I stared at my book shelves, inspired by Martha Southgate’s Muse and the Marketplace talk on Guardian Angel novels we turn to for guidance as we improve craft. Noticing a non-fiction title hiding in my fiction section, and ever the librarian’s daughter, I removed it: Frederick Busch’s Letters to a Fiction Writer. Hadn’t read it for years. I paged through and before long was cross-legged on the floor, laughing and nodding.
Busch’s introduction wraps around a single line letter he received from an agent: “Ah, if only you wrote fiction as well as you write letters of inquiry.” This book was his eventual response: letters of encouragement from writers to writers. Beattie, Bradbury, Carver, Oates, Updike, O’Connor, Delbanco. Malcolm Cowley’s letter to John Cheever.
Given his connection to the Muse as its keynote speaker, I started with a letter by Charles Baxter. It is bittersweet and funny, titled Full of It, addressing the self-indulgence, misery and obsession that is writing and the search for acknowledgement. A self-described slow starter, Baxter remembers the reaction to his first novel by his first agent. He notes this agent was obtained by “a bizarre set of circumstances,” and Baxter secretly expected her to identify him as a genius.
“'I hate it,' she said with what seemed to be an odd satisfaction… 'Tell me why I hate your novel… Give a try. Help me out here… I just don’t get it. I don’t get any of it.'”
Baxter went into shock. Having churned out a second novel already, he started and finished a third. All never published. Still he wrote. Finally, in a fit of desperation, he produced “one last piece,” which was picked up by the Michigan Quarterly Review. In his letter, Baxter then talks of ongoing apprenticeship to the craft. He ends with this:
“I have been watching the words, each letter and phrase, as they appeared on the screen, and I’ve been changing them and correcting them minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, because that is who I am, and that is what I do.”
That’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? To read it on the page is self-affirming, and every letter in Busch's book is a similar gift to a writer seeking encouragement, sympathy and inspiration. Whether you're on a roll or stuck in the mire, I encourage you to find Letters to a Fiction Writer on a shelf somewhere, dust it off if you need to, and enjoy!
Wednesday, May 23, 2007