I’ve been reading Henry and June by Anais Nin and it’s gotten me thinking about how writers interact with one another and what effect those interactions have on our creativity and output. The book is filled with the letters Henry Miller and Anais exchanged and conversations they had about one another’s work, literary ideas, and the writing life. They shared so much (including, eventually, a bed) that their work was ultimately changed by their interactions.
This idea might be scary for some authors – we’re always worried about outside influences into our creative life – but I think the input from others who understand the work as much as we do is invaluable. It takes years of practice and reading and seeing the world with an artist’s eye to get to the level of writing these two were at. To be able to learn from one another on such a deep level could do nothing but improve their work.
More than that, they played the role of supporter for one another. As every writer knows, writing is difficult at the best of times, and can feel like a near-death experience at the not so great of times. The mental, physical and emotional toll it takes on a person is not a casual thing. So for the writers who had this deep connection to another writer, an understanding that a non-writer just couldn’t have, it must have been a great boost during the hard times.
We have lots of opportunities to interact with other writers now of course, via email, twitter, conferences and MFA programs. But I have to imagine that the experience is just not quite the same thing. To receive a package in the mail, a collection of notes and scribbled thoughts, probably smelling faintly of the author, an outpouring of handwriting (that was not edited and shaped in the way an email most certainly is) must feel tremendously different and have a unique affect. One of my favorite quotes from Henry and June captures this feeling well:
“More letters from Henry, parts of his book as he writes it, quotations, notes while listening to Debussy and Ravel, on the back of menus of small restaurants in shabby quarters. A torrent of realism.” (From Henry and June)
The idea of receiving a package like that in the mail from an author like Henry Miller makes me yearn for a past that we will never have again. We connect, but somehow it ends up feeling forced and fake, a quick distillation of a person rather than a full essence.
Like many authors from the early 20th century, Anton Checkov was a great letter writer. Reading his letters is like reading poetry or fiction. His descriptive powers are obvious in every letter and it makes me wonder, by writing all these detailed notes to others, was he not also practicing the writing itself? By creating all these pictures of his life for the recipient, wasn’t he really just practicing the art of narration?
“I am writing you upon my return from a crabbing expedition. The weather is superb. Everything sings, blooms and gleams with beauty. The garden is already completely green, and even the oaks have blossomed forth. The busy worms have given a white coat to the trunks of the apple, pear, cherry and plum trees. All these trees bloom white, which makes them startlingly like brides in their wedding dresses: white frocks, white flowers and a look of innocence, as though they were ashamed to have people stare at them.” (Anton Checkov, from The Selected Letters of Anton Checkov)
Finally, what about the authors to come after us? Will they pour over our emails and twitter feed, hoping to catch a glimpse of what made us great? Of what our writing life was like? And what will they find? The truth or just a caricature of our person, splayed out on the internet, devoid of the reality of ourselves?
“My creative fire burns at a slow, even pace, without flash and crackle, although sometimes I may write fifty or sixty pages at one swoop in one night or, absorbed by my work I will keep myself from going to bed when I feel sleepy…” (Anton Checkov, from The Selected Letters of Anton Checkov)
Do you have contact with other writers? Have you ever sent another writer a letter in the mail or received one yourself? Please share your experiences in the comments below!