Working from Old Letters

The young artist in Sweden at age 22. Photo by Toni Ottosson

From the time I was sixteen years old and went to sea as a third cook on a Norwegian coal freighter, I have written journals, saved letters, and tried to recover the letters that I sent during my post graduate years in Europe and my Vietnam War-era years in the army.  Over a period of nearly fifty years, the six-foot deep file of letters, notebooks, and journals has been preserved for a writer’s day of reckoning.  In November 2011, the reckoning began as the basis for my 21st novel.

My first intention was to write an epistolary autobiography.  The rare genre had appeal, but the materials—even at a random sampling—proved to be both incomplete and unbridgeable due to surprising gaps in memory.  For example, there were individuals mentioned in the letters who were total strangers in the recall department.  A few of them were women I had evidently loved.  Then, too, as a well-meaning literary friend pointed out, I was not well known enough to merit interest in my autobiography.

The solution between desire and practicality was to use the most dramatic periods in my young adulthood as background for a coming-of-age-as-an-artist novel.  And right away, I realized that there would be a narrator as biographer and a subject character that would stand in for my alter ego, and somewhere in the telling of a fictional story, the one would become obsessed with the ghost of the other.  The working title thus became:  Portrait of the Artist‘s Ghost.

I must warn you that reading your own letters and journals, written mostly in your early twenties, is a humbling experience.  Then, as a novelist, you must make editorial decisions about what to use and what to discard as non-essential to the structure of the novel and its fictional plot.  As it turns out, the glue of the novel is not the story that you tell in your personal letters and journals but the fiction that you invent to make it compelling.  This kind of literary insight probably comes only with maturity.

But if I am to be a candid mentor, I have to urge you to keep personal journals of significant events and to write letters to individuals who will correspond with you in important ways.  Save every outward expression of your inner life and document your activities, attitudes, and relationships as thoughtfully as you are able.  Think of your posterity and how your life will be rendered as a creative person.  You are the documentarian of your generation, and your acceptance of this responsibility is evidenced by every word that you use and every word that you leave behind.

If you are indeed a writer, you must write with intent and purpose nearly every day of your life.

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