in correspondence with
Three works of nonfiction
Five hundred pounds of garlic (per year)
I have a wooden box, a small chest, really, covered in ragged leather, in which I keep years of letters, starting with Donna Gardner’s (“it is super fun here without you”) back in the fourth grade. Another box sits on my bookshelf, every letter in it written by the same lovely man, same fellow who made the box and gave it to me. My husband hoards the letters I wrote to him, and I hoard the letters he wrote to me, in our drawers beside our bed. Messy, mixed-in, but we know we are there—those greenhorns we used to be. Who do you know heartless enough to throw a careful letter carelessly away?
I liked writing to Stanley Crawford. I liked that the days were warm when we started, and when we stopped, that winter was closing in. I liked making up a new person who turned out not to be him.
I met Stan and his wife, Rose Mary, on the eastern seaboard, in the lobby of a B&B too dolled up for any of us. I knew his work—the novels, starting with Gascoyne, Some Instructions to My Wife, the splendid The Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine, and, more recently, Petroleum Man. I knew he had lived and farmed in the Embudo Valley of northern New Mexico for going on forty years, and written three books of nonfiction there. He and Rose Mary built the house they raised their children in: built it from the clay it stands on, made every brick. I was smitten with them both.
Crawford is tall, even sitting down. He is serious, and boyish, and straightaway I could picture him with his dog in his arms fording a swollen river. He isn’t Unguentine, not that cranky, brash, seafaring tyrant, but quiet, and maybe inward, a man accustomed to fixing things, to living in the wind in open country.
Thank you for your letter, and for your patience with my ridiculous delay in responding to it. I have the usual excuses, the veiled complaining about the hectic that is so much a part of the fabric of social exchange. Even complaining is likely a form of seeking forgiveness, as the quote you offer from Frost suggests, an expression of the want to feel not-alone, an assertion of the doing for others we do in part to take the teeth from the possibility that we will ourselves be (alive still) forgotten.
Here in our region, we’ve had a small healthy dose of knowing what it might take to survive here, should the scientists and writers of the end-of-everything be right: a massive, gorgeous ice storm that snapped power lines and hardwoods, gathered on every twig and blade of grass and fattened around the seed pods until the fields looked to be embellished by thousands of vodka lollipops that broke musically as we walked. (We harvested these and melted them for drink and wash water on the woodstove.) The good life you live and speak so candidly of surely prepares you for disaster, hopefully allows you better than most of us to enjoy hardship of this kind. We were fairly un-Unguentine about it, adept at fixing nearly nothing. Cheerful and inept. For our tribe, the storm was more adventure than hardship …
After your account, I can have no complaints about our weeklong run of merely cloudy and snowy weather.
When I first started writing I didn’t have to worry about “the unrest of the domestic,” as you put it so well. I lived alone, but in a convivial seaside village on Lesbos and then a small town on Crete; when I finished my solitary writing day, I stepped out the door and inevitably found someone to talk to on the street, at a café, a restaurant, or out on the beach. Even better: there was always a feast of languages. When Rose Mary and I got together, our first year and a half were the most difficult. I was writing my head off, but not well, and was no doubt moody and difficult. I was a new writer and was supposed to write all the time, wasn’t I? I had not yet discovered that there are times when one can’t write, one shouldn’t write, times for thought, for deepening, or just reading, or simply living.
Camus said that what prevents you from doing your work becomes your work. This is how I regard talking about writing, at least before the lonely work of writing is completed. Writers are probably unhappy or discontented much of the time about what they’re trying to write, but if you actually give voice to such complaints, or even to your hopes, then that, not the writing, can become your work. Talk is the cuckoo egg that hatches and eventually nudges the authentic fledglings out of the nest. We have all known writers whose books have gone up in the smoke of talk.
The genesis of Some Instructions is something of a puzzle. I don’t know where the obsessive voice came from. I had been given an apartment for a month in Santa Fe and was rereading everything by Chekhov I could get my hands on. But the voice came. I was delighted, appalled. Perhaps this is a reliable sign that something is interesting: I am at first appalled. Add, perhaps, that I have always delighted in Molière’s obsessives. Finally, the strange satisfaction of bottling up, you might say, the chaotic. The novel has been widely misunderstood, especially by men …