An Ode to Acknowledgements
Sarah Wheeler on the Joy of Learning About the Village Behind a Book
I have heard that some people turn to the last page of a book before they begin reading, in order to assure themselves that everything turns out well in the end. I myself can handle an uncertain outcome, but I cannot begin a book without first reading the acknowledgements.
The acknowledgements are where you find juicy, personal tidbits. In The Sentence, Louise Erdrich spends the greater part of a page thanking a dictionary she received as the prize for a high-school essay contest. In the acknowledgments to Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger, we learn that the author is a member of a women’s group, which is not surprising, but nonetheless fun to visualize. Marlon James won’t let his mother read two of the pages in his book Black Leopard, Red Wolf. A pair of my favorite authors, Colson Whitehead and Sam Anderson, though quite different in style, both have children named Beckett.
The acknowledgements can also be where you learn about the temperament of your author, which is sometimes unexpectedly different from that of your narrator. I’ve encountered comedic authors whose acknowledgements are decidedly deadpan, and read whole novels without a hint of humor, only to giggle through their authors’ irreverent thanks. David Foster Wallace’s writing was digressive, but he kept his acknowledgements factual and to the point, or forewent them altogether.
Sometimes the acknowledgements are their own works of art. “I blame all of you. Writing this book has been an exercise in sustained suffering,” writes the academic Brendan Pietsch in the acknowledgements for his book Dispensational Modernism. “The casual reader may, perhaps, exempt herself from excessive guilt, but for those of you who have played the larger role in prolonging my agonies with your encouragement and support, well… you know who you are, and you owe me.”
But I love the acknowledgements most when they are straightforward, when all they do is reveal to us the village behind a book, or what my father refers to, in the acknowledgements of one of his books, as “the unified web of giving and receiving” involved in creating a bound, coherent, lengthy piece of writing.
If authors are rock stars, which in my mind they are, the acknowledgements are the part of the concert where they take a moment to shout out the names of the band members. “My tireless agent, Candice, on the drums! My husband of 20 years, Bill, on bass! The sweet barista at the coffee shop in Pittsburgh where most of this book was penned, whose name I can never remember, on keyboards!”
To readers, how a book came to be is often shrouded in mystery. The acknowledgements tear down the fourth wall. There is not an acknowledgement to be found in all of Rachel Cusks’ Outline Trilogy, books that completely overhauled my experience of motherhood and of the English language. This adds to the mystical sensation that the words in these pages were handed down to us by some form of divination. But I find myself dying to know the name of the editorial assistant who gently nudged Cusk when she fell into a rut, the friend who said something akin to “you are not garbage, and you must write this.”
A month before the pandemic, I started what I envisioned as a trade-based newsletter on education, only to find classrooms as we know it completely upended, and myself trapped in a 1200-square-foot apartment with two small children. All of a sudden, I understood that if I didn’t write about what was happening to me, I would die. And more than that, I needed others to read my words to make them true.
I staged a radical takeover of my own blog, urgently typing in my parked car and while my own mother read my children The Stupids over Zoom, and, of course, in what has now become a totem of pandemic era sanctuary, the bathroom. I began pitching my ideas to real-live publications, and though most were rejected or perpetually unanswered, others were not. I tentatively started referring to myself, my voice going up at the end of the phrase like an Australian, as a writer?
Becoming a writer later in life means, for better or worse, knowing when you are not, in fact, brilliant. It means a steep on-ramp to developing craft and work ethic, and being deeply aware of how much catching up you have to do. I am also quickly discovering that this is a particularly difficult moment to begin a writing career. It’s not easy to find your sea legs in the face of massive cutbacks, layoffs, and visions of removing humans from the writing process altogether.
Dreaming of someday writing a book but having no idea where to start is also disorienting, but acknowledgements comfort me by revealing how the sausage gets made. Rachel Yoder attributes much of the beginnings of Nightbitch to Jami Attenberg’s #1000daysofsummer, a free online writing challenge which I happened to have signed up for last year, though I never got around to the actual writing.
It is audacious, I know, to believe I could build something as incredible as Yoder did out of a few months of putting my butt in a chair with a bunch of virtual strangers, but this mention humbles Yoder, and it suggests something indisputable: this book was just a seed once; even brilliance starts from nothing.When authors thank those who came before them, people they have never met who informed or inspired them, I get all choked up inside.
In August 2020, I gathered a small group of women, tied loosely together by a drive to create art, and we began meeting every Wednesday over Zoom. This group, which we called “Ladies Making Shit,” became my web, my sausage factory. They took me seriously. They read my pitches. They turned my fear of rejection into silly art projects, lauding me for being at the top of our “Putting Yourself Out There” leaderboard. If they were worthy of making shit, whether said shit was applauded on a large scale, or simply by the five of us via a GIF of Russell Westbrook slam-dunking, I must be worthy too.
In By The Book, Jasmine Guillory, who herself had an entire career as a lawyer before she started writing, has her protagonist encourage a new author with the words “if you write, you’re a writer” (and credits a friend for this quote in her acknowledgments). This line gives me solace, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I have learned that if you write, and if even a small handful of generous and wise and ideally goofy people believe you are a writer, you’re a writer.
When authors thank those who came before them, people they have never met who informed or inspired them, I get all choked up inside. In Ali Smith’s Autumn, she calls out a 1964 Vogue article by a writer I’ve never heard of named Nell Dunn. Imagine writing a magazine article and, 50 years later, that article inspiring another writer to make something entirely different, to do what Austin Kleon would call “stealing like an artist,” one writer speaking to another “on a kind of a telephone line through time,” as the Indigo Girls croon in their own ode to the writer Virginia Woolf.
Another pair of writer friends, Courtney and Garrett, one who had recently come to writing from the world of education, like I had, and one who had landed a big book deal in her 20s, became my last-minute editor pool. Together, we gave credence to the small moments as well, the little encouragements required to sustain faith in our work. When Garrett sold his first book, we rejoiced, particularly when he texted: “The woman who cuts my hair tells me that she thinks my book will be great.”
When Courtney’s memoir was published, friends asked, “Are you in it?” In a way, though not in the sense they meant, I was. All the way at the back, in the best part, acknowledged for my hours of listening and encouragement. When the internet was ablaze with the tale of two “bad art friends,” Garrett sent us mugs with the words “World’s Greatest Art Friends” printed on them. I drank coffee while I drafted a book proposal, trying to mimic the confidence he had in me for myself and remembering that even Marlon James has to pitch sometimes.Dreaming of someday writing a book but having no idea where to start is also disorienting, but acknowledgements comfort me by revealing how the sausage gets made.
In The Known World, one of my favorite books of all time, ever, Edward P. Jones thanks his editor “who may well have believed from the first word,” and his agent, “who may well have believed before the first word.” The imagination it must have taken not only to write this book, but to have the faith that someone could actually pull it off, must, indeed, have been great, even for those who were familiar with Jones’s genius. To think of Jones, this behemoth of a writer, also needing good art friends is an almost unbearable joy.
When I got my own first book deal a year ago, I was ecstatic. When I shared the news with others, I felt a new authority. If you write a book, I reasoned, then it is indisputable that you are a writer. And, I immediately began envisioning my acknowledgements section, this grand container for memorializing my many cheerleaders. Just thinking about it filled me with pride and delight.
When the deal unexpectedly fell through, I was devastated. I began to slip back into my old impostor narrative. But it turned out that my cheerleaders showed up in defeat as well; sending me bouquets of flowers, one with a card that read “Fuck em, we love you.”
The village I’d assembled reflected something back to me that couldn’t be rattled by a single disappointment. I had felt like I would never write again, but of course, I did. Mostly because the threat of death in the absence of creativity still feels quite real. But also because my friends assured me that I still have many things to say, and at least a few readers who can’t wait to hear them. For that, I am thankful.