Friends, I think I’m going to start a newsletter.
I’m having some fleeting thoughts lately, and you—or the idea of your existing—are going to help me fix and form them.
Where to begin? I’m coming up on the end of my first year of this two-year fiction MFA program at Johns Hopkins. The poets on the poetry side have been reading a lot of published letters between famous poets. Bishop-Lowell. Emily Dickinson. A few others. One professor even assigned some of her own letters back and forth with other poets of the day which, hey, nice work if you can get it.
Anyway, though I haven’t been reading these correspondences myself, I’ve been hearing about them, and it has given me occasion to think about the lost art of letter writing. So did a memoir my mom wrote recently where she reprints and analyzes some letters from her side of the family. So have my attempts (not carried out very faithfully by me, I must confess) to keep in touch with a friend in California by actual mail.
There is something in the idea of writing letters that I’m hungry for. Ironically, perhaps, since I’ve been in school for some months now to practice writing—and have been writing a lot, seriously!—I often feel at a loss for words. I glimpse my thoughts but don’t take time to develop them. I don’t use my voice, and it gets rusty. I haven’t felt like a very good observer of the world or myself this year. When I do note something, I’m not always sure just how to say it. More often, though, I just feel as if I’m living in some kind of early-onset-Alzheimer’s fog.
And you know what? I’ve been busy. Assembling and pushing out a human being, nourishing and caring for said human, moving across the country, settling into life in a new house and city, making new friends, starting school again. (Grad school! More rigorous this second time around, as it happens.)
Still, there’s a special kind of way that life feels good to me when I’m able to sort of grasp the details, hold them, feel them—and usually some form of recording or describing them is how I know I’ve done that, how I make it real to myself. Keeping a journal is good (I’ve been real sporadic at writing in mine recently), and so is “keeping a notebook,” in the Joan Didion sense, which I hope to start doing, too, come summer. And fiction is a fine repository for observed things.
But there’s something special about direct address! Whether or not anyone is listening, writing to someone is different from writing in one’s journal, whether or not anyone actually reads. All the corny things I tell my students are true. Writing is thinking. It is a process of discovery. I believe we exist a little more when we write ourselves down—it feels true for me, at least—and that when we take turns listening, we help each other exist. Clap your hands if you believe in fairies, etc.
Confession: when I was a kid, I used to love Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. But that’s not the confession part. This is: in elementary school, I used to walk across the playground during recess, silently narrating my actions to myself, as though they were part of a Laura Ingalls Wilder-style story—a book being written in real time for an audience. Or during gym class, playing dodgeball, I’d be setting down all that happened in unspoken words. It was weird and sort of lonely, I guess, but I found it satisfying, and at any rate I couldn’t stop.
It doesn’t come as naturally anymore, that kind of running verbal experience of life. In a way that I couldn’t have imagined when I was a teenager, I feel now that the ability to speak is like any muscle: it must be used to keep it in shape. But when it’s working well, it feels so good.
So with all that in mind, I am starting a series of little letters. I’m thinking of them as messages to all and no one, though I’ve taken the liberty of signing a handful of old friends and family members up to this thing, so I will try and keep it interesting.
Margaret Atwood said: “A word after a word after a word is power.”
My excellent therapist in Ithaca said: “You can be intimate with someone else, even if they’re not intimate with you.”
Zadie Smith said something to the effect of, “I write so that my life won’t pass me by.” (If anyone has the original of this, please let me know. I read it somewhere once, and lost it, and have since searched without finding, but it’s my favorite.)
I’m hoping for this newsletter to somehow triangulate among those three ideas. Thinking, observing, putting into words, and keeping in touch. If you want to write back, please, write back! But no pressure.