Everyone’s A Critic

(This essay is adapted from a column I wrote a few years ago.)

The very nature of the relationship between a writer and her readers has changed dramatically over the past two decades. When I used to write a regular column for newspapers and magazines, people would actually have to write a letter to the editor, and mail it. Now all they have to do is type a few words into a computer. Suddenly everyone is a critic.

My former editors liked it when they got letters, because demographically speaking, each letter represented so many thousand readers. I doubt whether editors feel that way about email.

I used to keep a letter file, the good ones and the bad. One of my favorites is this one: “Dear Mlle. Stevenson: Magnificent! Thank you! Your editorial dated (…) is so enjoyable that I made copies for my office. And I will be looking forward to your next presentation. You are to be warmly complimented on your originality, cleverness, and humor. You exhibit a rare soul of freedom of expression and thought. Continue, that you may never become another faceless robot in society.”

Gee, I couldn’t have said it better myself… Continue reading


I think that what makes me a writer is that I simultaneously want to know secret worlds, yet can’t know, so I make something up. I am always looking for answers to why life is the way it is, not only by imagining what goes on in those other lives, but by reading.

As a young reader, books showed me a vast, colorful, limitless world. A world that looked totally different than the one I happened to inhabit as a child growing up in a big family in the small brewery town of Golden, Colorado. There was nothing in those books that indicated to me that that vast, colorful world was off limits to me, an ordinary girl. The stacks and piles of literature I read – Great Expectations, The Last of the Mohicans, every single Nancy Drew book, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Cheaper by the Dozen, Perry Mason mysteries, Indian captive narratives, Alfred Hitchcock mysteries, The Grapes of Wrath, The Good Earth – all of those and mountains more, I devoured, barely finishing one before starting the next.

In fact, I am worse now as an adult. Now I often do not finish one book before starting the next. Now I have stacks everywhere, and I am often reading five books at once. (Unless it is a new collection of stories by Alice Munro or Annie Proulx or Richard Bausch or James Salter or Richard Ford. Those I usually gobble down in one prolonged, heavenly sitting.)

Although I do favor fiction by contemporary women authors, I often go back to The Early Stories (1953-1975) by John Updike. Reading his short stories written throughout the decades of the fifties, sixties, seventies is like traveling back to those times in a time capsule and seeing life peeled open and revealed in all of its beauty and its heartbreak. I marvel and re-read. How does he make writing seem so precise and effortless at the same time?

I wrote my first short story when I was fifteen years old. I was working the register at what was then called the “five-and-dime” when suddenly I had an idea for a story. This idea (I couldn’t tell you for the life of me now what it was), filled me with such a sense of joyful purpose that I scribbled down several paragraphs on a brown paper bag in between ringing up purchases. When I got home from work I wrote my story, a story that no longer exists except that it gave me my first sense of purpose, my first real dream, other than meeting and marrying Paul McCartney.

Because of this newfound passion for writing, I became co-editor of my high school newspaper, the Golden Trident, for two years. And I continued to read. I remember in college staying up all night reading two books: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin and The Shining by Stephen King. Pure storytelling bliss. And I was in college, so I could sleep all the next day…

During the next several years during which I was a waitress (I seemed to specialize in restaurants that served pie), and a fitness instructor (a job that counteracted the pie), my dream of writing – of being a writer – stayed on the back burner. I still frequented the library though. No matter where I lived, and I moved a lot during my twenties, one of the first things I would do was find the library and get a library card. No matter where you live, or what kind of crummy job you have, you can always go to the library and leave with a stack of treasures to take your mind somewhere else.

Little Known Horrors of the DIY Book Signing

(You can read a “companion” to this essay, a humor piece about book signings from 1/16/17.)

I was at a Barnes & Noble recently, and I saw that there were folding chairs set up for an author reading and signing that evening. It was an author I had never heard of, nor had I heard of her book. Nor did anything about the signage promoting the event make me want to hang around.

Then I felt bad. Who was I to judge? Then I had a flashback to book signings of my own, and felt a mixture of pity for the author, mixed with a bit of nostalgia, and maybe even a little envy. This author had birthed a book! And she was putting herself out here in the cold, uncaring world of the mall bookstore. Continue reading

Searching for the Elusive Beanie Baby

(This was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on 4/18/97. See also my 11/19/16 essay about trying to find Wembley Fraggle for my son for Christmas one year.)

I hate to admit this, but I will risk the exposure and ridicule. I recently stood in line for twenty minutes at a McDonald’s just so I could get a Teenie Beanie Baby (I got Patti, the purple platypus).

It was dinnertime and my kids did need to eat, so theoretically I had an excuse to be there.
I ignored the drive-through window because there were at least ten cars backed out into the street. And for some reason the parking lot was really full too.

When I got inside I realized why. There were scores of us – moms and dads of all races, ages, and walks of life – there on a mission. One thing united us, you could call it a kinship of sorts. People talked to each other in line, people joked from one line to the next about why they were there, all the while glancing nervously toward the counter. What if they run out? Continue reading