I love to read. There are many books that have changed my life through inspiration or escapism or a new way of seeing the world.
I love to write. Poems and songs and essays and stories fill my computer and many journals.
And yet. I never take the time to write to my favorite authors.
In some ways, this is totally acceptable: the vulnerability that goes into honest writing relies on an author’s sense of anonymity and distance. There is security in the buffer of space and time that separates their exposure from our witnessing it.
I play my part, too. I ascribe some sort of Otherness to those special people. I accept the perceived inaccessibility based on a unilateral relationship wherein they are the source and I am the consumer, they are the mouth and I am the ear. I pick silent books off silent shelves and read them silently.
And that’s pretty much how it’s supposed to be. But in the case when a book has changed the course of my life or the plane of my thinking, it seems to me to be practically immoral to coexist with that author and not tell them so.
It’s true that many of my favorite authors are long passed- Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Earnest Hemingway, Jerzy Kosinski- but there are many others whose time on earth overlaps with mine and my time on earth overlaps with theirs.
So, this year, on Valentine’s Day, I offered back words to those who had moved me with theirs and wrote to some of my favorite authors. It felt heady and surreal to address these titans by name: Joan Didion, Barbera Kingsolver, Cheryl Strayed, Amy Leach, Davis Sedaris, Thomas Lynch, and, Jim Harrison. “Dear Joan” I wrote, with a grin.
The little exercise was immediately gratifying in the act of writing alone, but it became every more rewarding when I got a letter back from Barbera Kingsolver (a form letter, but nonetheless very nice) and a postcard from David Sedaris (hand-written, very very nice).
Then there was this: Jim Harrison died today. When I saw the news, my first reaction was sadness for his passing, quickly followed by a wave of relief that I didn’t let my words of gratitude go unspoken. I was so glad that I got the chance to tell him how his words kept me company on the trail while I hiked the most remote stretch of the Upper Peninsula, how the dead mosquito bodies decorated the pages of Dalva, how I read while walking along straightaways because I was so engrossed, how I began to imitate the writing in my own dairy because he was my sole external influence during those solitary days. I’ll never know if he read those words, but then I’m in the same position he was when I read his.
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
RIP Jim Harrison
There is an additional peace in writing this today because I have made the mistake before of procrastinating until death interrupted and I dearly want to be done learning that lesson.