The Story Behind “Mean Mail” by Katrina Kenison

KKenison-HeadshotToday’s post is written by Katrina Kenison, whose personal essay “Mean Mail” we published as a feature in our Fall 2013 issue.

The Story Behind “Mean Mail”

by Katrina Kenison

It didn’t really occur to me four years ago, when my son Henry helped me set up a simple website just before my memoir The Gift of an Ordinary Day was published, that people who read my book might actually want to write to me.

My publisher had suggested I start a blog and, eager to do my part, I agreed. Henry showed me how to navigate my way around Squarespace, we made a contact link, and on publication day, which also happened to be Labor Day, I posted a short essay about watching a small-town parade, coming home, and cooking dinner.

When the first email from a reader showed up in my in-box later that same night, I was stunned. I had a fan. My book had been in the stores for all of twenty-four hours and a kindred spirit from California was writing to me in New Hampshire to say, “I’m pretty sure if we lived next door to each other we’d be friends.”

Tracy and I did become friends. She has become my self-appointed west coast publicist, has hosted me several times at her home, was the first reader of the galley of my latest book, and traveled across the country last year to spend the night with me in New Hampshire.

Since that first piece of reader email, I’ve received several thousand heartfelt, personal letters through my website. I am honored, humbled, and often deeply moved by the stories readers share with me. What could be more rewarding for a writer than knowing your work has touched another human soul?

And yet, even love has its dark side. Not long ago, I was having coffee with a writer friend and our conversation turned to reader mail. She had just made the decision to take her contact information off her website and to make herself much harder to find. The task of answering her email had come to feel like a burden. “Besides,” she said, “My work should stand on its own, without me having to engage in dialogue with the people who read it.”

I commiserated with her sense of feeling overwhelmed at times by the volume and agreed that our work doesn’t require us to also be goodwill ambassadors for it. But I also had to admit: too much mail is a pretty great “problem” to have. And the truth is, I can’t imagine following her lead. Answering mail can feel like a job at times. I fall behind. Some letters are difficult, or sad. Some pose questions that are impossible to answer. But almost all of them are kind.

On the day Mary’s letter arrived, I also happened to hear from Jennie Nash [Compose’s features editor]. Hurt and upset and in need of a sympathetic ear, I shared with her the cruelest letter I’ve ever received. She responded by asking me to write about it. Months later, when I finally felt ready to write the piece, it was a relief to realize that time had healed the wound.

The price writers pay for being accessible is that we make ourselves as vulnerable to cruelty as we are open to connection. It’s a price that, for now at least, I’m still happy to pay.

About the Author

A graduate of Smith College, Katrina Kenison spent many years working in publishing, first as a literary editor at Houghton Mifflin Company in New Haven, New York, and Boston, and then, from 1990 through 2006, as the series editor of the best-selling The Best American Short Stories  anthologypublished annually by Houghton Mifflin-Harcourt. She co-edited, with John Updike, The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

She is the author of Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a HurryThe Gift of an Ordinary Day: A Mother’s Memoir, and Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment. Her book trailer for The Gift of an Ordinary Day has had more than two million views on YouTube.

Katrina is also the author, with her first yoga teacher, Rolf Gates, of Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga. She lives with her family in rural New Hampshire, where she writes a popular weekly blog, teaches yoga, practices Reiki, and celebrates each ordinary day.


  1. Thank you for sharing the story behind your graceful, moving essay. As a blogger, I’ve come in for my share of some soul-shredding comments too. “Mean Mail” really resonated with me, particularly this: “…Perhaps the best response to a reader like Mary is to understand that she isn’t hurting me because I’m who I am, but because she’s who she is. Which means there’s nothing I need to defend after all.”

  2. I don’t get “mean mail” often, but when I do, it knocks me to the floor for a while. I’m slow to get up. I’m not proud of that–that I don’t just shake it off and keep barreling ahead. Once, after a particularly snarky missive, one of my friends said, “Hey, congrats. You’ve made it! You have a nasty Troll.” It made me laugh and not take myself quite so seriously.

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