Saturday, July 19, 2014


In the nineteenth-century literature I study, people are always writing letters. Often it's a chore, a daily thing: someone will remove herself from the breakfast table to attend to her correspondence. Sometimes people hire secretaries to help them to keep up--this, especially, in Henry James novels. Sometimes it's an act of defiance, as when Harriet Jacobs sends a letter to the South containing false information about her whereabouts in order to protect her hard-won freedom. A secreted or surprise letter can advance a plot, and dead letters--missives mailed but never received--can inform a character, explain his single and repeated utterance, "I would prefer not to."

Letters, letters, and more letters litter the texts of old.

The first novels were epistolary, collections of fictional letters. 
It's no wonder.

Today we send very few letters. We prefer email and texting and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram (although for the life of me I cannot figure out Instagram). Even holiday cards have sacrificed their handwritten content, stock though it might have become, to photos of children and a hastily scrawled "Happy Holidays!" (if that). Really, the only handwritten mail that seems to have endured is the thank-you note, and I'll admit that I sometimes substitute email thanks for written ones.

I miss the letter, not just the thrill of receiving one but also the feel of writing one. So I've decided to write a letter a day for one year and to write about the experience. 

I'm six letters in, and so far when I've sat down to write I have felt, variously: excited, calm, reflective, introspective, interested, doubtful, rushed, a little tipsy, and blank. The tipsiness was the most unsettling. Turns out that Facebook posts are not the only things you shouldn't write when you've had a couple of glasses of wine. Makes me want to read Hemingway's letters. 

A letter from Hemingway! Steady as he goes.

Before I began this project in earnest (Hemingway pun!) I made a list of rules for myself:
  • The letters must be hand-written.
  • I must write at least one letter per day, but I can't write more than one with the intention of banking them. 
  • I have to mail the letters, but I can mail them in small batches if, for example, I can't find a stamp or it's a Sunday or it's 10:00 p.m.
  • The letters must be personal. (I wrote this rule in response to what my boyfriend said when I told him about the project: "You mean letters of complaint?" Ah, how well he knows me. But, no, I mean letters of friendship.)
  • The letters must be actual letters, not simply notes. I'm going to have to feel my way through this one, sort of like figuring out what separates a long short story from a novella, or a novella from a novel. The line is not as defined as you might think.
  • It's ok to write to the same person more than once. In fact, since I do not have 365 friends, it's imperative.
  • My letter can be a response to a letter I've received. Responses count!
  • I must keep track of dates and recipients; otherwise, all is lost.
  • I must imagine myself completing this project, or else I will surely give it up at some point. The power of positive thinking, people.
My letter-writing campaign is not solely an act of nostalgia. It's an effort to improve my focus and sense of calm and to connect with people in an old way. Who knows? Maybe I'll feel alienated, too; letter-writing is a solitary act, and no one is required to write back. I'm sure that on some days I will prefer not to write, and I'll have to force myself to do it. (Apologies in advance to the recipients of those letters.) But write I will.

Lily Bart, the wayward protagonist of Edith Wharton's 1905 novel The House of Mirth has stationery embossed with a sailboat and the word Beyond! I won't spoil the ending of the novel for you, so suffice it to say that the detail is ironic. All the same, I appreciate the stubborn, even stupid, hopefulness of Lily's notepaper. She plans to go Beyond! and letters are going to get her there. Indeed, Lily's fate rests on correspondence: she comes by a stack of illicit love letters that position her to blackmail the parties involved. Whether or not she submits to the temptation, she will gain and she will lose everything. 

Wharton understood the power of a letter. I think we do, too, even if we've forgotten. As I write, I'll let you know what I rediscover and what I never knew.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Kill your darlings.

My friend Suzanne emailed me yesterday. Suzanne is a writer, and she'd just gotten word that The Prague Revue not only wanted to publish the essay she'd submitted but in fact had published it online that very day. Trouble is, she'd quoted me in the essay, and she hadn't had a chance to run that by me. Too late now: the essay is out there, and our words belong to the ages.

Here's the thing. The essay is about dead baby jokes. More specifically, it reflects upon a session at this year's Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in which Lucy Corin read a string of dead baby jokes from a work in progress. Here's how Suzanne tells it:

"In the scene read by Corin, a father tells the dead baby jokes to his daughter. The girl has attempted suicide and floats in and out of a coma. The father sits by her bed and tells the jokes as a kind of 'magic spell' to ward off imminent death, for, as Corin observed in her opening comments, magic 'shores up against pain via rhythm.' The wisecracks started out fairly innocuously, but grew progressively more disturbing. At first, audience members, including me, laughed. Then we fell silent. The gags grew more sinister and graphic, and still Corin continued. Her voice shook. The jokes were awful—bloody and baroque and vicious."

A few days after the conference, Suzanne was still processing her experience in the session, and she happened to talk to me about it. Audience members had become uncomfortable, she said. The room was overcrowded and stifling hot, and, what with the material and all, people were feeling woozy, sick, bludgeoned. One woman yelled, "What are you doing? Why are you traumatizing your audience like this? What does this have to do with magic or the intellect?" Others joined in what Suzanne describes as heckling, and Corin's defenders spoke up, too, told the hecklers to leave, encouraged Corin to continue. "Corin," writes Suzanne, "stood silently, head bowed."

Suzanne was silent, too, taking in the scene and instinctively siding with Corin. 

I should also side with Corin. I teach literature, so it goes almost without saying that I do not endorse censorship. I have recently opined against the idea of issuing trigger warnings about literary texts in any widespread or codified way. (Note: I do think that they are warranted in certain situations and cases. If you're not familiar with the issue see this NY Times piece.) As a rule, I value literature and the experience of reading or being read to, whatever that experience may include. Even so--or should I say, of course, because I am often forced to interrogate my closely held beliefs--I found myself telling Suzanne that Corin should never have read that excerpt from her work. A part of me even wondered if she had the right to write it. 

"Andy! What the FUCK?"

In her essay "On Dead Baby Jokes and Art," Suzanne identifies me as "a novelist friend, Bea." (Finally! An alter-ego I can embrace.) She recounts our conversation:

"I described this panel to a novelist friend, Bea, whose own child survived a near-fatal congenital illness as an infant. 'I would have walked out, too,' she said. 'You have to get this stuff right, or it’s immoral.' She laughed sheepishly. 'I guess you could say I believe in taboo.' Bea’s uneasy assertion reflects the mixed feelings of many readers and writers; we champion our right to free expression, yet, in the name of sensitivity and taste, we want limits placed on that speech. Indeed, the ethical stakes are real: When artists seize on any one of a number of private and public traumas, from dead babies to the Holocaust, they risk exploiting the real pain of real people. For Bea and many others, some subject matter should not be freely available to the artist merely because it strikes her as 'interesting.'”

Suzanne goes on to identify what is "thorny" about my reaction, and she's absolutely right: my objection makes sense in the abstract, but in practice it raises the question, "Who gets to decide which fictions lie outside the bounds of good taste?" 

I have no interest in claiming Jesse Helms as my homeboy.
(Artist unknown, accdg to

I readily see and accept this argument. Yet even after talking with Suzanne and reading her thoughtful and nuanced essay--and I encourage you to read it, too--I still suspect that, had I been in Corin's audience, I would have left the room early into her recitation of the fictional father's jokes. I would have done so not because Corin violated standards of sensitivity or taste but because she seems to have gotten it wrong. No parent would do what that father does. It's inauthentic. 

According to Suzanne, Corin said at the start of her reading that magic "shores up against pain via rhythm." About that she's right. When I sat beside my daughter's hospital bed, I uttered incantations to restore her: Please save my baby; please let her live. I did not use humor; I did not use irony; I did not tempt the fates by conjuring the deaths of babies. Who risks a misreading at a time like that?

Besides that, who tries to manage his own pain before having saved his child from hers? And why did that daughter, that fictional daughter, try to kill herself, anyway?

I remember now that my own father visited my daughter's hospital bed. Notwithstanding the evidence of a single photo of him gazing at her compassionately, I know that had I left him alone with her there's no telling what he would have said. Flash back to my own childhood, to my father's Helen Keller jokes, Jesus Christ jokes, Hitler jokes, adoption jokes, disease jokes, boob jokes, penis jokes, death jokes. Jokes, jokes, none of them funny, all of them crude, many of them cruel. What rhythm was he making to shore himself up against pain? And why did his poetry, his prose, his humor inflict so much pain upon others?

So Corin got it right, yes, she probably did. People heckled her for it, and that means that they don't tolerate a father like that, or that they don't believe he exists, or that they don't want to be reminded that he does. They want to protect the babies, the dead ones, the live ones, and the ones hanging in between. Probably Corin does, too, and so she wrote this man who, Suzanne argues, "For a while...could speak out of the monster's mouth and assume its destructive power as his own. But all the time, he said the jokes in a frightened voice. Within the clammy costume, he was still human, still small."