Archive | November, 2015

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Who would have dreamed that one of the brightest lights of Southern literature and a California writer of hard-boiled detective novels would become fast friends and establish a loving relationship for the rest of their lives?

That’s what happened when Eudora Welty, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Ross Macdonald, winner of multiple Edgar awards for best mystery novel and a Grand Master of Mystery Writing, accidentally met at The Algonquin Hotel after exchanging fan letters for their books. They regretted they lived so far apart – she in Jackson, Mississippi, and he in Santa Barbara, California. Macdonald wrote her in consolation, “Meanwhile, there are letters.”

Without this marvelous book of letters (“Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald,” edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan), readers and admirers of those two fine writers and their loving friendship would never be fully known.

I can’t help thinking there will soon be very few books of letters. Can you imagine rushing out to read a book called ’Meanwhile There Are Emails”? (Or better still, “Meanwhile There Are Tweets”?) The only such book I can imagine might be published would be “The Deleted Emails of Hillary Clinton” from her time as Secretary of State.

No matter how talented the writer, an email is just not the format for developing complex moods, landscapes and the insights that grow from meditative writing. One of the most beautiful and profound passages in Welty’s letters develops from her thoughts while going north on the train past Cairo, Illinois, and seeing from the high railroad bridge the place where the Ohio and Mississippi and a small local river come together.

In the sky, a long ragged V of birds flies south with the river: 
“I kept hearing in my head all the way that beautiful word ‘confluence’ – ‘the confluence of the waters’ – everything the eyes could see was like the world happening. . .It may not be so rare, but I thought so then and I think so now – it’s all so rarely the blessing falls.”

What a wonderful concept – those rare times when “the blessing falls,” when we sense a kind of beauty and harmony in life. I doubt that such “blessing falls” in emails, much less Tweets or Instagram posts. We now live in a constant state of Twitter, our attention attacked at every point, fragmented by instant messages, images, apps and Tweets, leaving no space for contemplation, or even at times, it seems, for breathing.

As I lament the loss of letter writing, I confess to my own guilt. I haven’t written what I think of as “a real letter” – words on paper, folded into an envelope, affixed with a stamp and put in a mailbox or taken to the post office – in more than a year. That last letter went to my old minister and friend in Boston, one of the few of even my own lofty age who still writes letters. He even writes them with a pen with his own hand. I haven’t even been able to bring myself to answer by tapping the keys of my computer and printing out a page or two of personal news and thoughts.

A few years ago, a friend from my time in “New York in the Fifties” sent me a packet of letters I had written to him and his wife in the ‘50s and ‘60s. His wife had recently died, and she had saved those letters. My old friend was thoughtful enough to send them to me in a package – the kind of gesture that was made by people who had the time and made the effort to give something of personal value to someone who they knew would appreciate it.

I was amazed when I read the letters I wrote – they were like personal essays, full of news, humor, opinions, questions – nor were mine all that unique. Everyone I knew wrote letters like that. It was an art that seems to be lost. The letters in the marvelous Welty-Macdonald book are letters written in the ‘70s – before the advent of email.

Seven years ago, I was honored to be given the job of finding, assembling and introducing a book of Kurt Vonnegut letters. To tell the truth, I thought it would be pretty easy. All you had to do was go to the archives and track down Vonnegut’s letters and put them in order and write an introductory essay.

Not so fast! Vonnegut didn’t keep copies of any of the letters he wrote. (I knew that firsthand as I once asked him for a copy of a letter of recommendation he had written for me, and essentially he said too bad, that one I sent you is all there is.)

After I tracked down a major batch of letters, which came from a wide variety of archives, writers, friends and family, I had to make choices from more than 500 plus letters to retain the ones that maintained the flow of his life and seemed most relevant to his life and work. After that, more were cut by the publisher.

After writing my personal/professional introduction, I still felt something was missing from the book. I have always been frustrated with books of letters that leave you in the middle feeling lost – where was the writer of the letters at the time he was writing and what was going on in his or her life in the context of any particular letter I was reading?

For the sake of the reader, I wrote an introduction to each decade – from the ‘40s when he wrote his first letter home after being a P.O.W. in World War II to the last decade of his life, “The Two Thousands.”

That decade began with a letter to his daughter Edie, a painter. (Her painting of “Adam and Eve” has been hanging in all of my many living rooms since 1971, from Boston and Los Angeles to Miami and Indianapolis.)

In that letter Kurt wrote to Edie on January 1, 2000, he told about someone sending him a picture of his father, the architect, and noted that “Father, like you, was a good citizen, a founder, among other virtuous activities, of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, one of the best in the world, and designer of a landmark clock at the corner of Washington and Meridian Streets, in the precise corner of town, which intersection was and may still be called ‘The Crossroads of America.’”

He went on to tell Edie that he had been in Indianapolis that past June, “and I walked under that clock, and I looked up at it, and I said out loud ‘Hi, Dad.’”

His last letter in my book was written to a Cornell professor, saying he was unable to come and give a talk at the university. He ended it “But God bless you for being a teacher. . .”

Much of the spirit of the man is in those few lines to his daughter and to the Cornell professor. You can get a deeper and more accurate picture of Vonnegut’s life from reading his letters than from any biography. The letters portray his triumphs and tragedies, his deep loyalties and friendships, from high school pals and sons and daughters to famous writers, and his passionate causes, from defending freedom of speech to pleas for saving the planet, all in his own inimitable voice and style.

Letters say who we are, an identity that can’t be summed up in a Tweet. Try writing a letter today to someone you love! Write it on paper, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and drop it in a mailbox. You’ll be doing yourself and your friend a favor. I promise to do it myself.

Writer’s Tip: My Columbia Professor C. Wright Mills, the sociologist and author of White Collar and The Power Elite, told me that his own method for breaking through “Writer’s Block” was to write a letter to a friend. In writing a letter, you stop worrying about style, publishing, editorial criticism, and just write in a free, natural way to express yourself. It is the kind of freedom you want for the book or story or article you are working on and have temporarily become blocked on. The letter allows you to “loosen up” and return to the work at hand, knowing you are indeed a writer – you have just written, and proved it to yourself!

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield