Asking for advice is hard because accepting reality is hard

Recently someone in my writing class hired a lawyer to tell me she wants a refund for the class. The lawyer sent an email to me requesting $25,000 in damages for his client. I sent this email in response:

Dear Sir.

I don’t give refunds for the class. I do not say anywhere that I give refunds.

It’s not against the law for me to have a student who didn’t like the class. This is a 12-month class. There is no law that says Lucy has to receive everything in the first two months. I have not broken any laws.

There are 85 people in the course and Lucy is the only person complaining. I wonder why that is? Do you have any ideas?

It’s hard to imagine that everyone else is in the course is a total idiot and Lucy is the sole genius who sees the true evils of my course. Actually, if you believe Lucy is whining about something more than her hurt feelings, maybe you should petition to make this a class-action lawsuit. Then you could sue me for $25 million.

I suggest an alternative interpretation: Lucy only feels powerful when she has a lawyer write a letter. I know the type. My dad was a lawyer. Although he would never have dealt with someone who was bothering to sue for a $1700 course.

One thing I can tell you is that while Lucy’s writing is terrible and unpublishable, the letter from you is a masterpiece. I can see the headline now: Student sues teacher for $25,000 because a teacher said her writing was awful!!!


Penelope Trunk

John Oliver had a great episode on SLAPP lawsuits, which are lawsuits intended to stifle criticism. I have wide experience with the type of lawsuit where someone who has a lot of money threatens to sue me to teach me a lesson. The lesson is usually that you can work with a complete asshole or you can work with someone who is really rich, but if you work with a complete asshole who is rich they will sue you.

I think the real reason for suing me over the writing course is that writing is really difficult. To be a good writer you have to read a lot and write a lot. Every good writer has spent a lot of time writing terribly. That’s how you get better. I know a lot about this because I have a stack of 50 journals that I wrote when I was a kid, and the only people who can stand reading them are me and my brother.

I didn’t get good at writing until I had an editor who told me what was interesting, and I have relied on editors for most of my life. For example, this is a blog post I was going to throw out. My editor found it in my This Is Terrible folder, and he told me to publish it. The post did so well that McDonald’s sent me a reply.

Writing saved me so many times. But that’s a complicated statement because good writing promotes good health and bad writing reinforces confusion. For kids, good writing is writing that expresses their feelings because kids constantly feel like people don’t listen to them. If kids express themselves accurately in their writing, they have a stronger belief that people care about their wellbeing and their ideas.

For adults, good writing has to reach a higher bar to make a difference. For example, writing stories makes us more empathetic, but only if we portray realistic characters with identifiable motives. (Writing this way is a gift to the reader because reading stories also improves the reader’s empathy.) And writing about trauma promotes healing, but the story you write has to make a clear, linear sense; it’s the process of turning the traumatic memory into a coherent story that helps us heal.

Writing well is something that probably benefits us as much as exercising well does. But we talk a lot more about exercising because even exercising poorly is good for us. Like, even just walking a few times a week will improve your physical and mental health. Whereas writing poorly is frustrating and demoralizing to the point that you might even want to hire a lawyer to take down your writing teacher.

Anything you want to be really good at, you’ll have a better chance to succeed if you have help. I learned that when one of my investors taught me to write a demand for a jury trial. He said, “No one would risk a courtroom spectacle with a wild card like you.” That was hard to hear. But I have definitely gotten better at writing to lawyers about frivolous accusations; after all, the key to getting better at any type of writing is to read a lot and write a lot.

Asking for help is hard because it means having to hear the truth: that you’re a whiner, or a wild card, or the only person who will read your writing is your brother. I love my writing course because it’s inspiring to be around people doing something difficult. But also, it’s inspiring to be around people who can receive tough feedback and keep going.

28 replies
  1. miranda
    miranda says:

    This is so true and such a good reminder. Thanks Penelope to remind us to keep going.

    • Ellen
      Ellen says:

      I had a consult and Penelope told me I wasn’t an alcoholic (I’m 3 yrs sober) and I was a liar. She also told me I “sounded crazy”. She’s just not a healthy person.

      • Jules the First
        Jules the First says:

        And yet you’re still here, reading her blog?!

        Personally, I had a call with Penelope four years ago which I thought at the time was bullshit and a waste of money. She told me I was in the wrong job because they would never value my contributions properly, that I needed stability in my life so I should buy a house and find a long-term loving relationship, and that I should pull my finger out and get on with having babies because dithering wasn’t helping anyone, least of all me. I chalked it up to experience (gotta kiss a few frogs) and moved on.

        Six months later, the opportunity to buy a house fell in my lap. P was right. I feel more grounded and stable. A year after that, I moved jobs. I’m working harder (though not longer) than I have in years, but I’m appreciated and supported and well-paid and I couldn’t be happier. P was right.

        A year ago, I met the love of my life, by accident, doing a favour for an acquaintance. Sure, she has four legs and likes to sleep in her own shit (which is probably not what P had in mind), but she loves me absolutely and unconditionally and she’s great at introducing me to new humans, and it turns out I needed all that in my life.
        And finally, when coronavirus hit and we all stayed home, the thing that crystallised is that I want a kid. Not because I want a baby to cuddle but because I want to meet whoever that little person is going to become and it terrifies me that by dithering for four years I might have missed my chance.

        So thanks, Penelope, for your excellent advice…you were wise and blunt and witty and I was argumentative and weepy, but you were right and it’s been incredibly helpful to have your little list sitting quietly in the back of my mind for the last few years. Keep saying all the things we’re not ready to hear.

      • Maria Cameron
        Maria Cameron says:

        Funny, I am sure Penelope would agree that she is not healthy. But that does not explain whether you are a liar or not!!

      • Shannon Graham
        Shannon Graham says:

        Penelope’s not right about everything and she isn’t tactful at all, but her perspective usually has a lot of truth in it.

        Trying to discredit her as “not a healthy person” says more about you than her though.

        • Mysticaltyger
          Mysticaltyger says:

          Agreed. Sometimes, she’s just really, really off. But more often than not, she’s spot on and not tactful about it. But our society has too many snowflakes these days, so I see Penelope’s bluntness as a refreshing antidote to those who expect everyone to walk around on eggshells and say everything in just the right way. Penelope is blunt, but she’s not mean. It’s a time the snowflakes of the world understand the difference.

  2. Bob
    Bob says:

    If her so-called “damages” are about emotional distress, putting “Lucy’s writing is terrible and unpublishable” in writing to her attorney may not have been the best idea.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      I wonder how someone so fragile will feel about being mocked by strangers on a blog.

      But then why would someone who doesn’t like to feel ridiculous do ridiculous things like sue a writing teacher for criticizing her? Splain that, Lucy.

      • Peneope Trunk
        Peneope Trunk says:

        To be clear, I disguised her in this post. I realize she’s very fragile, and I do have a heart.


  3. harris497
    harris497 says:

    Thank you for turning your “trial” into a teaching moment for us.
    Be careful though, someone who will hire/pay a lawyer is really incensed and needs to be carefully handled.

  4. Carol
    Carol says:

    The writer is obviously a friend. If she didn’t get her requested refund, she could have taken this to small claims court.
    “Damages”–that’s funny.
    I once received a threatening letter from a lawyer for something minor. I suspected the lawyer was actually a friend of the guy. So I emailed back and copied my email to the principals of the firm for which the lawyer worked.
    Suddenly, the issue was no longer an issue.
    I imagine the owners of the firm were not impressed that their employee was throwing around the name of their firm for unauthorized activity.
    That said, know that there is a glut of lawyers in NY, and many are out of work (acc. to a NY lawyer friend).
    Her friend the lawyer obviously doesn’t read your blog to know how broke you say you are.

  5. Chang
    Chang says:

    Show us the lawyer’s letter – redacted if you wish, unredacted if you feel you are able to. : )

    Chang from Canada.

  6. christy
    christy says:

    So does this mean you have a pre-paid opening in your writing class? Kidding. Mostly. Maybe.

  7. Shelley
    Shelley says:

    I look at this as “writing coaching “ the coach and “trainer” has to observe where one is weak and work on where we need to improve. I have had coaching( tennis) and so have my kids- for sports, writing and math tutors… it’s outrageous that the student would not participate and allow the coach to help them along!! It’s a crazy world out there for sure!!

    We have a rotten neighbor on our street who often sends attorney letters for small infractions!! Thru other friends we have been told that they know he’s crazy at the law firm- but just go along with it- because he is so difficult! Lol!!

  8. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    When you hire a coach or a trainer you should expect them to tell you some hard messages. The trick is finding the coach or trainer whose natural style communicates it in a way you can really hear it.

  9. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    Speaking of lawyers, I once at a party asked a lawyer’s husband why lawyers make so much money, because I knew nobody gets something for nothing. What’s the catch? He proceeded to tell me all sorts of downsides to being a lawyer, including, I guess, that so many are unemployed. I forget the details of that night, but I remember thinking that no, I don’t want to be a lawyer.

  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Some lessons are harder to accept than others. Some lessons are more costly than others. However, they’re all lessons, that’s life, and if you’re smart you won’t have to repeat the same lesson. I have to wonder how much thought and research was done by this person before they decided to enroll in your writing class. Evidently, not enough. Otherwise, they would have discovered without much effort that improving writing skills of your students is more important to you and them than ‘hurt feelings’. That’s not to say hurting someone’s feelings is a method employed by you to improve their writing but rather pointing out inadequacies of their writing may hurt their feelings in the process. In fact, it’s a disservice and waste of time for both of you if you’re not making the effort to point out what they’re doing correctly and incorrectly and they’re not making the effort to improve their writing. I think it’s funny you referred the letter written by the lawyer as a masterpiece. I have to wonder how much it cost to have that letter written and sent. This person could be out more money than the cost of your course. As a side note, I enjoyed the John Oliver video. He is funny and this one is very good. I just watched another one of his recent videos titled ‘Sheriffs’ (thanks to algorithms that bless us with suggestions) and that’s funny as well.

  11. Mysticaltyger
    Mysticaltyger says:

    You’re at your best, Penelope, when you remind people–and push people–to face hard truths!

  12. Kimberly Rotter
    Kimberly Rotter says:

    I love it when someone I respect throws something unpalatable about me at me. Something like “you’re a bad writer,” “you’re a control freak,” “you perpetuate institutionalized racism,”: or “you’re a helicopter parent.” I absolutely do not love the message but I appreciate the opportunity to wonder what that person sees to make her/him think it’s true. Has to be said with honorable motives, though. I would consider teacher-to-student an appropriate setting for harsh realities.

  13. Sam
    Sam says:

    Sometimes things are hard and they need to be done regardless of the consequences. Thanks for writing this. :)

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