Books & Letters

For years, I have been talking about writing a book. Talking about it and thinking about it, and wondering if I could, and what it should be about, and if anyone would read it, and if people would be mad at me if I did. I’ve made several starts at this, taking classes and trying to publish stories, blogging (very) occasionally, reading out now and then. But I’ve never managed to get any traction on it, to make a commitment (which, if we’re being honest, is kind of a theme with me anyway). And the reason is, writing is  hard. IT IS FUCKING HARD. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it’s boring, and awful, and you hate yourself and all the words. Sometimes it’s OK. Sometimes it’s like a door inside of you opens and a thousand unicorns come flying out on a double rainbow that tastes like dark chocolate and smells like lilacs. But mostly it’s really, really  hard. This is not news to anyone who has tried to write, or has listened to anyone complain about writing.

But hey! I’m doing it. I’m writing a book. I made a commitment. I hired a book coach. I have pages due on deadlines, and I wrote an extensive outline, and character bios, and parts of it are actually written, which is sort of remarkable, that I can open a Word document on my computer and see the beginnings of this book that I’ve been carrying around inside my head for so long.

That’s not what this is really about though.

My book is not a memoir, not by a long shot, but it’s fair to say that it’s influenced by some things that happened to me once, a long time ago. And I’ve been struggling with that, with where the line is between what happened, what I think happened, and what I wish had happened. And then there’s the matter of how to write about it at all, because I still am worried that people will be mad at me, that I’ll hurt someone’s feelings, or tell a secret, or expose a lie.

Then again, I keep telling myself, it’s my story too. I get to tell it. Damnit.

Even that’s not really the point.

The point is this. I’ve been keeping a journal since I was 9. There are gaps, to be sure, times when I didn’t write because I lost interest or got distracted, or fell in love (I almost never wrote about my happiness, but the breakups I recorded in obsessive detail). And there are other, sadder stretches, where terrible circumstances kept me silent. But mostly, I have been keeping a journal for 34 years. This story I’ve been writing for myself arcs across 24 books — plain notebooks, beautiful diaries with artful covers and creamy pages, moleskines. Many of these journals were gifts from people who knew me well and cared about me, and those books are inscribed with notes from them, on the inside covers. I carefully dated and numbered each journal, and jotted down poems and lines from songs on the first few pages, as inspiration or to set the tone. W.H. Auden’s Leap Before You Look was a favorite for years, this passage in particular:

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.

Sounds about right.

My old journals — everything that pre-dates Emerson, her sunny sweetness and my uncomplicated, ferocious love for her — have been stored away in a large tote bag in the back of my closet for years. Now and then I’d glance at them, with curiosity, and a little fear. I was pretty sure I knew what was in there, and most of it was nothing I wanted to re-visit, nothing I needed to go back to.

Except.

Except that writing is hard. And it hurts. And it requires a kind of courage I didn’t really expect. And somewhere between what I think happened and what I wanted to happen and what I thought happened, I actually wrote down what was happening. At least as I understood it. At least how it felt at the time.

So last Sunday, I pulled out the bag, and I started reading. I began in 1983, my freshman year of high school. I’ve read through, so far, to 1999, the year after my first husband left me and I was hell bent on recreating my entire lost 20s in a single year (with near disastrous results). It has been a bizarre fling through time, and incredibly surprising. It’s sort of like reading someone else’s story, and I’m alternately charmed by this girl, her bravado and depth of feeling, and utterly horrified by her selfishness, the way she’s dominated by fear and longing, so completely unable to understand, much less ask for, the things she so desperately wants and needs.

Still, I’m happy to see her again. Happy to see the old friends and loves that wave to me from the pages. Happy to remember these things, even the really terrible ones, because I know how these stories turn out. They turn out with me safely snuggled in bed in Brooklyn, Emerson napping next to me, Jonathan in the living room reading about some battle. That’s where all those journals lead. They lead straight home.

And there’s another thing too.

When I was a freshman in college, I was enamored of a certain professor. He was the kind of professor that a girl like me was made to fall for — bearded and brilliant, tall and lean, outdoorsy and rebellious. He taught in the English department (of course he did), and we had long, meandering conversations about The Book of Job, and the problem of suffering, about the hero’s journey and ancient goddess religions, about the Greeks and the Romans, and the power of words, and The Word. I’d show up at his office door in the afternoons, long after office hours were over (no appointment necessary for me), and curl up in his guest chair. After a few weeks he started bringing me a thermos of hot tea, sweet with honey, and I’d sip from it while we talked.

He never touched me. I wanted him to, and was petrified that he would. I had a boyfriend I loved, for one thing. And this professor, with his hard hands and easy grace, his intense thoughtfulness, was a man. Not a boy I could figure things out with, or a friend I’d known for years, or someone who was mostly like me. He was a wild, unexplored wilderness. I was utterly mad for him.

I ended up transferring schools after my freshman year, and here I will confess, all these years on, that he invited me for tea at his house the day I left school for the last time, and there was an invitation in the air, a moment to be seized, and I let it go. He did kiss me though, a single kiss that stands out, still, as one of the most delicious moments of my  life. And then I got in my car and drove away as fast as I could.

We wrote for a long time after that. Postcards, and letters that he would type on an actual typewriter and then doodle and draw on. I kept those letters for years, in an old tin box, and then at some point I misplaced them. I know this because in 1998 I went looking for him, ready, finally, for him, and discovered he had died, two years before. In a haze of grief I went looking for the letters and couldn’t find them.

Until one night last week, when I pulled out a journal from 1989. It was bulky, with a packet of paper tucked inside, wrapped with a rubber band to hold it together. I flipped it open, expecting to find a sheaf of poems or pages ripped from another notebook, and instead, there he was. All his letters, typed on his wonky typewriter, inked with his slanted handwriting, tied in blue ribbon. I unfolded the pages with careful, shaking hands. He was as present and visceral as he had ever been, his voice and his thoughts, his wisdom and his playful, questioning flirting, his vision of me at 19 as someone worth knowing, someone extraordinary.

When I think about that afternoon, when he invited me for tea and so much more than tea, it is always with regret. Regret that I let the moment pass us by, and also that it was simply the wrong place, the wrong time. Regret that I went looking for him too late. This is how it goes sometimes. And it makes me sad, in a wistful way, the way missed opportunities always do. The way losing what you never had always hurts; that particular, confusing ache of something that was over before it started. But I can still hold him in my hands, this part of him he gave me, in words, in doodles and ideas.

And that is something worth having, regardless of how it all turned out, or didn’t, in the end.

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5 thoughts on “Books & Letters

  1. Pingback: Heart of the Matter | Working Without a Net

  2. This:
    Sometimes it’s like a door inside of you opens and a thousand unicorns come flying out on a double rainbow that tastes like dark chocolate and smells like lilacs.

    This is why Stefanie is worth knowing and worth reading … and probably a big part of why the professor knew that that 19 year-old girl in his office was something special.

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