In an Utterly Unprecedented Move

I’m going to blog instead of refreshing my e-mail in box.  And what, you might be asking, is SHE going to write about?   Does she even read books, the  ostensible purpose for this entire blog?  How could she possibly find the time, so busy is she obsessing over why no one is e-mailing her editing suggestions for her book, or giving her news of her stories!??

But it turns out, dear readers, that I do indeed read, and what a pleasure it is to have that to hold up as a shield against anxiety.  I gave my camera to a child to take on a trip, so I can’t actually document the book I’m reading, but I’ll just tell you here and now that I picked up E.B. White’s Letters (with a very nice introduction by John Updike) at Moe’s Books in Berkeley yesterday and I am in the happiest of reading experiences:  thumbing through the personal papers of someone I admire.

Ever since I received my first letter from an author (come to think of it, it was my only letter and was written in response to my gushing fan mail), which was from Noel Streatfield, the author of Ballet Shoes, I have lusted after the casual writing of people I admire — writers mostly.   The only thing I learned about Noel Streatfield from that letter was that she used a fountain pen to write her name in that proper up and down English writing, which is not at all the same as the kind of cursive you learn in the United States in the third grade, because it is far SMARTER, but well, that was good enough for me.

It’s a weird kind of nosiness, this snooping around in the letters, diaries and notebooks of writers.  I think I do it  because I want to know who these people are, and how they managed to get so  much real life down in a story.  But until today, when I began to refresh my inbox for the six millionth time, and decided instead it would be better to write about what I’m reading, I have never really given much thought to the charm of the diary, the letter, the notebook.

I’m pretty sure what gets me about these kinds of things is the possibility that you’ll edge closer to the magic in fiction, that by knowing something true about the person who created it, you will somehow be invested with that magic yourself.  But most of  the time what you discover isn’t magic, exactly, but more that the person who wrote something you loved was sort of weird, or very funny, or even more anxious than you are.   And that is just as good as the whole magic thing.

Here are some discoveries I’ve made reading letters and diaries, because that is what this blog post is about to become:  a compendium of my favorite bits from the letters, diaries and notebooks I’ve read over the years.

Well, first, there’s Rilke, whose Letters to a Young Poet is not really a book of letters, of course, but more a guide to the writer he probably once was.  But the tone of it is so confidential and kind, that even though the young poet isn’t a real person, which means these aren’t really letters, any more than Plato is talking to actual students in those dialogues, it’s still a great book.  My favorite thing in it?  The news that good things are difficult.  I cannot tell you how many times I have repeated this information — usually to my children, but to myself also.  And I aso rely heavily on its reverse:  if it’s difficult, that’s probably a sign that you’re working on something worth doing.   (Except of course, if what you’re trying to do is turn a nozzle ON by turning it in the direction that turns it off.  THAT is difficult because you are being stupid.  It’s important to know the difference.)

Let’s see.  Who else?  Oh.  Wallace Stevens’s notebooks are collected in a very cool facsimile edition called Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects: Wallace Stevens’ Commonplace Book.  Have I mentioned how much I like to look at the handwriting of great writers?  And how sad I am that my generation is the last to actually write things down and not type them?  (And most of us don’t even do that.)  Anyway, this book is full of things Stevens copied down about other writers, because he was sort of nosy too and liked to read things artists said about doing their jobs.  I am particularly fond of this, which is actually something Henry James said in a letter to H.G. Wells, back when letters were written down in ink:

It is art which makes life, makes interest, makes importance . . . and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.

And then there is Henry James, himself, whose notebooks I have been reading in no particular order.  One thing I love about them is how James would sketch out the plots of entire short stories, as though he was describing the story to someone, and in fact, you realize that people told Henry James weird and interesting stories all the time, and then he’d steal them and make something really terrific of them.  Which makes me understand how it can be that people would sue someone like JK Rowling, because they too once thought it would be cool to set a story about some underage wizards in an English boarding school and maybe they were talking about it in some cafe in Edinburgh and a woman with a baby in a stroller who was sitting next to them was scribbling in anotebook the whole time they were talking and well. ..  The thing is, you have to be Henry James (or JK Rowling) to really make that work; those stories you hear from people aren’t fiction until you apply some magic to them.

And although there is much, much more, I see that this is where I can put my favorite thing from Virginia Woolf”s Diaries, which are very long and have a lot of great things in them, but this is one of the best and most beautiful of all those things and a good place to end this post, which has done two things:  made me realize how much I love books and kept me from that obsessive inbox refreshing thing, which is not refreshing at all:

to suppress oneself and run freely out in joy — such is the perfectly infallible and simple prescription.  And to use one’s hands and eyes; to talk to people; to be a straw on the river, now and then — passive, not striving to say this is this.  If one does not lie back and sum up and say to the moment, this very moment,  Stay you are so fair, what will be one’s gain, dying?  No:  stay, this moment.  No one ever says that enough.

11 thoughts on “In an Utterly Unprecedented Move

  1. I read DH Lawrence’s letters in my 20’s, and oh how sad it made me — all the scrabbling for money he had to do, the illnesses, ugh. But then, I’d come upon a passage full of such magic I’d have to write it down. I have several commonplace books from that time. I like that not only do I have these terrific quotes from writers all together in a book, but they’re all written in my hand, as if I hoped to absorb their magic by mingling it with my handwriting.

    I’m too lazy for that now. But thanks for the reminder! xo

  2. Totally wonderful piece, Lily. Thank you. I think poets create a trail of autobiography as they go, but it’s harder to hunt fiction writers down. And you reminded me of Noel Streitfeld. (I loved those books!)

    Thanks for this.

  3. You remind me of why I think “A Grief Observed” is the best of C.S. Lewis’ books–it is an edited transcript of the journal he kept after he lost his wife. It inspired “Shadowlands,” which is an excellent (if very loose) adaptation of a book onto the stage and into film.

    I wonder how electronic communication will change how future generations will read and consider the correspondence and contemporary writers…

  4. Updike must have introduced just about everything … I recently read two books he introduced, and here you are mentioning another. I think I would love to read authors’ letters, although I haven’t yet, and I haven’t read many diaries either. But I do love that kind of lighter, more ephemeral writing, what little I’ve read, and I should explore more!

  5. Oh Dorothy, you are so right! I think that when a writer achieves a certain eminence and age, the requests to write introductions just flow into them. I remember a period when I was in love with MFK Fisher (I still am, I would like to add), and she was still alive, and it seemed like every book I picked up had one of her witty and warm introductions in it. I’d buy a book based just on that, because of the aforementioned love I have for her. And yes, you should pick up some letters and indulge! (I have heard that Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell’s letters, which just came out in the last year or so, are fantastic.)

    Oh Ben, that sounds so wonderful. I saw Shadowlands when I was in London a few winters ago and it was terribly moving. I didn’t know it was based on anything in particular, and I’m so glad to know that.

    Dear Thaisa, You know, you’re so right about poets being so much more represented in letters and notebooks and diaries! I suppose it has to do with having words left over? (No, that can’t be right….) xoxo

    Marie, I have one of those books too, and I think I will have to try to overcome whatever laziness it is that keeps me from recording things I love. Because I have noticed that the things I’ve written in that book have stayed with me — and I would like that to keep happening!!

  6. I too love catching a glimpse of the inner workings of a writer’s mind through their journals or notebooks. I love Letters to a Young Poet, Woolf’s Writer’s Diary and May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude. If nothing else, it is heartening to read in their own words that these writers too struggled with self doubt and anxiety about their writing.

  7. Hello WP, I’ve never read May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude. I think I’ll have to give it a try. And yes, it is heartening and interesting to see how writers we admire have gone through similar struggles.

  8. “good things are difficult” I need to write that across the top of the bathroom mirror and my work computer monitors.

    Perhaps my project this summer should be Wallace Stephens – I’ve read the selected two or three times over the decades and it’s about time I did something meatier – the notebooks sound like a great start.

  9. U-Dad — There’s also a really really fun oral biography of Stevens, called Parts of a World, Wallace Stevens Remembered. (or something like that). Anyway, it’s a bunch of interviews of Stevens’s contemporaries, more or less, and it’s wonderful.

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