Thursday, May 06, 2010

Writing Letters, Living Right

The New Yorker just published a selection of Saul Bellow's correspondence. It contains a letter Bellow wote to Philip Roth in 1957. (For context: that means Roth is 24 years old and still unknown, while Bellow is twenty years older and has an established reputation as a writer.) Apparently Roth had sent Bellow the manuscript of a story called "Expect the Vandals", and the body of the letter contains a sympathetic critique of that story. What struck me was the framing of the letter, which refers to what was apparently a substantial delay:

Manuscripts around here shift and wander in huge piles, like the dunes. Yours turned up today, and I apologize to you for my disorder. It hurts me more.


Look, try Henry Volkening at 522 Fifth Ave. My Agent. A very good one, too. Best of luck. And forgive my having the mss. so long. I should have read it at once. But I don't live right. (Saul Bellow, “Among Writers,” The New Yorker, April 26, 2010, p. 56)

Correspondence can be an important part of your life as a writer, perhaps even more so in the case of academic writing. Good writing often circulates informally within a network of close peers and benefits from the reactions of these readers both in the letter and in the spirit (Bellow to Berryman: "When it's you who tells me something I rely utterly on it, and what you tell me does me infinite amounts of good.") Being a poor correspondent is, as Bellow says, a sign that you "don't live right".

Now, this is of course the point at which I confess that I, too, am a poor correspondent. For the most part, I react in a timely manner to the texts I edit as a part of my job. But I find it more difficult to set aside time to read things that interest me personally and to write a letter that the writers of those texts will find useful (both critical and encouraging). That takes time.

But it has to be done, not just for the sake of the writers who send me their stuff. Writing letters to other writers is a great way of thinking about your style and working on it in an informal way. (We talk about our ideas differently in letters than in print; hearing what you have to say in those situations can be very useful to you.) While "it hurts me more" might seem a bit disingenuous, there is some truth to it. You don't want your place filled up with a pile of manuscripts that wander around "like dunes". You want to get to things that matter to you often and repeatedly. It's all part of living well.

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