How do writers find each other in the world? When do writers reach out and decide to shape a relationship around letters?
I wish I could write you on paper, the old way, so you could see the places I scratch out and those that I keep in. I so love receiving letters and I want you to receive one. I might enclose the petals of a flowering plant from our yard, or a cicada shell that I would find clinging to bark, though when you opened the letter, it would be crushed, a dusty shadow with six splayed legs. Or I would rub a bit of white ginger on the paper so the letter smelled like flowers and me. Or I would enclose a small silk sac of coffee grounds, enough for one cup of midnight writing oil.
We began to write one another during our MFA program. She was a playwright and poet and I was making my way in fiction and memoir. Her room was next to mine and in the morning, at exactly the same time, I would take out my small metal sculpture of Siva and meditate; meanwhile, she would, and I imagined her standing, play her cedar flute. As I sat up in bed reciting my mantra, my back pressed against the wall that connected our rooms, I felt her notes vibrating against me through the thin layer of sheetrock. Later, she told me she could feel my quiet Siva through the wall, his name somehow mysteriously ending up in her play even before she knew about my morning ritual.
Dawn expired and I sat down to work. A message popped up on my computer screen: “What are you writing?”
I wrote back immediately: “I heard your flute this morning while I was meditating, my back against your wall…it gave such a beautiful dimension to my experience. I will now go and write a song…”
Thus, our correspondence came into being.
We asked each other about what our writing day looked like. Was it one that was heavy, grounded, saturated in story? Or did we find ourselves rushing about, snagging words from the sky and battening them down on the page? We spoke about the sensation of writing, how it felt much like bleeding before you knew you were hurt. And then there was the contemplation of materials, which pen we used and the texture of the paper and how the page smelled like incense and coffee on a good day.
We savored the intimacy of knowing of each other’s work, not so much the written form but the process behind the writing that seemed so personal as to not be described, but rather apprehended suddenly by someone who cared. I wanted to know what she was doing during the precise moment when she was struck with the need to write. I wanted to understand how her dreams functioned as literary agents, connecting her waking world to a vast, undifferentiated space full of imagery. She wanted to know from where I pulled my strength to face the hard stuff I wrote about. She questioned, too, my desire to create a happy ending.
Sometimes, our main characters wrote to each other, shoving us aside unceremoniously in order to gain more clarity about their lives. They seemed to be able to ask one another questions we were unable or unwilling to ask ourselves or each other.
Between us, a world emerged – a scaffolded structure for our experience of writing, a series of gentle checkpoints, a quiet support. I was held inside the substance of our creation which felt both fragile and strong.
Sometimes, another writer must be a witness and a mirror in order for us to understand our own process, to know how language approaches us and makes itself ours. The risk one takes with such exposure can feel like looking directly into the sun. I suppose we both had to look away at times, depending less on each other than on the tapestry we had built– this way of talking about writing – a blanket I held dear, woven from our explorations together which would forever inform how I communicate with myself about my own writing and its place in my life.
Writers writing to other writers seems the most natural thing in the world. Who else would hover over every word and try to squeeze daily consciousness into language? Perhaps there is something of a feeling of being off-duty that compels a writer to express the deepest parts of her or himself in letters, revealing what lies subcutaneously to another human engaged in the same endeavor.
There are things I would not have written had I not known her in this way. I am grateful for the time we shared together in letters, and I am deeply inspired by and curious about others who have done the same. When I came across the letters in The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, I felt at once like I’d come home.
This slim volume of correspondence between poets Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright during the last two years of his life is a remarkable example of the respect, awe, and ultimately, the immense support possible between two writers. The book is a hearty antidote to the isolation a writer can feel in this often solitary and heart-demanding profession. To sip from these letters is to give oneself time: time to acknowledge the power of connection, to recognize kindred souls, to remember, at the end of the day, that words can and do heal.
In the introduction, James’ widow Anne Wright reveals that the two writers met just twice: first at a reading by Silko in Michigan in 1973, and for the last time on Wright’s deathbed in 1980. Their correspondence spans eighteen months and brings to the fore an exploration of their personal lives as well as the experience of writing to which they were unendingly devoted. It is fueled by mutual admiration and perhaps even a need for witness. There is an urgency present in these letters, and an alchemy. Use of a sexual metaphor here is a bit too tempting, and I will spare you any analogy involving the word “cross-pollination.” But there is a third entity that comes into existence as a result of such a voracious union, whose sole purpose is to feed the writer and their work.
What Silko and Wright offered each other was a chance to speak their truths, unhindered by criticism, and then to bathe in a response that somehow touched the very artery of a larger truth. In doing so, they invited each other to grow past their self-perceived limitations. Together, they helped each other shore up the gap between loss and love.
Wright was so moved by Silko’s Ceremony that he offers this captivating gesture in his first letter: “I think I am trying to say that my very life means more to me than it would have meant if you hadn’t written Ceremony. But this seems inadequate too.” He goes on to write, “I am very happy you are alive and writing books.”
Isn’t this just it? The immediacy of association? With whom do we share the planet at this very moment and can we extend ourselves into the literary worlds of others and then respond in turn, however intimate this might feel? Can we reach through the ethers and pull these like-minded souls towards us, interfacing with them for a moment or for a lifetime in order to give new shape to our own writing and thinking?
Silko begins her first letter to Wright, “Dear Mr. Wright, Your letter came at a time when I needed it most. So many sad things have happened with my marriage and my children – it is good to know that my work means something.” In this letter she also reveals her own alienation from the “world of poetry that most American writers my age know.” Silko has great regard for Wright’s work because his sparse and direct language reminds her, as she writes, of the way in which her grandfather spoke. She confesses she feels like an outsider of the “American writing scene.” Ironically, Silko mentions Robert Lowell and Ezra Pound as instances of her ignorance—poets whose correspondences with other writers have also made for fascinating volumes (Lowell’s with Elizabeth Bishop; Pound’s with William Carlos Williams). A shared compulsion. How comforting to discover that this delicate construction between wordsmiths is a natural inclination. The exchange between writers is delicate precisely because it cannot be controlled beyond the simple application of manners and wit. The work grows into what it wants to be.
In her second letter to Wright, Silko begins, “Dear Mr. Wright,” only to add beneath, “Dear Jim.” What follows is a series of intimate portrayals of both the quotidian and the esoteric experiences of their lives. While the composition of the letters is aesthetically unforgettable, what equally endures is the commentary on the shift that transpires within each writer upon participating in the exchange. “I never know what will happen when I write a letter. Certain persons bring out certain things in me,” writes Silko.
As a writer reading these letters, it strikes me as therapeutic that both authors definitively address the juncture between art and their own lives, documenting a roadmap of sorts to navigate the two, which seem sometimes at odds. Silko writes of a period of “emotional upheaval” that prevented her from reading. For any writer experiencing great loss or change, these words come as salve to the awaiting ear – an affirmation of the way in which occurrences in our lives can fuel or arrest our writing processes. Silko laments that she’s felt in the past that there were no poems that spoke to her, but then, in this letter, realizes that she “was the one who couldn’t hear very well.” What propels her out of this sense of isolation is, indeed, her admiration for and trust in Wright. Through her interaction with him, she is inspired to reach back into the canon of contemporary work in order to “find out what you have been discovering while I sat with my fingers in my ears.”
Wright is equally moved by Silko’s stories and her use of landscape imagery to capture what he calls “spirit.” He reveals the effect their correspondence has not only on his work but on his writing process. In the sweetest of ways, he shares with her: “You’ve sent me back to my notebook, and I had a slow and lovely time this morning with a poem.” He comments that his recent work is infused with a contemplation of the relationship between people and the land as a direct result from his interaction with her. His aesthetic serves as a mirror to Silko’s doubts about her work. Where she feels she has overburdened her work with landscape imagery, he feels it is these very descriptions that “do so much to create the stories you are telling there.”
Though from vastly different backgrounds, the two writers continually find resonance in each other’s work and life experiences. They urge one another to “persist,” as Silko says, through illness and adversity. They ride on a certain pulsation of connection, uniquely described by Wright while traveling, during which time he is reduced to sending postcards: “They [the postcards] are a way of sharing something, some place or other delight, and they can also, when written and sent truly, offer small wavelets, so to speak, to the rhythm of a correspondence.”
Perhaps most compelling is the honesty with which each writes about pains in their lives concerning the loss of children, due to, in Wright’s case, estrangement, and in Silko’s, loss of custody. What emerges from each is a sensation that the writing itself is a reservoir of salvation: “Annie has been a great support through it all, but I have mainly clung to my books, my writing,” writes James. Despite support from friends, partners, and family, there exists still the desire to be borne witness by another writer, and to face our own existence through the act of writing itself.
I feel ready to write now. Thank you. You have rejuvenated my spirit and given me the push to finish this draft today. I must. I will send it Friday – tomorrow’s for writing process letters and teaching yoga.
Words as healers, writers as healers, writers writing to heal ourselves, yes! I feel like my own words are healing me from inside – scouring and cleansing and then pushing themselves out into the world to do the same for others hopefully.
Congratulations on sending something out to a journal – I know that the world needs to hear more of your voice.
You are doing great things for this planet and for people and I know that the Earth will benefit from all you do – I feel it. I admire your consummate artistness.
And I love the idea you mention of following a trail of light to the moon…I will look now for something that reflects the moonlight…perhaps it is the paper I am writing on – this cool, crisp, white, tree shadow.
Yours in Writing,
Silko, Leslie Marmon and James Wright. Ed. Anne Wright. The Delicacy and Strength of Lace. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 1986. Print.
Phil Douglis, PBase