maybe you’re curious about her writing process or want to tell her about a situation in your life that was affected by her story. That’s fine. Just talk like she’s a real human, and you and she are equally valuable. Find connections, compare opinions, and “encourage one another, and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. [1 Thessalonians 5:11]

End the conversation before you exhaust her, and make sure she has a chance to eat.

If she sits beside you, take it as permission to continue the conversation, making sure to pause often and long enough to let her enjoy her meal.

If you’re both writers, you’re going to rattle off about all the things that only writers find interesting, and you’ll both forget to eat.

And now, a word of advice to all of us: most people, writers or not, don’t want to be known for only one thing. 

Maybe ten years ago, a woman in our church was employed outside her home. This was unusual—most married Mennonite women are stay-at-home moms. I didn’t know her that well, so when we happened to walk down the hall together toward the women’s Sunday school class, I’d cast about for things to talk or ask about. Often, the first thing that came to mind was her job.

One day she pulled me aside and said, “I’d like to share something with you. When you talk to me, you always ask about my work. I wish you’d talk about other things. There’s a lot more to me than my job, and the truth is I work because I have to, and I don’t like to talk about it.”

Ouch. I like to know these things, but it hurts to find out. 

But I was so grateful. Her telling me showed that she trusted that I would listen, because we all know we don’t confront people we already know won’t hear us. Also, it taught me to work at getting to know the whole person and putting more thought into questions and conversation. After that, I tried to ask about her children, her summer activities, and so on.

It’s ok to recognize Annie or Gladys when they walk into the room. It’s good to encourage writers and tell them we appreciate their work. The same with singers and speakers and candlestick makers. It’s fine to recognize what they do.

But let’s do more. We can all give others the honor and gift of seeing them as a whole, multi-dimensional person. We can ask about a hundred things besides the one thing that first comes to mind. We can find connections and mutual interests. We can make introverted writers feel safe in public gatherings, and we can make invisible people feel seen.

That's what I think.

Aunt Dorcas

Are you a writer? What are your experiences or advice?

Are you a reader who's met a favorite author? What are your stories and advice?

Are you well known for one thing? How do you navigate always being seen in one dimension only?


  1. I am a writer, and I can't tell you how often I've wished the floor would open and swallow me when being approached by people who have read my books.

    I don't mind if someone approaches me to say they enjoyed the books and maybe shares a bit of what they liked, or how they connected with it. It's when it inevitably goes to the questions "Are you writing another book? What's it about?" that I'm longing for an escape.

    Even a lot of acquaintances especially at church seem to become tongue-tied and the only topic they can think of when they greet me is asking about my writing.

    I have had numerous people ask me to look at their work, ask for publishing advice, ask me to write their life story. I have started to decline to look at other's work, because free time is precious to me, and if I do have time to read I have stacks of books on my to be read piles that I would much rather enjoy than read your manuscript. (Sorry)

    The amount of material I have in my head to write is going to last a long time. Your life story may be worth being published, but I'm not the one to write it, for multiple different reasons.

    Then there are the plucky few who take it even a step further and ask how much money I'm making, and which charity I support now since I get book checks. I don't get why it's okay to ask an author that.

    1. I feel all this deeply, except I don't think I've had people ask how much money I make and which charity I support! Dear me, that is so inappropriate.

  2. Thank you for this advise, Dorcas. As a well meaning reader I will take it to heart.

    1. Thanks! I have a feeling you were already operating with sensitivity and sense!

  3. I gave wanted to find an efficient way to ask you this quest— I want to start writing a blog. I’m an old gal— 76, so it’s not like I have a lot of time. I have enjoyed writing since I was a young girl. I fantasized about writing my memoir but have never taken the plunge to actually seriously start. However, I think writing a blog would be good for a number of reasons. I write things occasionally on my FB page and many people have commented that they enjoy my writings. I think, among other things, the discipline of writing a blog would be beneficial to get me serious about communicating my ideas/thoughts/ impressions to a wider audience.
    So, my question to you is: What advice would you give me in terms of starting a blog— What should I do—in terms of setting it up? ( I am not on Instagram, etc. Mainly just FB.) Thank you!

    1. I think this would be a great question to answer in a blog post, so watch for it, and feel free to remind me if it hasn't appeared in a month or two.

  4. As a missionary I have been known to duck into corners in grocery stores and linger on the other side of book displays, just to avoid meeting a distant acquaintance or someone that might recognize me when on furlough. I love reconnecting with people but I also desperately want to be normal and not gushed over. So I chuckled over your post. It's a little different then what I face and yet the same.

    1. I laughed at this but also felt for you!

  5. This is so good, Dorcas, and very helpful, l think. I have never met you, but I LOVE your books. I have also listened to a CD of you speaking at a ladies’ conference and really connected with you. I also enjoy writing (especially letters) and took a college creative writing class this past winter. I hope we meet soon…please post and ladies conferences at which you will be speaking.

    1. Thank you, Anne. I'm glad you're pursuing your interest/gift of writing. I don't have any more conferences coming up this year.

  6. I’m a Mennonite living in PA and I have read several of your books and when I came to your book signing I was mostly ignored. I have met several other Mennonite writers/YouTubers and barely given the time of day. It’s disappointing . I’m guessing you meet all kinds but don’t feel like I was being obnoxious. Ha

    1. I am sad that this was your experience. I'm sure you were not being obnoxious.

  7. As a work away from home single I had to comment about the lady who was always only asked about her job. Same, same. As a bookkeeper its hard to give a very detailed answer. Oh yes, the best part of my day was finding the $9 the bank balance was off when reconciling the bank statement. Or I had to hold back from mailing out a few checks today because not enough money came in. Or today one plus one was two again. I do love my job, it's just nice and boring and not very "talkable". But than I can't talk about my children either so (where is that shrug emoji at?).

  8. I can relate— both to being awed by being in the same room as a semi-famous person and by being asked what I am writing, and when will I write book two? I love the encouragement to treat everyone as a person. A human being who is whole and has a life. Complete life. Not just one spot or side. May we all step up to the challenge to make friends, not just assumptions.