The Letter Project

May 31, 2009

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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