The Letter Project

July 23, 2011

Special Delivery (106)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 11:32 pm
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In this letter to me, Suzy Anderson discusses her writing and saying goodbye to Harry Potter.  –TW

July 13, 2011

Dear Theresa, I enjoy getting mail too, especially when I know to expect a book from Amazon or a letter. But the unexpected ones are exciting, like handmade cards from my aunts in Cincinnati, and they are always a treat. Your letter is one I’ll always treasure. The pink envelope with a hand “+ dull + with + care” made me smile. And the turkeys on the back—I could totally imagine the turkey walking across the envelope, showing me which side to open first. Cutting opening the letter’s seal took me back to the days where people sealed letters with wax and marked it with their insignia.

I totally agree that the mystery and the inability to explain the need to write, the need to use words to express what isn’t easily describable, draws me in as a writer. It is rather addicting to be in love with a story idea and play with it. Writing is like giving ourselves permission to be children, to explore the world in a way so we can discover truths and try to understand. I think one reason stories are so crucial to us is because they help explain the world and who we are as human beings. Look at technology today. We have video games, movies with visual effects, hey let me tell you about my day and other story telling methods. Regardless of the medium, a story is involved. Stories. They are the key to humanity. It’s our job as writers to unlock it. We do what we can, seeking perfection through revision, but we’ll never get it exactly right because we make mistakes. But that’s OK because there’s beauty in mistakes. If our characters didn’t have scars, they would be too unreal. Since they do, we can relate to them and explore through their dilemmas how they deal with life and all of its emotions and memories.

Kerouac’s scroll is amazing! I never thought about that as a possibility, but it certainly is motivation to keep writing, at least til the paper runs out. I wonder if there is a way to bring the idea back. I’ll have to look into getting a typewriter. In April I wrote 40 thousand words of the novel I’m currently working on, and when I printed it to revise, I organized it into sections and cut each section from colored paper to place on white paper. I didn’t realize the color would keep my attention more through the revision process because I’ve always been attracted to vibrant colors. Probably explains my fascination with art and Botero’s work in general. At least I found a new revision method!

Prose should look beautiful on the page. Matt Bell showed my class a trick: zoom out of your manuscript and see where there are big blocks of text that could be cut down, or vice versa, there is too much white space from dialogue. The look of the story should mirror what the text says, a lesson fiction can learn from poetry.

There is freedom in axing “all the things we know” but it is also scary. I’ve been examining my life in greater detail over the past year and there were points where I know I broke some bones and damaged some sinew, metaphorically speaking. It’s a painful process. Healing is sometimes more painful than the original wound, but at least the scars are physical reminders of the trials faced and the fight to get through them.

Thank you so much for pointing out Kafka’s quote: “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” While looking it up I also found “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?” I think this quote is interesting because we (especially as writers) need to find books that move us. If the characters’ pain is not moving us, we are not connected to them and not invested in their wellbeing. But if we care, it is easier to let the author guide the readers’ emotions. I know for myself I know if I am enjoying the story if I can feel my blood move, heart beating, breathe quicker, or if I respond out loud (like crying, gasping, yelling at the characters, etc.). But the quote is also funny because we don’t know if the book is going to “wound and stab us” until we’ve read a good portion of it. Oh, what a conundrum.

It’s strange to try and put into words what I experienced riding my bike in the rain, but I’ll try because I think it is an experience I will return to and attempt explaining in the future. So I’ll experiment here. I felt like a daredevil, as if I was taking too much of a risk and an insurance salesman should have flagged me down and quoted the statistics. At the same time I felt loose and unrestrained and if my life ended, I would have no qualms about it. It reminded me of the feeling I experienced when I put the wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington when I went on the school trip in eighth grade. If I died then, I would be happy and have no regrets. I was part of something bigger than myself. It was as if I, as an individual person, did not exist.

With my novel, I’m trying to find a balance between sharing what I discover and keeping it secret til it’s finished. I really want to get back into revising it because I have worked on it off and on this summer. This is the first story I’ve truly been excited to write. I was ready to jump out of my skin the couple of days before I sat down to seriously work on it, knowing it was larger than a short story. I told people about it mostly to get people outside of myself to support me and let me know they were interested, invested in this story as much as I was, and excited to see the final product. Further motivation to finish it so I can share it with those who encouraged me along the way. And to thank the people who inspired me to keep writing and helped me grow as a person and as a writer so I can give them public credit in the acknowledgments.

We do get stuck in conventions. I know for myself that life burns brighter when the lines are swept away and risks are taken. Not at the expense of others, though! Sometimes the comfort zone is more dangerous than trying something new. It’s funny how much fear keeps us back, like a seatbelt. We secure it and depend on it to protect us.

I’m glad you can look forward to going out west next year. I’m lucky I was able to go to California over spring break. I wish it wasn’t July already so I could take a trip this summer. The east coast is attractive since I’ve never been further east than New York. We’ll see what happens before the school year starts.

It’s great that your summer is great and you have projects to work on. I will have to take a contemporary course, and I would love to take contemporary fiction if you’re teaching it. The book “Memory Sickness” looks a great read. I will have to check it out. Having your own writing space is a must. Since I moved into an apartment in BG this summer, I knew I would get a desk since we got it furnished, but during the school year I like to keep my homework and writing areas separate. Otherwise it’s hard to plop down and write when I have to move schoolwork out of the way—easier to have two distinct areas. Then I don’t have an excuse to not write. Although I have filled the extra table space with stuff and will need to have a cleaning of my own!

To have a history with your writing desk is extra special. The space should encourage the mystery of writing and the freedom to create. Unfortunately I don’t have a history with my desk, but that’s probably because my dad just bought me a desk this summer. I did have a wonderful time putting it together and picking what books would have the honor of being on it. And it’s been sacred when I sit down to write at the desk.

Hopefully the short story will work out. Don’t worry about me thinking death is morbid. It’s all about how you think of it. I think it’s insightful and interesting to hear other viewpoints. Death is a mystery all its own. As long as serial killers are not involved, death is an acceptable subject to broach in literature and for a deep philosophical conversation.

I love that you said “one kind of art informs another, so no matter what artistic endeavor you are giving yourself to, that time is not wasted.” Music (piano, violin, and djembe) have definitely influenced my writing, especially the cadence and rhythm of poetry and the flow of prose to the ear. Textiles (crochet and knitting) have contributed to my love of taking a string (or what appears to be nothing) and making loops with the aid of hooks or needles to create a final product. Finger painting is fun because I get to play with colors and make a mess. Without my other art forms, I don’t know if I could write what I do. I certainly can draw on wider experiences because of the other arts I do. They inform my work.

I have been catching on my list of movie recommendations. I’ve watched so many since May I can’t possibly list them all or name a favorite. I’m glad you’ve had time to go to Toledo and Michigan, at least get out of town and experience a different landscape. The deal on watercolor paper is amazing!

I made paper in grade school, and it was fun. It would be neat to write letters on homemade paper! 🙂 After I made the hat I wore it for hours even though it was 95 degrees out. I was so proud of it. I will certainly wear it when the weather turns. My djembe has been great for playing music when I don’t feel like getting out the string instruments or going to the music building to play the piano.

This week is pretty rough for me because I am saying goodbye to Harry Potter. I grew up with the books, discovering them when my aunt in Chicago bought me the first one for my birthday. Needless to say I was hooked from the first page! I went to the midnight premieres of the last three books at the local Barnes and Noble and have seen all of the movies, except “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.” I’m going to the midnight showing this Friday.

Last summer I had the opportunity to meet Melissa Anelli, a journalist who worked for the Leaky Cauldron and interviewed J. K. Rowling twice. She wrote a book called “Harry: A History” and covered the fan-based phemonon around the series.

The books have always touched me; the last three in particular—I am drawn to the darker material and love having most of the ends tied together. Rereading the books after the last one has shown too that the clues have been there all along! Rowling certainly wrote with each character’s motivations and backstory in mind. This element, combined with her ability to build a world readers want to inhabit make the story so compelling, is the key to her success in my mind.

The soundtracks for the movies have been crucial to my writing because I listen to them as I write (and Celtic/Irish music). In April when I worked on my novel I listened to selections from the “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” soundtrack and music from Howard Shore and Fin Tan. Looking back at my drafts I could see how the tone of the music helped bring out the narrator’s voice before I realized there was a connection and guide her on her adventures throughout the novel.

Love, Suzy

P.S. I’ve included one of my finger painting pieces just for you. The postcard was too small for my letter, so it’s just a postcard! I’ll send more when I’m ready. I’m still experimenting with the colors I have and trying to develop different approaches my character would take when he paints.

From Suzy Anderson to Theresa Williams: a portion of the original letter.

May 31, 2009

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

Theresa

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,

Theresa


[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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