The Writing Life: How to Be a Famous Author

On Living the Writing Life

An angel saved me at the coffee shop the other day. Not physically—not with wings, harp strings, or a tunnel of light. No.

It started with a rude barista. I’d been talking with people, signing books after a reading. I knew it was near closing time but had lost sight of the clock. Seemingly out of nowhere, a young woman burst into our little corner, exclaiming, “It’s really exciting and all that you have a book, but we closed ten minutes ago and WE want to go home!”

Stunned by the sudden scolding, we filed out onto the winter sidewalk while the barista and her friends remained inside, chatting.

The audacity! I was probably old enough to be her mother, and, you know, this reading brought plenty of business to the shop. And her condescending tone toward the book? What had she published lately?

Then an angel descended, held me close in spirals of butter, sugar, and glaze—saved me from scowling, huffing, and giving the barista a piece of my mind.

Raymond Carver’s ending image in his short story, “A Small, Good, Thing,” has guarded me many times over. In the story, a young mother orders a cake for her son’s birthday. The son gets hit by a car, and in the ensuing hospital vigils and eventual mourning, the cake, of course, is forgotten. Assuming he has been stiffed, the baker calls the couple’s house repeatedly, harassing them for their negligence. Finally, the couple confronts the baker, and what begins as an angry exchange transforms into a night of human connection as he serves them roll after roll fresh from his oven.

Since reading that story years ago, I have visualized the rolls when encountering tension with a stranger. The baker had no idea what the family had been through; likewise, what had the barista gone through that day? Was her mother just diagnosed with cancer? Was she anticipating a hard conversation with her estranged boyfriend that night? Was she failing calculus?

How to Be a Famous Author

Other images have gotten me through different challenges. As a poet, I sometimes find myself pitying my state of obscurity as an artist. Will my work last? Will anyone read me? Does it matter? Then I think of the images from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Famous”:

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and is not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

Images of boots and buttonholes have saved me many times, from dwelling on fame and success. I am already famous. I am famous to my husband, my children, my best friend. When I begin to compare myself to other writers, the angel swoops—no, squeaks and turns—into my consciousness like a pulley. Lonely? I am visited by the geese from Mary Oliver’s poems. Scared? The splinter lovingly removed by a father in Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift.” Filled with malaise? Hopkins’ brindled cows and shook foil.

I write these kinds of powerful poem and story quotes down. I keep them, draw them, put them with photos on Pinterest. Angels abound.

Photo by Fiddle Oak, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan, author of A Thousand Vessels.


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  1. says

    Thanks, Tania, for this beautiful reflection.

    I love that Raymond Carver story, too, and will now carry with me this powerful image of sharing rolls with The Rude Stranger in place of my anger.

    It reminds me of a favorite saying by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (a man who, like Carver, also suffered more than the ordinary share of loss & sorrow):

    “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

    Communion instead of Division–a Good Friday thought.

    Mille Grazie!

  2. says

    Tania, I have not had the pleasure of reading your book yet, and I have only heard of Naomi via Poets and Writers….but these last lines from “Famous”……..

    famous “because it never forgot what it could do,”
    reminds me God only made one of each of us. We need to remember to be faithful with what only WE can do.

    All the pieces of the stained glass,
    making one beautiful window for the world.

  3. says

    I love Naomi Shihab Nye, but I didn’t know that poem. Thank you!

    I like your ideas about the idea of famous. This morning I met with two men to promote their birding festival. If I write a good article, I will be famous to them. If I fail, I will be infamous. Either way, the article will have a short shelf life in the public eye.

  4. says

    An entire post dedicated to me, right? My heart needed this so bad today – especially after I spent a good deal of morning time sitting on the concrete floor of our supposed closet bawling, until my son came in, patted me on the back, and asked me to tie his snowboarding boot laces.

    Thank you for this blessing, over and again.

  5. Karen McKeever says

    Bless you, Tania, for sharing this. You not only write beautiful poems, but meaningful reflections, too. This was just what I needed!

  6. says

    Tania is at AWP representing Every Day Poems (and doing other stuff too, I’m sure :). I know she’s very busy, so she might not come by quite yet. But I also know she will cherish these comments. Hi, Tania! :)

  7. says

    Okay. This made me smile. I just heard from Tania that she’s getting the comments by email, but the wifi at her location is not working well. So she can’t access the site to respond.

    She wants me to tell you that she loves all these comments, and she can’t wait to respond when she gets back from AWP! :)

  8. says

    Poets pin images to the heart. And anything pinned to the heart quickly becomes sacred. Tania, your beautiful words — even the “spirals of butter, sugar, and glaze” speak to me of deep responsibility. I pin images to feed myself. Or I pin images to feed others. I know what I want to do.

    Today, you managed to feed me with two sides of glassy window. The image of a barista. But mostly of myself.

  9. says

    Oh, I wish I could reply to each of you individually! Not sure how to navigate all of this on my tiny phone. Wifi is not working on my iPad on this trip. Grr. I need to share some hot cinnamon rolls with the evil router. :) I must say these are very thoughtful and moving comments. I’ve never seen such generous and heartfelt words on a post! I am so delighted to enter this community. You are all famous to me today.

  10. says

    Hi Tania,

    I just wanted to add that when I posted the link to this post on Facebook, six people responded with gratitude for your words (that’s not counting the likes :) So you’re clearly onto something here. The transformative power of words and stories, their ability to enable us to empathize, struck many a chord.

  11. Tania Runyan says

    Kimberlee, I am so grateful for your spreading the word! I just got back from the AWP conference. Quite a bit of fun and joy there, but also some of the expected politics, “po-biz,” jostling for position. Yes, there were 10,000 human beings present–it can’t be helped! But it just now struck me that during those three days at a conference about literature, I didn’t take one moment to be silent with a poem, to make it about the transformative power of words. A reminder to myself to not lose sight of why we do all of this!

  12. Diane says


    Thank you.
    This reminded me of a time many years ago when I suffered from devasting clinical depression and as a result I was often frightened, angry and exceedingly sad. I sometimes found myself being the kind of mother I once condemned with contempt as “bad”, “selfish” and “cruel”. After I began to recover, whenever I would catch myself overhearing or seeing or experience the anger, impatience or rudeness of another I was reminded of the many times that I felt the judgment of others who had little idea that every day, all day, I struggled with a desire to kill myself and often found it nearly impossible not to feel overwhelmed with the responsibility I had for my children whom I was terrified I was going to fail. I think this line from Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness” sums it up: “Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth.” None of us wants to be intolerant or hurtful, we just can not find a better way to cope sometimes.

  13. says

    Tania, I read this a couple days ago, and have returned a couple of times. I have been thinking about obscurity lately, and was trying to make some beauty out of it. I once complained to a friend that writing, and especially blogging, can feel so “disposable.” Which is another kind of obscurity, right? I don’t know what it is about “being famous” that drives many writers/poets to madness. Coming across this piece just brought it together so nicely – it takes things down a couple notches; tightens the lens; gives a better perspective.

    And angels are always a bonus.

    So, thanks.

  14. Tania Runyan says

    Diane, thank you so much for sharing this with us. As you so honestly and generously shared, it often takes dark times for us to fully understand how to empathize with others. How judgmental I was of other parents until I faced my own major parenting challenges. Now when I see a kid throwing a tantrum in the store, I no longer condemn the parent but say a special prayer of blessing for her.

  15. Tania Runyan says

    Bradley, I have been driven to madness in this! Ironically, the ones who have helped me get through these times, like Carver and Nye, are pretty famous themselves! My sanity basically comes down to accepting the fact that obscurity will not only be inevitable for the vast majority of us but will in itself become a spiritual gift that makes us more human and in touch with what matters.

  16. says

    Tania I have always loved Carver’s “A Small, Good, Thing.” Thank you for this eloquent reminder and for sharing Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem – may I not too soon forget that we can all be someone’s angel.

  17. Tania Runyan says

    Thank you, Sima! I do so easily forget sometimes. So glad I have my literary angels to help me!

    • Tania Runyan says

      Gillian, thank you so much. It’s a joy getting a comment on a post almost a year and a half out. A reminder that our words matter.

  18. says

    I like you, Tania Runyan. My wee little inner poet, scared to come out of hiding, told me this morning that she thinks you’re famous to the ones like her, who want to feel brave on the outside.

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