Snail-mail letters, R.I.P.

And you wonder why I blog so much. This is why: It’s because people don’t write real letters anymore. This all connects with a news story I read this morning, about the decline of cursive writing. My young students had never even heard the word ‘penmanship.’

I admit,  I  don’t write long letters anymore—well, not to individual correspondents. My blogs have replaced the long heartfelt missives I used to burden my poor friends with, in the age before Twitter and Facebook. And I will continue to blog, even during my upcoming sabbatical away from writing.  If you don’t like ‘em, don’t read ‘em.

The thing that always strikes me about writers from other ages is their correspondence. In a time when long-distance telephone rates were dauntingly high, people were forced to sit down and write letters to each other. I became a prolific letter writer in college and had a number of friends I wrote to. What joy to peer into my little box at the post office and see it crammed with mail!  Love letters, of course, were the best, but my boyfriends at the time were not very literate, so I don’t have any of those, tied in a ribbon and hidden in the back of my closet. But mostly the letters I exchanged back then were long confidences, gossip, revelations, expressions of affections—is the iPhone supposed to replace all that?

Somehow, email just isn’t the same. In fact, it fills me largely with dread to scan the inbox page, which is mostly spam—despite my diligent efforts to weed it out. Any personal missives are usually distressingly brief. It feels to me—and I know I’m showing my age, revealing myself to be a cranky old crone—but it seems like we know each other so much less these days. Sharing too much of ourselves is ‘TMI,’ it’s considered weird and creepy. We may want to know everything about our favorite celebrities, but we don’t want to know that much about each other. We are more apt to get our humanity fix through TV, Netflix and movies, and not from sharing pieces of ourselves through pen and ink, then stuffing it all into an envelope with pretty postage stamps.

Most twentieth-century writers worth their salt often have companion volumes to their work, consisting solely of the letters they wrote or received. In libraries across the country, archives are devoted to housing these quaint artifacts, and with good reason. Letters reveal a lot about a writer.  Letters are essential in developing a proclivity for writing. We use (or, used to use) letters to practice our art, as part of our literary apprenticeship, So now it’s the blog instead of the personal letter. Which is fine, but lacking in intimacy and the regard inherent in personal handwritten correspondence. Still, better than nothing, I suppose. But how will all these blogs be archived, in the future? Will they endure as, the way their dead-tree ancestors often do; or are they actually just figments of the imagination, that will eventually fade into nothingness as the years pass by?

Dialogue in the Graveyard

So after I finished my Merton research at Saint Bonaventure, I went over to the cemetery across the street, to search for the grave of the poet Robert Lax. Dr. Spaeth of the Merton Archives told me where to look, but I never got to it, because I was blindsided by the Franciscan friars’ graveyard at the top of the hill, and so many familiar names carved on the stones there.

If you attend a secular, urban university, likely you don’t think much about the fate of your professors and instructors beyond graduation. But because many of my professors were priests and Franciscans who never left the little college in Allegany, NY, here they all were, under neatly arranged gravestones, not necessarily in order of their deaths. I moved up and down the rows in a kind of emotional shock, remembering the good, wise,  cranky, funny, quirky, generous men they were, in their brown robes and sandals. If being at Merton’s grave was a moving experience, this was a tsunami for me: I had known these guys in the flesh, I’d learned from them, and they are still, in my mind’s eye, human and real and alive.

I swear I could I actually see Father Irenaeus, my old boss from the library, sitting atop his stone, bobbing a little bit with all the pent-up energy he kept inside, his eyes bright and eager behind the wireless spectacles. He is, of course, very approving, of my work on his friend, ‘Tom:’  Yes, yes, good work, Kathleen, good, good work, in his scratchy high-pitched voice, laced with the inflections of his native Alsace, as he nods vigorously in approval and support.

And over there…  Father Francis, my sophomore philosophy professor. And this gravestone hits me harder than the rest, because when I look at the date, I remember: I was there, with him, only a few feet away, when he died. Me, and the rest of his Critical Thinking class: Who knew that day would end up carved in granite? He never quite made it to the teaching podium that freezing January morning, and fell just outside the door to the classroom, at about the time class would have begun. I remember looking out the door cautiously, and hearing urgent, distressed whispers, only the hem of his brown robe and his shoes visible as he lay on the floor of the hallway of Plassmann Hall. Even weirder is that I had a student-teacher conference scheduled for that very evening with him, to discuss my work in class.

But there he stands now, resurrected beside his stone, arms crossed over his chest, looking both leonine and faintly disdainful. He was a handsome man, slender in his robes, a full head of pure white hair, and those laser-blue eyes that would bore into you when he called on you in class. Now he regards me with a cold sort of amusement, as he always did: I was the only female student in his class, amid a sea of bored male sophomores. It was hard to get him to smile, but easy to make him mad.

Well, I say now—no longer terrified of him–You certainly went to extremes to get out of our little date.

There is only a slight lift of his eyebrow, his mouth a thin, taut line of disapproval.

Don’t you remember? I had an appointment with you at the Friary, that very evening, supposedly to discuss my progress in class. One on one. I had been dreading it all weekend. But mercifully, you let me off the hook, by conveniently dying. Never really thanked you, for that.

He: You had the most disconcerting habit, Miss Petersen, of freezing up in class and refusing to speak. And you had a way of writing far too much in your essays, without really saying anything at all. 

Me: So is that what we were going to talk about, my lack of performance in class? I was scared shitless of you, that’s all there was to it. Don’t you remember what you said to me, when I registered for your class: “I hope you’re intelligent, young lady.”

He: Did I actually say that? That was boorish of me, but I was a man of my time. I still was not used to female students at our college. I suppose I had a problem relating to them, as intelligent beings

Me: I’ll say. But you were not the only misogynistic professor I had. It’s tough to be a trailblazer, though.

He: It wasn’t so easy for me, either, my girl. That old registration process was a humiliating ordeal—not just for you students, but for the professors as well. How do you think it felt to sit there in the middle of the gymnasium, and watch you all flock to the more popular philosophy professors, clamoring to get in. And there I sat, waiting for the crumbs, the desperate students to saunter over to my table. I suppose I thought you pitied me.

Me: I didn’t. Your morning class was the only one that fit into my schedule. But I came to regret it: I was terrified of you from the start, yet desperate to do well; I felt I had to, to vindicate my sex. And I wanted to show up all those idiot boys in class. And about that…Did you ever invite any of them to the Friary, to discuss their performances? What was up with that?

He: I’m going to ignore the presumptuous and facetious quality of that question. But here’s one for you: Were you so scarred by your classroom experience with me that you felt the need to make me the template for your fictional character, Ellis Barlowe? I didn’t find that amusing, my dear girl, not one bit.

Me: Oh, get over yourself. I only used your face, your iceberg eyes and that theatrical cold intellectual disdain of yours. If you follow my writing at all, you know I never use pure characters straight from life. They’re always complex amalgams of various people I’ve known. Besides, Ellis Barlowe wasn’t Irish. And he would never have become a Franciscan!

He: Yet he became a Trappist-like monk. It seems to me…There is a lot of Father Merton in your character. In the whole of your fictional work.

(Now Father Irenaeus jolts to attention. Now, now, wait a minute… he says, cautiously, holding up one finger.)

He: I might think…your own husband was right, when he said you were obsessed with this Merton fellow. You know he really wasn’t such a big deal, when he taught here. (and Father Ireneaeus looks pained)

Me: I am not obsessed. I…I’m just very interested in him. He’s very…interesting. But he’s not the only thing I write about…And he does not appear in any shape or form in the new novel.

He: But there is a character who’s a monk.

Me: Oh, yes, but he’s only a minor character, and he serves a comedic purpose, he’s a real buffoon. Not at all my take on Thomas Merton.

He: And your curious obsession with the erotic…It’s unseemly in a writer with a classic Franciscan education. Don’t you think it cheapens your work, reducing it to the level of a pornographic broadside, or a….a…Well, I can’t think of a 21st century equivalent because I’m not much interested in this century, to be honest, having died in the last.

Me: OK, were you the Amazon male reviewer who called the sex in my book ‘gratuitous’? Though I don’t think Amazon allows heavenly accounts…

He: And who says I went to Heaven?

Me: Oh, well, I just assumed…But you were sort of missing my point, which was to equate the utter joy of sexual union with the ecstasy of coming to God. And prudishness has no place in a modern novel, in which the truth about life should prevail.  But how could I expect you to understand, being a celibate? And being a dead celibate, which is perhaps the worst kind of celibate to be. Probably like being Peter Abelard, because then there’s absolutely no hope…

He: Now you’re just being disrespectful. And not as clever as you think, young lady.

Me: Well, thank you for calling me young. It means a lot to me, now that I’m just a few years younger than you were when you expired …. (Father Irenaeus laughs silently, and slaps his knee)

He: But you did come to respect me as a teacher.

Me: I did. You were a little cold and stiff, but you knew your stuff. And there were those flashes of sly wit, that dry, deadpan humor—yes, I suppose I endowed Barlowe with all that, too. As you see, you made quite the impression on me, in the brief time our paths crossed on this earth.  And it helps me to understand now, how I form my characters; and they in turn, form the stories of my books. 

He: Well—the smutty writing and obsession with Father Merton notwithstanding…you have managed to make something out of yourself, from the mute cipher you were, in the back row of my class…You think of your life as a string of missed opportunities and literary missteps, yet you’ve done well enough. The fact that you can teach English confidently to foreigners should be enough for you.  But more importantly, your life as wife and caretaker and mother… that is probably your true legacy, from your Franciscan education, of a life of service and charity to others.  And your vocation as writer can certainly fit in those concepts, that philosophy, as well. If you choose to be more dignified with it, and get your characters out of the bedroom, for heaven’s sake.

Me: Oh, Father. That is so twentieth-century. So over.  No serious writer writes with a religious or philosophical agenda anymore. But I admit, it does manage to seep into mine at times, despite my efforts to quash it…

He: That’s why you’re not a bestseller.

Me: Go ahead, rub it in.

He: That’s not what you should want, my girl. At your age, you should not still be craving approval, the prizes, the attention. Your writing is simply a humble gift to others, to be shared freely, whether the world wants it or not. Your novels are wild birds, released into the air. Who knows? The world may come around to wanting them someday.

Me: When I’m as dead as you, no doubt!

He: So finally, we have our postponed talk, though not at the exact time or place we had decided on.

Me: Yes, instead of  7:00 pm at the Friary on a night in late January,  4:30 in the afternoon in a cemetery on the hottest day of July, forty years later.  But still good. (I turn to Father Irenaeus.) I didn’t mean to neglect you, my dear. I’ll be writing all kinds of good things about for you for the Merton Seasonal, so perhaps we’ll talk then. And he smiles, looking a little embarrassed—Ah, ah…That’s good. So it will be… He claps his hands, and suddenly they are both gone, faded into the extreme heat and humidity of the day. I walk back to my car, parked atilt on the grassy hillside gravel path, to return to my life down the hill and so many miles to the east, but still carrying the memories, and wisdom, of those wonderful old friar-professors with me.

Now I do confess, this self-interview technique seemed to be a favorite with young Thomas Merton, based on my research of his journals and early writings—he is quickly turning into one of my favorite narcissists, but we won’t judge him harshly on that. After all, all writers are narcissists in some way, aren’t they? Even yours truly.



You thought your reviews were harsh?

One of my research tasks here at Friedsam Memorial Library’s Merton Archives was NOT to peruse their entire collection of Jubilee magazine, a crazy Catholic arts and culture magazine that flourished from 1953 to 1966. But I couldn’t resist, being utterly fascinated with that now-extinct, almost quaint, Catholic intelligentsia milieu. I particularly enjoyed Wilfrid Sheed’s snarky but splendid reviews of then current, now classic, movies of the era (about The Nun’s Story, he writes: “Compared with the usual run of religious marzipan, it would have to be called an adult movie.”

And then, in the Sept. 1962 issue, is this scathing take on Philip Roth’s second novel after Goodbye Columbus, a book called Letting Go. The reviewer is the late drama critic Richard Gilson, perhaps better known for a memoir describing his conversion from Judaism to Catholicism and then his rejection of Catholicism altogether. The Jubilee review’s title was: When an Author Lets Go; Or, the Corrupting Influence of $20,000. (which I guess was a pretty good advance for 1962).  “…Despite intermittent virtues, a massive failure and a depressing failure, although, if we are still educable, an exemplary one. It teaches the lesson that you shouldn’t attempt Everest with equipment designed for Mount Marcy, or swim the Hellespont with a heavy cold. Or get rich too fast.”  And then he goes on: “Philip Roth may yet become a novelist. But only when he stops making like one: A trim unfettered cat is better, and more effective, than a cat in a lion’s skin.”

And of course, Philip Roth is one of our literary lions today, while Gilson is one of those guys you have to Google. Now I’ve never read Letting Go, so I couldn’t tell you whether Gilson was on or off base about it. But the lesson here is…?? Things are pretty funny in retrospect. And also, vituperative reviews are probably not worth worrying about.

But there’s a big difference between vituperative reviews of the 1960s and today’s potshots on Amazon. First of all, reviews used to be longer…and better written. You can still see excellent long-form criticism in the New York Times and other literary review magazines, but the trend seems to be that reviewers won’t waste their time with a book unless they like it, and want to promote it. And truth be told, watching one writer get creatively snarky with another can be a lot of fun.  Today’s bad reviews are usually just stupidly snarky, mean without justification or any real insight behind the knives and arrows, such as:  “Interesting idea but someone should have proofread this.” (Hmm, where did that one come from…?)

A great review, I think, is one that is reader-friendly and not the work of a self-involved reviewer. Even a pan can have touches of altruism, presenting a balanced portrait of the book, noting both strengths and weaknesses, and giving justification for why the book was reviewed in the first place—even if it totally stinks. I can’t reprint the entire Gilson review here—there’s probably some kind of copyright issue—but it actually does do a bit of this, throwing some wan hope toward young Philip Roth: “You keep on…because [Roth] is after all a serious writer and not a contriver of fiction.”

“A contriver of fiction.” Now there’s something you want to avoid!

Sentimental journey

I began my journey west by angling up through Northwestern New Jersey, climbing up and over the state’s highest spot. At the top, I could see the vista that awaited, rolling green hills, carpeted with mid-summer greenery. I followed the snaking Delaware River north into New York State, through Narrowsburg and Callicoon and Hancock, on a road flanked by cathedral pines, the slow-moving river at my left; and finally came upon the great wide valley of Binghamton, where the big roads meet. And here I picked up the Southern Tier Expressway, which becomes marvelously less hectic, less travelled, and more beautifully rural the further west you go.

This is the land that The Novice Master was set in, a part of the country that is very dear to me. Relentlessly rural (except for the shopping malls and pockets of sprawl), a quiet land that allows you to think, fall into contemplation. Big hills to climb and rivers to meander by.  A big sky. I paused for a while in Owego (not Oswego), one of my favorite towns along the way: On the bus return to college, during those winter afternoons that turned to dusk at 5 pm, I would look out at Oswego’s tidy row of Victorian houses, encrusted with snow,  drawn by the golden light glowing within each. Owego has a splendid used book shop, not far from the river bridge, one of those places that reeks (but in a good way!) of ancient paper and ink and leather binding, a play you can truly explore caverns of literature, and of course I had to buy a few more books to stuff into my overflowing bookcases back home. Then it was back onto the Southern Tier Expressway, all the way to Olean.

My alma mater seemed very different, and yet very much the same as when I was a student there. Arriving in the evening, I nevertheless set off to reacquaint myself with the campus, and had it all to myself on that summer Wednesday evening; I was the lone figure strolling about the old Florentine buildings and the path (now paved) through the woods. There are some new buildings, but there is my old dorm, almost smothered in ivy—as it was when I lived there, on the third floor. I paused by the library, where I would be doing research  and writing for the next two days—the same library I worked in for four years as a student aide.

The only time I felt disoriented was when I tried to find the path to the river behind Francis Hall, which used to be the old seminary. It was indeed a seminary when I first visited this place, as a sixteen-year-old high school junior. I actually stayed in that seminary, where my uncle the Franciscan taught. He arranged to have a whole wing roped off just for me, and I had my meals—cooked by nuns!—with the priests and seminarians downstairs. Behind the building was mostly woods and wilderness, but there was a path dug into the field, along a little creek, that led down to the Allegheny River. Now there is a macadam paved path that winds around, but the creek seems to have disappeared, and I could not find the river! But I know it’s there somewhere.

So here I’ll be for the next few days, doing research and also working on my own book (edit, edit, edit!)—which I hope to do in my old favorite study spot, next to one of the little stained-glass windows in the library stacks. A few days of bliss before beginning my new corporate language school job and tackling the chore of promoting the new novel, which is my most well-traveled yet: Born in a monastery in Kentucky, honed in Las Vegas and in a Connecticut shore cottage, and now finished (I hope) in the very place where my literary dreams and ambitions were born.

Jumping off the agent-go-round

If Dante Alighieri lived and wrote in 2016 (now there’s a divinely comedic idea), I feel sure he would consign certain literary agents to the eighth circle of Hell. I’m particularly irritated with those bright young things who blog about what authors should be doing and not doing. I had been wrestling with the idea—despite my better judgement–of maybe trying to find an agent to handle the next new book, instead of publishing it independently. (That’s my phrase for ‘self-publishing;’ sounds more professional, don’t you think?)  Note the use of the past perfect—that issue is now in the past, and that’s perfect as far as I’m concerned. Not only did I remember the trial and travails and utter humiliation of my last agent search, I could not bear the idea of someone half my age critiquing my work with half-assed notions about what he or she thought was ‘marketable.’ The truth is, these days, NO ONE really knows what’s guaranteed to be a success or what the future of literature is likely to be like. So, it’s a kind of free-for-all, and perhaps there’s even more opportunities for independent writers like me. So why bail out now?

I’ve been ‘traditionally’ published, and I know how it all goes down. Everything’s wonderful at first, when they take you to lunch and you get that great big check, and they promise you the world. But it all goes downhill from there. Soon everyone and their brother are picking your book apart, making you rewrite the ending, changing the title, slapping some goofy cover on it…And it can take over a year for your book to straggle into print, and then it’s only allowed to sit out there in the bookstores for a few weeks or so. If you don’t start selling immediately, you’re toast. Did I really want to go through all that again?

Yeah, but that big check…Low five figures, but still amazing to see that much money in our humble bank account all at once. And it would be nice to put the manuscript into someone else’s hands and let them do all the dirty work of selling it.

Still, I learned valuable lessons with my novice master, about what to do and not do as an independent, so why not try it all out with the new book. And I want it up and hopefully selling by the end of the year; not languishing in a slush pile somewhere.

I took heart from a blog post by the self-pub phenomenon Hugh Howey (don’t have a link, but just google self-publishing-literary-fiction), who predicts a rosy future for independent publishers of serious fiction; and I was further enlightened by the long stream of supportive comments. So there are self-pubbers out there who care about good fiction! The revolution continues, as all big movements do, with fits and false starts and setbacks, but it looks like indies are here to stay. Now we just have to keep getting better at our art.

Art, creativity and just trying to live

So, I had my last day at the learning center for immigrant children. My last class was a big one, of both little and big kids, and at the very end, upon hearing the news of my leaving, they were all struck silent and somber. They crowded around me in a tight circle, hugging both me and each other. And I instantly regretted the decision to leave that hectic messy job for the better paying one, teaching adults corporate-world English.

But I had to take that better paying job, to better afford the freedom of writing exactly what I want to write. For years I feel like I squandered my talent, writing for companies and corporations, for advertising and marketing agencies, work that left me too drained, sometimes, to pursue my own vision. Enough of that. I decided a few years ago I would not be writing for anyone else but myself, even if it meant continuing to work at some other occupation to pay the bills. Teaching is pretty good, actually. At least it’s contact with people, in a meaningful way. But it is hard to keep from thinking, when you’re with a student, or correcting a workbook, I could be writing now…

When I was reading the biography of the poet Robert Lax, I was struck by the number of times he was broke: Dead broke, as in, how am I going to pay for my next meal or room, and even facing the possibility of sleeping on some church stairs.  It makes me wonder if poverty is a hindrance, or possibly a catalyst, for a writer (or artist, or dancer, or actor…) I’m inclined, from my own experience, to believe the latter. Money should never be the only goal, but it is incentive, a tangible reward for hard work, energy and focus that often goes into creating something. But how many examples do we have of the writer who hits the big time, becomes wealthy and secure, only to never produce anything of true quality again?

There’s no right answer here. Only life, which is hardly ever fair. Comfortably wealthy people can write splendid literature, while nobly  poverty-stricken writers can produce only trash. But the jobs we’re forced to take have their silver linings, offering fodder for our creations, providing the true world we’ll try to recreate in our fiction. So if I ever decide to write a novel set in an ESL learning center…I’m all set!

An Uncommon Life

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, by Michael N. McGregor (Fordham University Press, 2015)

My blog book reviews are few and far between, but I like to give attention to work that intrigues me and relates to my own intellectual journey. This is not so much a review, as an unapologetic accolade. Pure Act is one of those superb books that could easily be overlooked or forgotten due to its subject: It is a biography of the poet Robert Lax, a man well known to some lovers of literature,  but probably nine people out of ten—and nine educated people out of ten—will never have heard of him. Trust me, this is the story of a man who would be well worth knowing.

I was drawn to this book as part of the research for my Merton articles, since Bob Lax was not only a native of Olean, NY (the city just outside Saint Bonaventure University) but perhaps Tom Merton’s closest friend and soulmate. It was fascinating to get a kind of sideways portrait of Merton as I was reading about Lax. It is also the story of McGregor’s own friendship with Lax over a few decades, cultivated by trips to the Greek islands where Lax resided in the latter half of his life. So often the biographer never really knows or truly understands his or her subject, but McGregor paints a vivid portrait of Lax the man: Quiet, ruminating, shy yet gracious with both friends and strangers, certainly eccentric, but full of unexpected passions—for the circus, for example. And cats! He illuminates for us, too, the intellectual world of New York City in the 1930s and ‘40s, as Lax and Merton were coming of age in a true literary sense. I’m also thrilled to be introduced to the strange dark art of Ad Reinhardt, a classmate and companion of both Merton and Lax, and plan to scour the NYC museums soon looking for some of his canvases.

Reading about Lax also churns up the whole debate I have with myself on the wisdom and need for solitude when creating; he is clearly the kind of soul who thrives on alone-ness and complete peace to do his writing; he was a kind of monk in the world, intensely spiritual. I had just written about the paradox of seeking both solitude and community, fellowship, and it seems to me that Lax’s life was that kind of tightrope walk. But it illustrates to me that it’s essential to have the right connections, and Lax and Merton seem to have found that with each other. It makes me mourn, too, the end of deep personal correspondence, of confiding and comforting letters, in an age before email and Twitter.

No spoilers here, but there is a fascinating revelation, near the end of the book concerning both Merton and Lax that left me utterly astonished.  All fascinating stuff.  Even a non-Merton fan would enjoy this book, which is written in a novelistic narrative style. It’s a man’s life, beautifully written, moving and deeply touching in parts (Lax’s simple poem upon Merton’s death reduced me to tears), and the research is impeccable. It is the story of highly intelligent man of letters, but also a wanderer, a seeker, a traveler, and above all, someone who truly loved his fellow man, in his own unique and idiosyncratic way.