Letters to the editor

calling the people who hate me

As a part of my new job, I am reading and editing letters to the editor for the newspaper. It is a singular experience to have to read a letter calling you an idiot, then call the person who wrote it to verify their identity. Then, when that letter runs in the paper, your friends say, “Oh I saw that letter about you in the paper! That person is the worst!” And I say, “Sure, but I read that letter. Edited it. And talked to the person who wrote it.”

The reason we call people to verify their identities because we have a cap on how many letters a person can get published in the paper in a month. That cap is one. We tend to see the same letter writers over and over. So, the cap makes sense. The purpose of the call is to make sure they have a local address and are the person they are claiming to be. Recently, I called a woman who had written that I was the worst thing that happened to the Gazette since they started running Leonard Pitts column. She was very polite on the phone.

“Oh hi, Lyz!” she said. “Yes that was me! You have a good day.”

One man, who had written to say I was a baby murderer, told me in a very angry voice, “Yes, I did write that, what of it?” I explained why we called and told him to “be best!” and hung up. He immediately sent an email, “revoking permission” to publish his letter. And no one really cared, except the space needs words so sometimes we scrape the bottom of the barrel.

I don’t hate this part of the job. In fact, I like it. I ask to call up the letter writers who hate me. I think a lot about my cheery voice, “Hello, this is Lyz Lenz calling from the Gazette” and how it must feel to have the person you hate so much that you’d write a letter, a hand-written letter, and spend money on a stamp, to mail it to a newspaper, in hopes that someone will publish it so everyone can know, how it feels to have that person call you on the phone. To say, “hi, how are you, we are gonna publish your letter!”

It’s a singular joy to force someone who can’t see you as a person, to see you.

Also, if you are not a subscriber, I wrote a huge newsletter about the Biden incident and if you want to read it, it’s a good one.

And if you remember, I promised October would be my month of crying and sleeping. Well, I’m right on track!

If you live in Iowa, you should definitely come see me talk to Josh Gondelman about his new book!!

If you don’t live in Iowa, you should come see me at the Texas Book Festival. That link has links to further information about where I will be.

If you don’t live in any place, too bad. I’m mostly done with travel for God Land (unless someone wants to pay me to come somewhere, but I and my publisher are out of money). But I’ll be on the road again NEXT AUGUST, when my book Belabored comes out and I am pretty freaking sure, I’ll be announcing the cover and everything very soon. You know, once I finish my month of crying and sleeping.

Here is what I’ve been writing:

Things I’ve been thinking about lately:

When a mind actually changes

on Molly Ivins and local journalism

I joke a lot about the hate mail I get. And since beginning my new job as a columnist for my local paper (SUPPORT LOCAL JOURNALISM), I’ve gotten a lot more. It’s a different kind of hate mail. One that feels more intimate when coming from your neighbors. The people you could meet at the grocery store. Maybe they are your friends grandparents. One man who kept sending me emails titled “be careful” is a local businessman whose wife and I have over 30 mutual friends on Facebook.

My general rule for hate mail is this: only reply if you can say something funny.

So for example, when a man emailed me to say I’d never rise above writing for the paper, I said thanks for your feedback here is a link to my book.

Or the woman who wrote me a long email about how much she loved men and they were good and I was hurting them. To her, I replied, “are your arms tired from carrying the patriarchy all day?” Shit like that.

But with this new round of email it feels different. Especially since I have been writing about Planned Parenthood and abortion access. I so desperately want to make my state better for all people. Since then, a couple of people have written me to tell me about how I support murdering babies and did I know that Democrats want to abort babies outside of the womb? And its like, friends, no. No. NO! So to a few of these people I’ve replied sending articles and information saying, “Look this is a lie. It’s spin. You are believing it. This is the real fake news. Find better news outlets.”

And well, today I got this email from a 68 year old man.

I…look

This I think is the value of local journalism. This man is never going to read the New York Times on the regular. He’s not reading the Washington Post. But he does read his local paper. He subscribes. And for better or worse, he is my neighbor. This is where change happens.

This year has felt like a year of despair. If in previous years we were fighting, this year has felt like a year of hopelessness. Mass shooting after mass shooting. Complete inaction from our elected leaders. Even the ones we agree with. Our lives locked in a battle of “sick of protesting the same shit” over and over until we die or the earth is engulfed in flames. My friend, Sarah Weinman, told me to read Molly Ivins, the Texas columnist and I have been reading everything of hers in earnest. So many of her columns are prescient and could easily be written today.

It’s almost depressing. Not much has changed. But she kept on. She believed in her work and loved doing it. She loved the fight, even on days she lost. So many days it’s easy to feel like you lose. But today, I think something was won. Something small and something important.

Molly also wrote this:

So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.

Vivian Gornick Yells At Me

In Iowa City

Hello, in the time that I last emailed, I became a columnist for my local paper, wrote a million essays, worked on my book edits, moved into a new house, and I did it all and only cried twice. I think I’m just too tired to cry.

I look forward to October, a month of sleep and weeping.

Last Friday, I had an event at Prairie Lights in Iowa City. If you don’t know about Prairie Lights, let me tell you about Prairie Lights. It’s the independent bookstore in Iowa City. You know, that city, where the Writer’s Workshop is? That fabled place where writers pass through on their way to greatness or at least literary insufferability, which is sometimes the same thing.

Did I mention they rejected me three times? I’m not bitter. I would have rejected me too. And I still would reject me.

But so much of my early years in Iowa were spent going to readings at Prairie Lights. I’d usually go alone. Go early, get some coffee, read a book. Listen intently as Francine Prose or Joshua Ferris said things. I always felt like if they said the right thing a whole world would be opened up to me. That world of writing and writers I so desperately wanted to be a part of but couldn’t quite access. It felt like looking into a room I wanted to be in, but not able to find the door.

I only made one friend in all that time. She was a student and also felt like an outsider. She had read my writing online before she came to the Workshop and we met up a few times during her time here. Once she took me to the Foxhead afterwards. The Foxhead is the Workshop bar. It’s been written about in so many ways in so many stories. I wanted to go in, but you know, I didn’t know how.

One night, after a reading, she and I walked to the Foxhead. As we walked it felt like it was raining. It was one of those raw cold spring nights. The rain hit the pavement heavy, like it wanted to be snow.

“What the hell is this?” She asked.

I held my hand out as something splatted on my coat. Bird shit. It was bird shit. We were walking under a line of trees where birds had recently built their nests and shit was raining from the trees. We screamed and ran into the Foxhead.

I sometimes wonder if that actually happened. I’ve walked down that path so many times since and I’ve seen shit on the pavement, but have never since seen it fall.

A few years ago, Vivian Gornick was teaching at Iowa. It was 2015. I had two kids then—a four year old and a two year old. I rushed over to the reading after my ex came home late. The kids cried when I left. My two year-old clung to me leaving sticky residue. “It’s just a couple hours!” I promised my frowning then-spouse. “It’s Vivian Gornick! I have to hear her!”

What I said meant nothing to him. But I went anyway, showing up late, sticky, with diapers falling out of my purse. I snuck in the back of the lecture hall where she was giving a reading. I had to sit on the floor. Everyone seemed to stare at me as I tried to slink in.

I had read everything she wrote by then. Studied her words and her style. I had even done this thing where I’d typed out passages from her books into a Word document so I could feel the rhythm of her sentences. I particularly loved how she transitioned from scene to thought to scene. The material and the immaterial woven so perfectly together.

When the Q/A time began, I was ready with a question.

“Can you talk to me about how you think about your transitions between scene and thought?” I asked

“You aren’t a student,” she said. “If you were, you’d know this already.”

I felt my skin prickle. I had come all this way. Done so much work. She had been teaching here and this was one of the few public events she was doing. No, I wasn’t a student, but I still wanted answers.

“I am not a student, so I don’t know. Which was why I asked,” I said.

The room felt very uncomfortable.

“Just read my work,” she replied.

I slunk down against the wall. A container of wipes fell out along with a book. I grabbed them both. And when no one was looking, I left.

Later, I’d read an interview with her about how she hated teaching at Iowa but she’d done it for the money. She was an octogenarian and tired, I don’t know if I entirely blame her for snapping. But there are few times in my life, I’ve ever felt more humiliated.

Last year, I was at George’s, another bar fabled in Iowa City. A little drunk and with friends and others all writer types, I brought up the time Vivian Gornick yelled at me.

“Oh I remember that,” said a woman. “I was there. We all felt bad for you.”

So last Friday, I gave a reading and had a conversation with Kerry Howley, who is one of the best writers of non-fiction in the world. It was amazing. There were so many people, I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe that people actually come out to see me. And I didn’t yell at anyone. Except that one guy…he deserved it.

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