Sloane Crosley wagged her finger at all of us who like to call ourselves writers today in her New York Times article, Pay Deep Attention, Don’t Write Yet. I get it. It made me think back to an email I wrote to my friend and journalist Todd Purdum a few days after 9/11. I cringe about the rawness and bathos of that email. Forty-one at the time, with a young child at home, to me, 9/11 felt like the end of the world. I forgive myself for writing it, just as Sloane Crosley presumably forgave herself for writing the column abjuring herself (and all the rest of us) to not write about COVID-19 now. Yet, it was really like a starter pistol for anyone who likes to write creative non-fiction. Abject navel-gazing in what we hope will be a universally appealing way? What could be more universal than what has befallen our planet in the last two weeks?
How many other writers started a novel entitled Shelter in Place this week? Show of hands?
Everything we know about writing tells us we should be recording these moments now and yes, paying deep attention to the feelings and circumstances we find ourselves in. I’ve been shielding myself during the day from the onslaught of news, which after I leave my “office” falls like the most bedraggled wet blanket across my shoulders. I check the stock market only once (okay, twice) a day to prevent myself from running into the kitchen to commit Harakiri with the black plastic handled CUTCO knife set my son’s teenage girlfriend sold to me on a day when I was feeling rich.
You know what it’s not too soon to write? Letters. I invite you to write letters to your friends. Text them now and get their mailing addresses. Then begin a letter-writing campaign. One a day. If you’re squeamish, don’t lick the envelopes. Use the bacteria-laden sponge in your sink. Write to your friends:
- Tell them how much they mean to you
- Tell them how much you miss them
- Invite them to grab a coffee with you virtually one day next week. Give them a date. Tell them you’ll text them a zoom link.
- Tell them about a particularly awful or wonderful thing you noticed this week that happened because of this shared pandemic we are learning to live with.
- Tell them your biggest fear about this time we’re in.
- Tell them about the moment you thought you wouldn’t make it through this.
- Tell them your most embarrassing worry.
- Tell them something you laughed about until you cried.
Write it down. Put a stamp on it and mail it. One of my colleagues from work recommended a book that I’m in the heart of now, called I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman. I love the book. It is so full of detail, and the characters so deftly drawn. One of them is the teenage son of a single mother, who gets a job working in a bookmobile.
It was about this time I started to write letters to other peoples’ fathers. I wrote a lot of these letters in the bookmobile during lulls. I wrote them on the backs of overdue notices, upwards of ten notices per letter.Howard Norman: I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place
Why not write letters to other people’s fathers? Okay, how about just to other people! Drop them in the mail. Do it. What do you have to lose? Nothing. What do you have to gain? Perspective and reassurance that you aren’t alone, and you aren’t the only one afraid or lonely or bored during these extraordinary times we find ourselves in.
A long time ago, Jimmie and I had a dear friend, Sylvan Epstein, who was a canter by night, and a trader in the stock market by day. His wife, Candasa, was a painter, and they lived largely separated for a long time, she, doing her work in Damarascotta, Maine, and he in their penthouse on 56th Street in Manhattan. I don’t think they were estranged – she was a free spirit and not beholden to the conventional ideas about matrimony. For a brief time, she was in New York and she and Sylvan entertained frequently. They had a big terrace that wrapped around the side of their apartment. Sylvan also gave singing lessons and Jimmie would walk across Central Park with our shepherd, Jasper, and take his singing lesson at Sylvan’s house. Sylvan would end the lesson by giving Jimmie a chocolate from a box and Jimmie would eat 4/5ths of it, then give the remainder to Jasper, who would lick his chops the whole way home to the Upper West Side across the Park. But really, the reason I brought them up was that Candasa wrote the most beautiful letters in addition to being an exquisite painter. Getting a letter from Candasa was like winning the lottery.
Candasa had written this letter to Jimmie while he was acting in a production of The Rainmaker in La Mirada. We’d been living in California a good ten years by then, so Candasa’s lyrical beckon to us to come back to New York was nostalgic for the beautiful evenings we’d had on their terrace. If I could write a letter to Candasa now, I would let her know how special her epistolary outreach was to us. I wish I’d saved more of her letters in retrospect. While writing this, I learned that she was no longer with us.
So, my friends, it’s never too soon to write. Your letters will brighten someone’s dreary isolation and who knows, perhaps we can save the US Postal service while we’re at it.