WRITERS' WRITERS: PENNING LETTERS
"The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters." --Lewis Carroll
Whenever, as a writer, I arrive at the point where the tips of my fingers merely rest on the keyboard as I struggle to find just the right word, the right sentence, or even the right thought, I take a deep breath and pull from the antique sterling silver toast rack that belonged to my mother a letter from an author with much more substance that I have yet acquired to create words that move me forward. And, as if by magic, my fingers tap the keys with the certainty that Sean Connery's character in FINDING FORRESTER impressed upon his student, Jamal Wallace. And once again, I am happy -- regardless of the length of time that passes. And that is more than enough.
When I was asked to teach Creative Writing to seniors at Charleston Catholic High School in the fall of 1995, I was more than eager to commit to that opportunity. I recall writing a letter to Harper Lee, asking for advice for my young writers. I knew she was not inclined to respond to similar requests, but I wrote the letter, signed it, sealed it, stamped it, and sent it on its way. When I received a typed reply from her, I held the letter in my hand like a rare artifact, making my way to the framer's shop to place it under protective museum glass, with a simple, narrow, black wood frame. It sits on my writing table where, twenty-three years later, it continues to point me and my former students in the right direction, to pursue that perfect word or sentence or thought. Again, it is more than enough.
Over the years, correspondence gifted from William Styron (who visited Charleston, WV, during my teaching tenure at CCHS) addressing the effects of depression on the writing life; Donald Hall, whose letter touched every chord of every student as he spoke of his life with Jane Kenyon, whose poem "The Shirt," more than touched every chord of every student for reasons only they knew; and the hand-written note from Kaye Gibbons, after having met her in NYC many years ago as I treasured her work, ELLEN FOSTER became fine treasures with words that resonated -- and continue to do so -- in very special ways.
And while I did not correspondence with Steinbeck or O'Connor or Capote (in the handwriting sense), what I continue to return to time and again are the individual, respective gifts of pacing, redemption, and the beauty of life's absurdity. And Mary Oliver's gift of looking -- really looking -- at nature's abundant gifts led me to pick up a leaf, an acorn, a butterfly's wing, and a bird's feather to see each one's myriad layers of mystery and magic. Finally, it was Salinger's closing line from THE CATCHER IN THE RYE that best capsulizes loss in so few words that it nears poetry. More than enough? Oh, indeed. Most certainly, indeed.