The Letter Project

May 31, 2009

Special Delivery (06)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 11:03 pm
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I received this letter from Lauren recently.  Lauren was in several of my classes at BGSU and recently graduated.  She is in that odd place students find themselves after 16 years of school–a little happy and a little sad.  In this letter she writes of how she is coping with her freedom from school.  I always tell my students not to put their creative lives on the back burner after graduation:  in this letter  she says she is taking that advice.    –TW


First off:  I hope this letter finds you well.  I know (via Facebook) that you’ve had some serious sorrows of late.  My condolences to your family.  Know that I am thinking of you.

But you are going West, correct?  I’ve never been–I can imagine it, of course, but imagining only gets us so far, eh.  I think I’d suffer in the desert heat, but I’m sure the vistas are worth it.  Enjoy your journey & your destination.  Are you planning to do some writing out there?

I think a change of place would be good for my writing–I’ve been wishing for mountains lately, some kind of elevation, and more trees–but Bowling Green does feel different not that I’ve graduated.  Like it’s my town now, I’m not just an interloper.  Or maybe that’s not quite the feeling…Still, I have been enjoying myself so far this summer, and I have been writing.

I won’t pretend it’s easy!  But “we all know that art is hard” (to quote some song).  And still I feel really good about what I’m doing now.  Poetry, poetry, and fiction )to read).  I’ve been experimenting with long lines–not CK Williams long, but longer than I’m used to.  Not entirely sold on it (I keep leaning towards shortness, concision, sharpness).  Good to experiment though.

Read The Unbearable Lightness of Being what, last week?  And now I’m really fascinated with the idea of eternal return.  Fascinated by the novel altogether.  Trying to work in some of its ideas into my own work.  (Without being derivative.)

So my writing is not going to be set on the back burner, trust me.  It’s on almost all the burners, and there’s plenty more stuff waiting in the fridge.  I’ve been striving to be open to all experiences & consider them in their turn.  To live close inside my skin, rather than deep inside my head.  Summer’s especially good for that, it’s so sensory.

Still, it’s easy to doubt one’s work, isn’t it?  I don’t expect these feelings to go away, especially in a society that stresses success (especially monetary success).  I feel a little antsy when I hear about people my age who are charging out of the gate, headed for grad school and med school and so on.  It’s even worse when they’re BFAs (in any of the arts)!  If they can do so well, why am I still here, just writing alone?

Not alone, though.  Right?  There’s still you, and everyone at BGSU, really, which feels like a little hub of creativity, a quietly buzzing beehive.  And there’s my old classmates, and Ryan of course (though I’ve got to prod him into completing more stories–he’s got such great ideas).  And I’ve also befriended Christof Scheele, who has kindly agreed to read my new work & comment on it (how I miss workshop!).  He’s loaned me some really fascinating volumes of poetry, too:  Paul  Celan & Georg Trakl.  Plus some of his own work, which I like immensely.  He seems to walk a fine line between the ordinary & the strange, but even the strangest feel accessible to me–unlike, say, some of Larissa’s work.  Of course Larissa is brilliant, and I love the moody mythic feel of it, but sometimes I feel like I’m hammering on a locked door.  Can’t quite decipher what the poem wants me to feel or realize.

Though I might just be a lazy reader.  I’m still so used to reading really fast (which is why I read more fiction, I guess).  Usually need to read poetry 2, 3 times.  Which I’m learning to do more regularly.

One last thing:  submitted some poems to 9 journals, early in May.  Don’t expect to hear from them soon, being summer, though Redivider did reject me very quickly.  Huzzah for my first rejection!  Plenty more of those to come.  But if on the off chance I do get accepted, I will let you know, of course.

All right.  Enjoy your trip.  More letters later, I am sure! 

Always your student,


Special Delivery (05)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:16 pm
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This is another letter I wrote to my friend Beth while I was on a residency at Provincetown.  I had been reading a thick collection letters by Jack Kerouac and had read a poem by Denis Johnson in one of the workshops I took at Provincetown (with Mark Conway).  –TW

Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, MA  02657

Dear Beth,

It was around 11:00 at night and the street was alive with people who were happy and having a good time, but it wasn’t rowdy. I stopped and had a brief conversation with a couple I recognized from FAWC.  They sat on a bench; she was eating chips, and he was leaning forward on his cane.  He was older than his wife.  I told them I never wanted to go back home, and he said, “Do you think we want to go home… to Virginia?” 

I was so happy to take a shower that night and wash all of the street smells out of my hair.  I laid on the couch in my robe to let my hair dry a bit and fell asleep.  At a little after 2:00, I dragged myself from the couch, put on my jamas and got into the bed.  Man, did I ever sleep good.


The next day…

 It is now 2:25 a.m.  I hear the foghorn.  I guess I’ll never hear a foghorn again without thinking of Denis Johnson’s poem. 

I guess I will end this with a quote from one of Kerouac’s letters, this one to Allen Ginsberg.  In the letter Kerouac talks about the importance of his inner life and how he needs to get it to the surface through his art:

The bigger and deeper this inner life grows, the less anyone of you will understand me…Putting it that way may sound silly, it may particularly amuse Burroughs, but that’s the way it is.  Until I find a way to unleash the inner life in an art-method, nothing about me will be clear.  … After all, my art is more important to me than anything … None of that emotional eccentricity that you all wallow in, with your perpetual analysis of your sex-lives and such.  That’s a pretty past-time, that is. … I was telling Mimi West

Last summer how I was searching for a new method in order to release what I had in me, and Lucien said from across the room, “What about a new vision?”  The fact was, I had the vision … I think everyone has … what we lack is the method.

 Beth, we’ve got to dedicate ourselves, too, to finding the method to unleash what is inside us.  It isn’t any less important than what was inside Kerouac.  Don’t you agree?  Is this letter ridiculous?  Do you see any “terrible crystals”?  How strange is this life.

Write soon.  xxxoxoooxo


Special Delivery (04)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:04 pm

This is a letter I sent to my husband while I was at Provincetown last summer.  I was granted a Residency by the Ohio Arts Council.  During the residency I worked on my second novel, tenatively titled, The Last Mysteries of the World.  One beautiful thing about the Residency is that it was the first time I had ever lived on my own.  I married at 18–TW

Sunday June 22, 2008 (24 Pearl Street, Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, MA  02657)

6:46 p.m.

Dear Allen,

I was able to take a nice walk on the beach yesterday evening.  I didn’t get started until nearly 8:00, which turned out to be perfect because it was very cool and the tide was the lowest I’ve seen it since I’ve been here.  There was hardly anyone out on the beach!  I walked a good ways, turned around and walked back.  I got back to the apartment and settled on the couch to write and when I got up there was a pile of sand on the couch that had come out of my pants.  That was the same thing you did when you were here.

It’s been threatening rain today and it has rained a little.  I was able to walk to the PO to mail your latest letter.  I was surprised at how crowded it was for a Sunday.  I guess it’s going to keep getting more and more crowded no matter what day I go out.  It was a nice walk, though.  It’s humid, but the air is cool on the arms.  The tide was high, so I didn’t go out on the beach.  For supper I sautéed some onions and threw in a can of chili beans.  I had some fruit salad for desert.  Not too shabby!

Today is Sunday so a new crew of summer students came in today.  They are all in the meeting space getting their orientation now.  Every once in a while I hear them clapping.  There’s supposed to be a BBQ, of course, but with this weather I’m not sure what they will do.  Before they got here, though, I was able to take out my recycling and my trash.

I’ve noticed that I feel much healthier here, more rested and I have more energy.  At home I get out of bed and say to myself, “I’m tired, why am I so tired?”  But here I get up and ask myself, “What am I going to do [accomplish] today?”  Granted, I move at a slow pace, but I get much more done, and I exercise and feel much more sure-footed. 

Well, I’m going to get cracking on the book now.  Will write more soon.  Xxxoxoxoxoo


Special Delivery (03)

Filed under: Letters — Jim Lampe @ 12:03 pm
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I received a very brief message from my friend Kevin, who is a Composition major at Miami U.  The letter contained remarks from the Composition Chair of the university…–Jim


Remember that cycle of poems you sent me?  The ones which I used for my recital.  I’m just letting you know that the poems won me a scholarship from the music department.  As it turns out, the music department was quite impressed that both the music for the concert and the lyrics were supplied by students, and wanted to offer their sincere admiration for the artwork. 

Thanks for the money!!  When you come back to Cincinnati, I’ll buy you a beer or two…



Special Delivery (02)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 2:38 am
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This is a letter I recently received from James Longley who was a student in several of my classes at BGSU.   In this letter he confirms the good news of getting accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and shares his summer reading. –(TW)

May 17, 2009  (Athens, GA)

Dear Theresa,

It has been far too long since I last sat down to write you.  Forgive me, it seems even my best efforts to stay close with so many wonderful people leave long silence like this.

I am indeed attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop this August.  Boston U., for whom I held out to the last minute, took a good long while to put me in their close-but-no-cigar category, so I didn’t have to tear my hair out choosing between the two.  However, in that interminable wait, Iowa went to some lengths to sweeten the deal (already sweet beyond words!) for me.  So I have more news:  next semester I will be paying for my time at Iowa by teaching one section per semester of GEN ED LIT  861:  Interpretation of Literature.  So, basically, Iowa is making to dreams come true at once.  The class will be a big, delicious challenge, I hope.  I’ll be teaching fifteen or so freshmen/sophomores, none of whom will be English majors.  The class for them, in most cases anyway, will be the only literature class they take in college.  Ever.  As in, for the rest of their adult lives.  So it’s my job to take the whole expanse of literature in English, across centuries and genres, and help them fall in love with it.  Make it possible for them to become life-long readers. 

I hope and hope and hope that this class can be for my students even ½ of what your Imaginative Writing class was for me.  I know that part of that will be determined by which students take my class, but I know for a fact that you consistently find ways to show students the magic of writing, of words and stories and poems; you have a gift for opening worlds to people, and I plan to emulate your style of teaching.  Any advice?

Speaking of teaching, congrats on making it through another year at BGSU.  I hope it was filled with many rewarding moments and a general lack of fuss.  Any big plans for the summer?  More work on the novel, or is that project over?  The next few months are going to be filled with travel, and moving preparations, and constant restaurant work, and music, but I’m hoping all these things will rise into the heat and extra light of summer to give me some time to rekindle my relationship to the Muse, the Angel, and the Demon.  The whole process of organizing and selling, essentially, my poetic self to grad schools put me into a creative drought from which I am only now slowly emerging.  The PAD competition was a good way to limber up, but only underscored the need for me to break new ground, to risk more with my writing.  I am tired of being “merely competent,” as James Wright was.  I want to burn, but it remains to be seen if this dry time will make for any creative destruction.

In the meantime, I am trying to read until I spill over.  A phenomenal novel in verse by Anne Carson called Autobiography of Red, which I demand you read this summer if you never have.  I actually plan to teach this genre-bending wonder to my students next semester.  Also, I’ve done some browsing through the poems of Czelow Milosz (sp?:  I don’t have the book in front of me), but I’m not prepared to comment on them yet.  I’ve also picked up some poems by James Galvin, Cole Swensen, Elizabeth Robinson, and Geoffrey O’Brien, all of whom will be teaching at Iowa next semester.  So far I like Swensen and Robinson, and O’Brien the best.  But the most recent and most powerful reading I’ve done is a return to The Epic of Gilgamesh.  I was barely aware of its greatness before, but this time through the whole face of human nature showed itself to me:  immutable, senseless, brutal, joyous, loving, frightened, triumphant, and desperately mortal.

I would be delighted to hear from you about what you’ve been reading and about everything else.

With love and squalor,


Special Delivery (01)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 2:30 am
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This is a letter I wrote from Provincetown last summer to my friend Beth.  I went through the MFA Program with Beth; we both graduated from BGSU in 1989.  When I wrote this letter to her, I was at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown for a Residency.  I think it is the only letter I ever wrote that has footnotes!  In my defense, I had just finished reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  –(TW)

Sunday July 13, 2008 (24 Pearl St., Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown MA  02657)

My Dearest Beth,

I have not received your letter.  I’ve looked for it every day.  It seems it should have been here by now.

How I wish I’d brought my typewriter.  I’m using Courier New font here, because I’m sick of Times New Roman, the stench of academia it gives off, but it just isn’t the same.  I wanted to bring my sturdy friend with the pica font, but the truck was filling so fast that I didn’t have the heart to ask Allen to pack it.  As always, he packs everything and was lecturing me about what not to take.  But there have been so many days that I’ve longed to strike the keys and feel the letters striking the paper.

I’ve been such a hermit today!  I haven’t gone outside all day and have just been languishing.  I have slept off and on.  I’m still tired from last week.  I haven’t worked on my book but have been reading some T. C. Boyle stories[1] that I found at a great used bookshop on Commercial St. yesterday.  The bookshop is called “Tim’s,” I believe.  I also got The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields.  It seems to me I bought that once before but never read it.  That may or may not be true.  I don’t think I have it anymore if ever I did own it.  Have you ever read Carol Shields?  I have not.  One of my colleagues at work, Lynn, swears by her.  Stone Diaries won a Pulitzer.  I also found a collection of Jack Kerouac’s letters[2].  I couldn’t resist them.     Of course you know I collect writers’ letters.  Some are more revealing than others; Kerouac’s are quite revealing.  It’s a huge volume, edited by Ann Charters and begins when Kerouac was 18 and continues until he found fame with On the Road. 

One thing that emerges in the letters is that Kerouac was tender and sweet with his friends—also argumentative at times in his search for meaning–and also that he had such a great love of literature.  Thomas Wolfe was an early favorite of his.  He was convinced that once a young man read Wolfe, he’d drop what he was doing and become a writer himself; this had happened with a couple of his friends, so he thought it universally true.  He thought this was proof of Wolfe’s greatness. 

Kerouac at that time was high on himself and high on the thought of being a famous writer.  I don’t know how much of the Wolfe stuff he believed, but I think it felt good for him to say to it, the same way it feels good to me when I say sometimes that I want to win a Pulitzer.

I hadn’t realized that Kerouac was from Massachusetts.  In his late life he lived at Hyannis.  I say late life; he died so young. 

 When Kerouac dropped out of college, he wrote to his friend Sebastian Sampas, whose sister he eventually married (second marriage).  In this letter, only half of which survives, Kerouac wrote:

 …There, Sam, I must.  And then?  What then?  I don’t know, Sam.  I sit in this cheap hotel room on a very hot night—the sound of the trolley, the surging pulse of the city of Washington, the night breeze and no trees, no trees, yet no trees to sing for me. …

Oh Sam!  I’m driven and weary.  I’m mad, desperate.  Yes—“My arms are heavy, I’ve got the blues:  There’s a locomotive in my chest, and that’s a fact. …”  I don’t know what I’ve done—afraid to go home, too proud and too sick to go back to the football team, driven and weary with no place to go, I know not a soul, I saw the Nation’s Capitol, the F.B.I. building, the National Gallery of Art, the Dept. of Justice building, “Dive Bomber” and a stage show, and I was lonely, sick and cried. …

  In a subsequent letter, Kerouac wrote:

 Sebastian you son of a beetch!

          HOW ARE YOU?

          I AM DRUNK!

     We must go to Bataan and pick a flower. …

              Do you hear me?  Do not die, live[3] 

                  We must go to Paris and see that the revolution goes well!  And the counter-revolutions in GERMANY, SPAIN, ITALY, YUGOSLAVIA, POLAND ETC.ETC.ETC.

 I truly think it is only in letters that we begin to know writers at all.  In the Introduction to the Kerouac Letters, Charters, quoting Janet Malcolm, writes:

As anyone interested in literature knows, letters are important.  They are what the literary critic Janet Malcolm has called “the great fixative of experience.  Time erodes feeling.  Time creates indifference.  Letters…are the fossils of feeling.”

 Isn’t that the greatest phrase, Beth?  Fossils of feeling? 

In my class this week, the teacher, Mark Conway, kept talking about finding the “terrible crystals” out of which to make poems.  His method is to generate lots of material and look for the extraordinary, sublime, awful, things that stand out.  He encouraged us to find the “terrible crystals” in the poems we read and sort of riff off of those.  There are “terrible crystals” in letters, too, certainly in Kerouac’s.  And he did use those crystals that he generated in letters for future work.  He was meticulous about keeping records of all his correspondence.  He kept letters written but never mailed and made carbons of most of what he mailed.  I think the letter writing because a huge part of his discovery process.

I’ve only read about 80 pages into the book, but it’s a wonderful read.  It is almost like reading an autobiography or novel through letters, as Charters provides helpful commentary between the letters. It all fits together so well.


I’m using my laptop and am sitting upon my bed with the pretty quilts my mother made spread under me.  Did you see the photos of my bedroom on the blog?  It’s nice to be able to make a nice clean bed with pretty things; I don’t do it at home.  I barely make the bed at home and lots of times I don’t.  I guess my life there just gets me down. I need to find a way of being happier, more at ease in my everyday life.  You know?  I often feel so much conflict between my inner and outer life, with not enough time for introspection.

My bedroom here has white curtains and now the curtains are billowing in the cool breeze.  Today is Sunday, so the new classes are starting.  They have just finished their orientation and I hear them gathering below in the courtyard for the welcome BBQ.  Dorothy says I can attend any BBQ I want, but I haven’t been attending, except last Sunday, because I took my class last week.  This seems to be a particularly loud crowd; they’re bonding quickly.  I shall be glad when they disperse and quiet descends again.  I’m thinking of taking a walk a little later. 

At home I’d stopped using the laptop; it was languishing in a drawer.  I’d go into my writing room and shut the door.  What with the TV going in the living room, what was the point?  But the laptop has done heavy duty here.  I use it almost exclusively to compose, using it either on my bed or on my couch in the living room.  I save the manuscript on the laptop, on a memory key, and then I transfer it to the big computer.  So I always have three current copies of the draft.  The writing has gone very well, 70+ pages to date, and good pages, too.

I often feel it takes me too long to write anything.  I see other people churning out several stories a year; I don’t know how they do it.  Louise Erdrich publishes a book every couple of years.  I write and write and very little seems to come of it.  It discourages me.  Sometimes I wonder why I do this at all.  Sometimes I wonder what it would be like just to live a happy life, teaching and sipping wine with Allen in the evenings, going with him on his wild-assed adventures on the boat.  

Love you,


[1] Greasy Lake & Other Stories, 1979.  I hadn’t read “Greasy Lake” in many years.  Do you remember it?  “There was a time when courtesy and winning ways went out of style, when it was good to be bad, when you cultivated decadence like a taste.  We were all dangerous characters then.  We wore torn-up leather jackets, slouched around with toothpicks in our mouths, sniffed glue and ether and what somebody claimed was cocaine.  When we wheeled our parents’ whining station wagons out into the street we left a patch of rubber half a block long.  We drank gin and grape juice, Tango, Thunderbird, and Bali Hai.  We were nineteen.  We were bad.  We read Andre Gide and struck elaborate poses to show that we didn’t give a shit about anything.  At night, we went up to Greasy Lake.”

[2] Jack Kerouac:  Selected Letters, 1940-1956.  Something that startles me about the title is that I was born in 1956.  Another thing that startles me is that Kerouac was born in 1922.  That doesn’t seem possible, since he is eternally young in my mind.  My own mother was born in 1925.  Kerouac died in 1969.  Imagine that. 

[3]Sebastian died in WWII.

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