The Letter Project

September 25, 2009

Special Delivery (27)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:09 am
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Lee Martin is the author of  The Bright Forever, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.  In the following letter, he writes to Amos about meeting Richard Ford and of Ford’s influence on his writing.

Lee writes that in Rock Springs Ford taught him  “to look closely at what mattered most to me in the places I knew as home.”   Ford’s collection also changed the way Lee thought about and wrote stories:  “He taught me that the individual life mattered and would be of extreme interest to a reader if I treated it with respect, if I didn’t turn away from its simultaneous ugliness and beauty, and if I wrote with forgiveness.”

Lee Martin is also the author of River of Heaven and Quakertown (both novels); a short story collection, The Least You Need to Know; and two memoirs, From Our House and  Turning Bones.  He has won a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, a Lawrence Foundation Award, and the Glenna Luschei prize.  He lives in Columbus and directs the creative writing program at The Ohio State University. 

You can find a fascinating writing by Lee Martin hereLargehearted Boy.

And who is Amos?  I wondered that, too, so I asked Lee and received this response: 

Amos is Amos Magliocco, and he was a student of mine at the University of North Texas. Since that time, he’s gone on to earn an MFA from Indiana University, published his word in fine places such as The Missouri Review, and won a Pushcart Prize. He and I stayed in touch via emails and calls after I left UNT for Ohio State, and we exchanged visits and saw each other at AWP. This summer, when I taught at the Kenyon Review Writer’s Conference, I could choose a “fellow”–someone who would participate in the conference and help me teach my workshop. I chose Amos. My letter to him is in response to a Facebook message he sent me. He’d read a story in the current O’Henry collection that he thought I’d either hate or love because it seemed to derive a good bit from my own work.  –TW

September 16, 2009

Dear Amos,

I’m glad to hear that some rainy weather has finally found you there in Texas. I well remember, from when I lived there, how welcome even the briefest rain shower was. In fact, the long stretch of hot and dry days that made up the summers and early autumns always left me, at one turn, feeling anesthetized, and at the same time, yearning for the distinct Midwestern seasons of my youth, where a cold snap, or blackberry winter, as we called it, could bring a little variety to the heat of July, and where the leaves beginning to change, as they are here in Ohio now, and the spiders spinning their webs over the yew shrubs and the deck railings, could herald the turn toward fall and then the winter beyond it. It was the seasons I missed more than anything when I lived in Texas, and perhaps because I was so distant from my native Midwest, I started to evoke it with more precision and passion in my writing. I had no choice. The only way I could live there was by conjuring it on the page.

It took me a good while as a writer to trust the world I knew best—that world of small farms and towns and the men and women who worked hard at jobs that didn’t pay them nearly enough. Sometimes those people lived too large for their own good. Sometimes they made poor choices and suffered the consequences. They cut each other with knives, they burned down buildings just for the thrill of it, they left families to run off with someone not their wife or husband, they ended up in prison, they took a deal from a judge and went to the army to avoid ending up in prison, they lived lonely lives of regret because once upon a time they’d had a chance to really be somebody and then, like the years, that chance just went away. Despite whatever wrong turns they took or lives they wished for, they often found joy in the most simple things: a few hands of Pitch around a kitchen table, an ice cream social at the Methodist Church, a tenderloin sandwich carried home in a paper bag from Bea’s Cafe.

One afternoon, a man who was a ne’er-do-well came into the barber shop in my small town and the barber told him a state trooper had just been in looking for him. The man went out the back door into the alley. He smashed a Pepsi bottle against the brick wall. He used the jagged end to slash his throat.

The barber, an upright man who patiently worked with wood in his spare time, crafting pieces of furniture, who raised five girls with love and kindness, found that man in the alley and did the only thing he could. He pressed a towel to his throat, but it wasn’t enough to save him. Why was the state trooper looking for him and why was that enough to make him do what he did? What was it like for that mild-tempered barber to tend to that man while he bled to death? How did he carry that story to his home that evening? How did he carry it with him the rest of his days, through the snow and ice of winter when the dark came on by five o’clock and people longed for the comfort of home, through the spring when the grass greened and the smell of the earth thawing made everyone feel just a little more alive, through those long days of summer when the light seemed like it would never fade, and the clear days of autumn when the air could be so still the calls of crows would travel for miles? That was the world I knew most intimately—knew it inside my skin—that world of ordinary living pierced by sudden violence, that world of simple beauty set against the brutality people could visit upon it, but when I was a young writer trying to find my voice and my material, I erroneously thought that no one would ever be interested in the stories I knew best. Why would anyone want to read about those itty-bitty towns and farms and the people who lived there?

Then I met Richard Ford. I was living in Memphis at the time, and there was a book expo being held at the Peabody Hotel. I knew that one of my former teachers, Jim Whitehead, was going to be among the featured authors, so I decided to go down in hopes of saying hello. As luck would have it, I’d no more than stepped into the lobby, when the elevator door opened and out stepped Jim. He was a burly man with a big heart and a booming voice, and, when he saw me, he clapped me on the shoulder, told me how good it was to see me (it had been three years since I’d been in Jim’s workshop at the University of Arkansas), and said, “Come in here.” He motioned to the ballroom where the authors would sit behind tables and sign books for folks. He got me a chair and told me to sit down and keep him company. Then he spotted Richard Ford, and he introduced me to him. I remember that Ford was soft-spoken and gracious, and, though I was nothing to him, he took the time to shake my hand and chat a little. He didn’t make me feel that I was a nuisance or someone he had to make small talk with while he waited for the bigger fish to arrive.  He treated me with respect, genuinely wanting to know a little bit about me. He had a quiet dignity that was disarming and a way of making me feel that at that moment my life was something that very much interested him. His story collection, Rock Springs, had just come out, and, of course, I bought a copy, which he kindly inscribed, “With the pleasure it was to meet you and with the best wishes for your work.” That book changed me as a writer forever.

Although the stories in that collection are set in Montana, they were about the sort of people I knew from my native Midwest. They were people in all sorts of dire straits, but they were doing their best to figure a way out, and the narrative voice I heard—a voice similar to the one I’d heard from Ford himself that day in Memphis: dignified, humble, curious, gracious—taught me how to tell the stories of ordinary people, to tell, more specifically, the stories of the people who mattered most to me.  It took Ford, a southerner writing about the American West, to take me home to southern Illinois in my writing. He taught me that the individual life mattered and would be of extreme interest to a reader if I treated it with respect, if I didn’t turn away from its simultaneous ugliness and beauty, and if I wrote with forgiveness.

I don’t know whether these are the same qualities of the writer’s treatment of his characters and their events in the story that you recommend to me, the one that you say I’ll either love or hate for how much it seems to derive from my own work. To tell you the truth, I think “derivative” is only a useful term if applied to writing that’s false to the writer—an imitation, in other words, that takes the writer away from his or her genuine voice, urgent material, and unique vision of the world. I think you and I are simpatico when it comes to this and have little use for the writers who fall prey to the current gimmicks just for the sake of a little flash and flare and a chance to feel on the cutting edge of a trend. It seems to me that we should be in the game for larger stakes than the pyrotechnics of language or the clever shifting of form. Of course, those things sometimes align themselves nicely with what a particular writer must confront in the world around him or her and, therefore, become essential to their necessary exploration, but, like you, I’ve seen too many young writers fall back upon tricks of language and form to keep themselves from having to give shape to the mysteries of the complicated and compelling worlds they occupy. I know I sound like a curmudgeon now, having lived long enough, I suppose, to earn the right to wag a finger or two, but sometimes I think there are fewer and fewer of us holding the fort in the camp of realism these days, and for me that’s where the real stakes are and will always be. The day-to-day living in the real world, even for those seemingly ordinary people on my farms and in my small Midwestern towns, is rich and mysterious with desire, thwarted more often than not by poor choices and circumstances, but still pulsing and well-worth examination.

Richard Ford, in those Rock Springs stories, taught me to look closely at what mattered most to me in the places I knew as home. If my work teaches someone else to do the same, then I’m as pleased as I am for you and the rainy days that have found you, my friend. If we’re lucky, we find our fellow-travelers in both the real and the literary life, and their company makes all the difference. Good luck with all your work and the rewards it will give you in the seasons to come.

Until Next Time,

Lee

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September 12, 2009

Special Delivery (26)

Filed under: Mailart — Theresa Williams @ 1:10 am
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Copy of Microlette Judi

Illustrated Manuscript:  From Judith Heartsong to Theresa Williams.  Approx 12 x 15

In this illustrated letter, Judith Heartsong writes of the creative spirit and memory:

Dear Theresa,

As summer wings its way on green and leafy feet I find my thoughts turning toward home in contemplation and remembrances.  Some joy some sadness.  Of all the past and those yet to come the hours are all filled with light & beauty & nature.  In great bounty I wish you all of these, my friend & sister creative spirit.  Judith Heartsong 9/5/09

You can follow Judi’s life and art at her blog:  Judith Heartsong

Judith Olivia HeartSong is a professional artist of more than twenty-eight years experience with a penchant for exuberant color. As a painter and muralist she creates splashy watercolors featuring abstracted women and acrylics of bold, iconic flora and fauna. There is a seamless flow from one beautiful thing to another in her work with a dreamlike quality that delights.

An exploration of mixed media began many years ago, and since then mixed media additions tend to find their way into the paintings the artist creates. Mixed media boxes incorporate words, images, and found objects housed in shadowbox forms and the artist teaches workshops and offers private lessons from her studio in a gorgeous, light-filled, 28,000 square foot art center (VisArts) just outside Washington, DC.

Judith has work in numerous public and private collections including the Permanent Collection of Orlando International Airport in Orlando, Florida.  A painting was presented to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Inauguration in 1993, and she painted a large mural at the National Zoo in 2003. In 2008 Princess Cruise Line commissioned a series of four limited edition prints that are now offered for sale on their ships, and in 2009 Transformational Threads licensed her image Peacock Crimson for limited edition thread paintings.

                                 www.JudithHeartSong.com

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Filed under: Mailart — Theresa Williams @ 1:05 am
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microlette 1

microlette 1 002_edited-1

Microlette.  From Lauren to Theresa.   Approx 2 1/2 x 4 1/2

Handcrafted, a combination of printing technique and paint.  It fits easily into a regular size envelope.  The letter on the back, written in pencil  is:  “The Sun Comes From the West.”  

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Filed under: Mailart — Theresa Williams @ 1:04 am
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acordion man 001

Microlette:  From Theresa to Lauren.   Approx. 2 1/2  x 5

“Accordian Man.”  Yes, accordian is misspelled and not on purpose. 

The text continues on the back and in full it reads:

Lauren, what I need is me a little man like this to help me make my poems ~ A boy, really, because men can be slightly domineering, a boy with an accordian, thick dark hair and checkered pants and, of course, a tattoo~ the accordian for making lilting tunes with words; thick black hair for vitalty of my thoughts; a tattoo, of course, for erotic power so that my reader may connect with me heart to heart and soul to soul; and checkered pants which are so dependable, after all, to remind me there is a practical side, which is:  Do your research and then send out the poems!  Do you have such a little man?  If so, is he 4 sale?  [Heart] Theresa

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Filed under: Mailart — Theresa Williams @ 1:03 am
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ATC Microlette wayne

Microlette:  From Theresa to Wayne.  2 1/2 x 3 1/2

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Filed under: Mailart — Theresa Williams @ 1:01 am
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ATC Microlette 1 002_edited-1

Microlette:  From Theresa to Erin.  2 1/2 x 3 1/2

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Filed under: Mailart — Theresa Williams @ 1:00 am
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ATC Microlette 1_edited-1ATC Microlette 1 001_edited-1

Microlette:  From Theresa to Lauren.  2 1/2 x 3 1/2

September 6, 2009

Special Delivery (20)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 11:59 pm
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In this letter to me, Cynthia Randolph writes of how difficult the days have been since her husband Randy died and what his death has meant for her creative life.    Cynthia also writes of finding comfort and meaning in genre fiction, and of her hope to someday write something that will be meaningful for others. –TW

August 26, 2009

Dear Theresa,

At long last, I’m sitting down to write you a letter.  It’s hard to say why letter writing, really any form of communication has been so hard.  Today those reasons include my cats who insist on sitting on my paper whenever I pause.

I’ve always loved letters.  A handwritten letter setting in my mailbox is guaranteed to make me smile.   I’ll walk up my driveway, letter in hand, feeling lighter, feeling loved.  I can barely wait to get in the house to open it.  It’s an experience, from the texture and weight of the stationery to the connection felt with each word.

Connection is one reason why I’ve had such difficulty with any form of communication.  After Randy died, I felt separated from everything, encapsulated in a solitary grief, apart from everything that had once brought me happiness.  Even the solitary pleasure of books.

I would try to read a good book, a book of substance and style, and I couldn’t go forward.  I’d find myself reading the same lines over and over.  Worse, I’d sit there and think there was no point to my ever writing again.

Books didn’t remain alien to me though.  Ever since I first sounded out words, books have been a source of growth and healing.  While really good books remained beyond my ability, others were out there.  Mysteries, romances, fantasies.  Vampires and smart aleck women in too high heels let me laugh and smell grave rot at the same time.  They also helped lead me back to myself.  I knew I was closer when I said, upon closing a book, “I can do better than that.”

So, here I am.  The writer’s callous on my third finger is building up again.  I don’t like much of what I’m writing.  In fact, it makes me wince.  Each word is an act of hope though.  Hope that connection, happiness and enjoying life will return.  Hope that I will write something that can touch someone the way that so many books and poems have touched me.  Hope that I will one day be comfortable again in my own skin.

Cyn

Special Delivery (19)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 11:50 pm
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In this letter, Emily Anderson writes to her friend Stacey about changes.  At the time this letter was written, Emily was just getting used to a new city and had great anticipation of what would lie ahead for her writing.  Emily is a graduate of Bowling Green State University’s BFA program in creative writing.  She is now getting her MFA in Pennsylvania.  Emily quotes Donald Hall, who once wrote: “It turns out that the fulfillment of desire is to stop desiring, to live in the full moon & the snow, in the direction  the  wind  comes  from,  in the animal scent of the alive second.”  –TW

Dear Stacey,

How is Columbus?  It still has not sunk in that I really don’t live there anymore.  I like the apartment here in PA–it’s newer & nicer than my old one, but it doesn’t have a view of the Columbus skyline, or the State College Skyline for that matter.  It’s about a 20 minute walk to campus, up & down three big hills.  Luckily, there is a bus that runs right past the apartment complex, but it’s expensive!  I was expecting it to be free for students, but no–it’s $1.25 per trip or you can buy passes by the month, semester, or year.

I walked to campus today & got my student ID & set up my email account.  It’s ____, but I’ll keep using my gmail as well.  I am a bit lost here, not knowing anyone & not having any money but I’m looking forward to orientation next week to get aquainted with my teaching assignment, and with my fellow grad students.

So, how is life there?  When do regular fall classes start for you?  What kind of fun have you been having without me?  I have not really had any “fuhn” yet, just a few nice sweaty hilly runs–I’ve got to get used to the hills!  And I will.  It just takes some time.

I am happy though; even poor & bored, I’m happy with my decision to go for my MFA.  There’s a pressure that goes with [sic] though, and a fear.  I’m reading Donald Hall’s essays in Here at Eagle Pond (I bought the book with my gift certificate at Arepogitica before I left) & he articulates it like this:  “I feared the fulfillment of desire, as if I would be punished for possessing what I wanted so much.”  You know that feeling?  I do.  I constantly struggle to feel worthy or my own happiness & not to live in fear of it being taken away.  I’m like that with relationships too; when I’m in a good relationship, it’s hard for me to relax & really enjoy it because at some level I’m afraid of losing it or messing it up.  But I learn again & again (does that mean I don’t learn?  or is it the kind of lesson that must be repeated in each new situation?) that I must be present in the moments, that even if something does end, it is far better to have enjoyed it fully while it lasted than to have spent the whole time worrying about what comes next.  Hall had a similar epiphany.  He goes on to say “…but contentment was relentless and would not let me go until I studied the rapture of the present tense.  It turns out that the fulfillment of desire is to stop desiring, to live in the full moon & the snow, in the direction the wind comes from, in the animal scent of the alive second.”  )my emphasis on the word “live.”  (both quotes are from the essay “Keeping Things”)  I love the phrase “the rapture of the present tense,” and while I don’t think the fulfillment of desire is to totally stop desiring, I do agree that the essence of eontentment is to live where you are & when you are.

So that’s what I’m trying to do now just live here with the giant groundhogs & the crazy hills & the overcast skies.  Enjoy my peace & quiet & relaxation this week, the absence of obligation, & recharge myself for the coming challenge.  It will be rewarding through & I look forward to it.

Are you writing much these days?  I haven’t looked at your blog in ages (busy & a bit self-obsessed recently–I apologize).  Are we still slated to read together in November?  I’m looking forward to that.  If you see any of the Poetry Forum crowd tell them hello.

 

Lucky & Jade send their love & fur balls to Mandy & Lemonhead.  And to you as well.  Let me know when you’d like to come visit.  I’d love to see you.  Take care, my friend, I mean it!

Love, Emily

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