The Reading and Writing Life

BuschEncountered a book called “Letters to a Fiction Writer”–an anthology rustled up by the late Frederick Busch, whom I have always liked (although I do seem to get my Busch and Bausch novelists mixed up). It may be one of the Bausch brothers I like so much.

The letter that caught my eye, somewhat surprisingly, is one by Joyce Carol Oates, mostly “write your heart out,” but it opens thus:

“To a Young Writer:

All that a man has to say or do that can possibly concern mankind, is in some shape or other to tell the story of his love,–to sing; and, if he is fortunate and keeps alive, he will be forever in love. This alone is to be alive to the extremities.  –Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 6 May 1854

(Yet keep in mind Thoreau’s other, more sardonic aside in the first chapter of Walden:

I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything, to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment…untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it…One generation abandons the enterprise of another like stranded vessels.

How achingly true this seemed to me when I was a young, adolescent writer, and seems so still!)

If it’s your ambiguous destiny to be a writer, you already know that no one can tell you what to do; how to behave; still less how to think, and how to feel about yourself….

The letter also has this observation a bit later,

Don’t be ashamed of being an idealist, of being romantic and “yearning.” If you yearn for people who won’t reciprocate your interest in them, you should know that your yearning for them is probably the most valuable thing about them. So long as it’s unrequited.

Reminds me of something I read years ago by Robert Penn Warren about no experience in life being wasted on a writer.

That this resonates with me surprises, as, although I’ve always been impressed by Oates industry, I haven’t really clicked with her writing — at least the fiction. But she is apparently a wonderful mentor. To wit, this this recollection by Jonathan Safran Foer:

JSF: She [Oates] wrote a letter to my house in DC during one break, and she said, “We talked a lot about your work in the context of the class and now I would like to talk about it a little more personally. “You appear to have a very strong and promising talent coupled with that most important of writerly qualities, energy.” And man is she right! Energy is the most important writerly quality. In any case, she gave me a reading list. It was a very Joyce Carol Oates thing to do. She gave me suggestions for what avenues to pursue. And somebody took me seriously. It was a revelation for me. The revelation was not just that—the smaller revelation was that a writer of Joyce’s caliber would like my writing. The much larger revelation was that there was such a thing as my writing. It had never occurred to me.


writer at desk
Just one more line…


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