The Lonely Voice in Its Bathrobe: A Life of Letters
Excerpted from Late Work:
A Literary Autobiography of Love, Loss, and What I Was Reading
By Joan Frank •
What is it, finally, about letters?
Why does this old-fashioned form, even maimed and shrunken, volleyed mostly through ether now by countless devices, still squinch our chests to receive it—the way a wrapped gift makes us draw extra breath? Why can letters stop us, sidetrack us—anywhere, anytime—to command attention? Why are they irresistible?
To me—no exaggeration—letters are everything.
They pierce to the bone, the heart. They flirt. They agonize. They risk, wallow, forge.
They noodle. Galvanize. Grieve. Oh, do they grieve.
But they also revel, and reveal. They give something. Many somethings.
I give them nearly everything.
Though rarely considered Art in the hour of their making, many letters become art. It only takes time. While they tend to reveal what a friend calls the “back of the weave” (dreary dailiness, ugly knots), certain letters live on. In their aftermath—often following a writer’s death—someone proposes to collect and edit them for publication. Such collections may become fiercely personal to many, releasing precisely the needed insight when consulted, like the I Ching. Sometimes it’s the letters’ very dailiness, their homeliness, which pierces us: illness, birth and death and disasters (Louise Bogan’s house burned down), money, love, legal humbug, travel, work, weather. Sometimes it’s the raw, unrefined yearning—often written (blurted) during a writer’s or artist’s youth. We recognize ourselves—occasionally with alarm—mostly relieved we’re not so odd or even, perhaps, so cursed. The range of preoccupations touches us. Van Gogh worried to his beloved brother Theo about sales of his works; about costs of food and supplies. Mary McCarthy told Hannah Arendt it might be best to take her tea in her hotel room and coffee later in the lobby. Silko’s beloved, cantankerous rooster and his two little white hen wives on her Tucson ranch were taken by coyotes. The era, the author’s notoriety (often assigned much later), the cultural moment during which they were written; the cultural moment of considering them—all these define letters’ value over time, their necessity; their greatness.
Dozens of analogies for what letters can mean shimmer forward. I think of opalescent shells washing musically ashore. Real lives were lived inside each one—untold until we examine the shell and begin to surmise from its shape and quality what its occupant’s existence might have been. The shell—the letter—lives on. (No one’s yet solved the terrible question of preserving e-letters, which mostly disappear.) Paper letters may now in fact be considered the old-fashioned pearls of prior, lived lives—an expressed, timeless product of compression and ordeal.
There are people to whom I have written all my life, whom I’ll be writing ’til the end. That alone fairly amazes me. What other tie (besides family, partner, or art itself) commands such loyalty? Making letters has always felt—since I can remember—desperately, joyfully important. Why?
Here is the Church, Here is the Steeple
One writes letters in two directions: to the self, and to another. (The term The Other holds problematic connotations.) One reaches out to a fellow creature so one might be witnessed, and not pass from this earth unremarked. Like floating a bottled message out to sea, the gesture implies faith and trust that a caring recipient will gesture back—will participate by absorbing and responding. (Nothing shocks me like the sight, in books or films, of a pile of unopened, unread letters.) True: letters can bode badly; can try reader and writer alike if they involve terrible news or other pain. But they can also supply new energy, recognition, joy. Visual artists have made memorable use of the telling moment of reading a physical letter. Recall two exquisite Vermeers: Woman in Blue Reading a Letter and Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. Gazing at those paintings stops time, giving us the voluptuous, suspended moment of that particular bliss.
The companion impulse of letter-writing may be that of adding to a formalized journal—a more structured way of talking to oneself because it organizes itself to speak to a sympathetic witness, thus inducing a different consciousness. Yiyun Li calls a diary a letter to oneself. (She also laments how traditional diaries and letters are disappearing from contemporary life.) Letters to other than oneself are by comparison distinguished by the awareness of addressing that separate pair of eyes, obliging a writer to organize and clarify in ways not strictly necessary when writing to oneself. This happened, then that; here’s how; here’s the way I feel. One’s conveying experience—never entirely, but earnestly—to Another.
Thus the energy of letters (I am; you are; here is the church; here is the steeple) travels in two directions: the first enters the perception of the reader, while the second loops straight back (both during composing and rereading) into the writer’s heart, distilling her thinking but also making it larger. Letters recapitulate our confinement in flesh, but also our spiritual and intellectual travel. In all cases, selfness receives new blood in the telling. That strikes me as a species of miracle. Reality’s made more real when the writer knows Another will be building it afresh in her mind and heart.
A letter’s a made thing. That’s its Art potential. Even if we throw letters away nine hundred times an hour—which we so much, so easily do. Killing darlings right and left.
All those letters! Each requires energy, brainpower, time. Lots of writers insist letters are a waste of time, of clearest energy. A rabbit hole. Yet it’s one I tumble down gladly, deliberately, daily—as if into an illicit affair or drug.
I cannot wait, each day, to square off with letters. Writing them comforts, braces, clarifies. They force me to muster—like dowsing for thoughts not yet known—but also to please myself. As the Brits say: one gets things sorted; one sorts oneself out. This removes a big chunk of terror out of facing the real work later, because it will feel more a simple extension—like a relative—of letter-writing. Making letters prior to facing real work feels like stretching before running: arms, hands, and mind flexing; lungs filling; starting to roll. I remember Anne Lamott’s edict that a writer should keep herself in delight. The late Jessica Mitford claimed she wrote letters first thing each day simply to warm up for pending work.
That’s some distinguished precedent.
But honestly? I relish making them: the zero-gravity somersaults, the featherweight, zip-zap rebounds—the sharp, alpine air of a pristine horizon. I suppose this makes it sound like flying. It sort of is. Just anticipating letter-writing is erotic for me—the way approaching a bloc of private writing time and space is erotic.
Why? For the same reason my husband loves a sparklingly set dinner table almost more than he loves the meal that will follow: a universe of possibility glitters there, a portal. It’s that liminal space, the hoped-for, not-yet-fully-imagined motions and substance that may next fill it, that enchants and sparks us. I’m eager to find out what I think. It’s not known—but always about to begin to appear. I’ll know more once I start. Thing will lead to thing. Thing will wick forth thing. Later I can work with whatever emerged. Later I’ll better understand everything—the larger context, my own oblique purposes, unforeseen connections.
Edging toward a new comprehension’s brink thrills almost more than revelation itself.
What’s most erotic about making letters may involve an interim dream-self constructed while writing—partly wishful—inhabiting what the brilliant writer Andre Aciman calls the irrealis mode: a dimension neither past nor future but ever-possible. It’s a construct like a holograph, a separate-yet-parallel dimension hovering just at hand. In her letters a writer finesses and revises that construct infinitely, taking infinite pleasure in the what-if-ness moving toward just-about-to-ness. The being I want to be, all the shadings of mind and heart and soul I long to convey—to please myself; to impress another—these pump light into that turning, dimensional form. I fiddle with them continuously in letters—trying to describe, to perfect, that conflation.
Is the effort insatiable, unceasing, self-renewing? It is. And perhaps—if only in this way—may Sisyphus truly be called happy.
The Lonely Voice in Its Bathrobe
A favorite image, one I love to replay in my head and tell others about, is that of the late, beloved author/editor William Maxwell, who famously insisted on going to each day’s writing in his pajamas and robe straight from the breakfast table in the morning. No mystery there: it reassures and even demonstrates my own instincts. One needs to take the mind straight from that fertile, porous state just after sleep, still in soft, loose clothing, directly to the keyboard or notebook, whenever possible. Mysterious energy—residual dreams—may transmute to the work in ways no writer yet totally understands. Unbinding garments ease the work’s flow through the body, letting them breathe together. Never mind about John Cheever putting on a suit and tie to take an elevator down to his building’s basement, where he apparently sat all day in a writing office he maintained there. Ample room (for the deepest breath you can take) inside pajama softness lets the spirit roam.
But here’s the delicious capper. Maxwell was also known to demand (as his renown grew) that interviewers who insisted on visiting his home to question him face-to-face allow him to go to his typewriter and type out his answers to their questions.
Yes. Right there, while the interviewer waited silently across the room. Then he’d simply hand his questioner the paper he’d answered upon.
Don’t you just fall out of your chair, loving this? Maxwell had to find out what he thought the best way he knew—unmuddied by voice-noise or ego-noise. A different voice spoke when thoughts were summoned, organized, typed out. I so passionately align with this method that I would often rather write someone than see them in person. Maxwell’s adaptation brazenly enacts my own prejudice for writing letters—the sanctuary and nourishment they afford—over almost every other form of communication, including FaceTime and Zoom (unless maybe we’re all drinking something fabulous).
In shame, I’ve had to admit to well-meaning friends that I hate the phone.
It’s like admitting to carrying a distasteful disease. Dear god, how I hate the phone. What happens on the phone? Nervousness. Social noise. Everyone scrambling to be polite; to move niceness around like a shuffleboard puck. Nothing raw or rich or substantive or complex gets said—unless one or both speakers have had a ton of practice or are loquaciously drunk, which often creates other problems.
A writer’s introversion has everything to do with this.
Most of us can’t wait to race home after being forced to interact somewhere—to work through what we think about what just happened and soothe ourselves into settling back down. Ruminating’s not a valued currency out and about, in the best of times. To ruminate uninterrupted (a word that for many years was perhaps my most coveted in the English language) is a badge of introversion, the gold standard for most writers. Could anything feel more blessedly gratifying than to send your polished ideas out ahead of you—not depending one whit on how you look or what effortful conversation you cobble together or even how your speaking voice comes across?
I can’t now recall many phone conversations I felt good about afterward. I’ve usually felt the opposite—a little sick, embarrassed for my gushy habit of trying too hard to sound lovable or witty. And I can’t even remember my words. What did I say? Was I an ass? Probably.
Deep in the costume-trunk of long-ago identities I fetch one from early reading—as a teenager, of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Say what you like about Durrell: for a young, innocent literary seeker, his prose and its extraordinary world struck like thunder, unveiling a jewel-pile of images and revelations. One character for whom a volume of the Quartet was named was Clea, who had in youth been surpassingly beautiful but later suffered from a disfiguring illness (if I’m remembering right), perhaps a skin disease. She’d chosen to live out her remaining life in total isolation, so as not to be seen. All Clea did was write letters. And I remember thinking (as a young woman) furiously hard about this arrangement—about the way of life it enforced. In those days I’d thought how terrible; she cannot go embrace her true love in the bright light of day. Now, as an older woman whose face quickly and reliably declares its age I think: whoa, excellent! How freeing and empowering to only write letters!
Maxwell’s eccentric interview habit may have annoyed or bewildered some of his interlocutors. But he, too, was aging in those years. I don’t mean that he worried his face looked old—rather that he’d arrived to a cut-the-crap period of his life (a perfect working definition of the Late Work zone). Typing out his thoughts was the cleanest, most honest way to get things said. He cared nothing about giving offense. He said what he meant.
Maxwell (no surprise) adored letters all his days, and wrote volumes of them. Several collections were published (Sylvia Townsend Warner and Eudora Welty among his many celebrated correspondents). One of the glorious elements of all those exchanges were Maxwell’s naked declarations of love for his recipients, both men and women, expressed with a kind of heart-twisting gentleness—worrying for their illnesses and weathers and partners and families; exulting for their triumphs and joys. One senses that his emotional vulnerability humbled many of his friends—especially the men. The beloved Irish writer Frank O’Connor, who, marvelously for us, was also a cherished correspondent of Maxwell’s, holds his own in the two men’s memorable collection, The Happiness of Getting It Down Right.
O’Connor also wrote a revered book about short stories and short story writers, called The Lonely Voice. But the book’s title has always summarized for me almost everything worth knowing about the entire writing world, and its populace.
I’d argue that the letters we prize over time derive from an emblematic image combining those two men’s preoccupations: the lonely voice in its bathrobe. The bathrobe signifies Maxwell’s pajama dictum but also—most importantly—the aura of dropping one’s guard, shedding protective layers, ease and breathability. One thinks of an actor collapsing in the dressing room after a performance. The guise has been dumped along with constrictions. The writer’s marrow-nature, free to flow, seethe, dwell—is spoken by the lonely voice.
The lonely voice cries out to be heard, met, and—in some great, gettin’-up morning—known.
Art makes, and sometimes answers, that effort. O’Connor was, as noted, talking about the essence of short stories and their authors when he coined his title. But letters are driven by the same impulse. Both address a single, trusted witness, real or imagined.
It’s consistently clear that the act of saying still holds power—despite the floods of garbage avalanching us. I can never forget the parable of Midas going to a barber who couldn’t help noticing the king’s asses’ ears (punishment by Apollo for judging a music contest the wrong way). Sworn to secrecy by Midas but unable to contain it, the barber went out and whispered the fact to a fallow field. When grass grew there, it whispered Midas has asses’ ears into the wind for all to know.
Which brings me to secrets, and letters that carry them.
A writer selects tools for offering her secrets in letters just as she might in making fiction or essays: tone, diction, focus, selective payout. She will tend, I think, to be aware of the stakes. And for whatever reasons we can imagine or guess, she may choose to risk them. That risk may have to do with the mighty power, the incomparable relief, of getting things said. After decades of news cycles bristling with career-toppling scandals from leaked emails, texts, and tweets—you would suppose people might resolve to be more careful.
You would be wrong. The lonely voice in its bathrobe cries out—occasionally in foolish, all-too-human, error.
JOAN FRANK, author of thirteen books of literary fiction and nonfiction, was born to New Yorkers in Phoenix. She studied with author Thaisa Frank (no relation) at the University of California, Berkeley, and holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. She is a MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Ragdale Fellow; a Pushcart Prize nominee; and winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction and the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. Find her on Facebook @joan.frank.9.
Featured image by Dim Hou, courtesy of Unsplash.