The first book I ever bought about how to be a writer was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I still have it, and I just looked inside the title page: it is a first edition. So I was lucky, because really you probably don’t need any other book on writing, ever, except for that book. I am rereading it yet again, and it’s as though she’s right there, speaking only to me, telling me just what I need to know right now, just like all the other times I’ve read it.
So, if somebody writes a book like that, even if it is non-fiction, it’s natural to get this urge to say thank you. And what that looks like for me is writing hundreds of unfinished letters inside my head, and rehearsing what I’d say if I ever met the author, revising it over and over, to try to convey how much her book has meant to me. And believing that if I could just say thank you that I would feel relief from this terrible debt of gratitude and be able to accept the gift of her book and go on with my life.
But here’s the thing: I met Anne Lamott last spring, and I got to talk to her twice: once just passing by in the bookstore where she was teaching, and once after I’d waited in line for 45 minutes to get her book signed. (Not the first edition! Can you believe I couldn’t find it? More on this another day.) And both times, I tried to say thank you. I did say, “Thank you.” I said, “Your book changed my life.” I said, “I got your book when it first came out.” I said, “I’ve reread it many times, and it always makes a difference for me.” I said the right things the first time, but I still felt the need to say thank you. I said them again the second time, but I still felt the need to say thank you. She was gracious and kind both times, but Anne Lamott is wise, and I got the feeling that maybe she knew I was attempting something futile. I know I did the right thing to try, but I left feeling worse than ever, because there was no way I could convey, even to the author, my experience of her book and how much it has meant to me. There was no way I could make her experience what I experience when I read her book, no way to make her feel the love she transmitted to me through her words. She wrote it; she is herself. She can’t read it as me. She can’t feel what I felt and experience how she changed me. I hope you understand what I mean, because I can’t say it any more ways.
So, while I was sitting outside the bookstore, bombed out on having totally failed to repay the debt of gratitude I felt I still owed, I thought of the title of this piece, and I realized the reason you can never say thank you. In order to repay your debt, you need the person to experience what you experienced. That is impossible, so you are out of luck.
Except that they did experience what you experienced. They read something else, by someone else, and they experienced it. And then they wrote the thing that passed that experience on to you. And therefore, the only way that you can ever repay this debt is by writing something that passes it on to the next person. And then maybe they will try to say thank you and fail. And you can never know if what you wrote succeeded, because even when people say thank you, they can never convey their experience, and you will never experience it back from your own work. You have to have faith that what you write could touch someone. You have to try. There is no guarantee. But you owe the debt already, so you must try. It is the only way you might ever get the chance to say thank you.