You ended your last beautiful letter by asking if the fair is over, so I’ll begin my reply by telling you that I’m typing this while sitting in a lawn chair under a massive tent in the middle of the Frederick Fair in Frederick, Maryland. It’s the second fair I’ve been to this fall. My youngest sister is sleeping, stretched across two lawn chairs. We are all pretty wiped out. My four weeks of fair life are nearly at an end—only two more days of sales, one day of cleanup, and I’m home free. I’m so ready to return to my quiet, simple, writing life.
Your last letter, where you wrote about your father, how he died when you were a freshman in college? How you took the time to read the things he had written? Well, that paragraph in particular made me take in a sharp breath, and I could feel tears gathering. I’ve been feeling such tangible reminders lately of my mortality, and to hear you speak of it in such a way, when it could someday, very easily, be my own children looking through my own writing after I am gone, felt like a prescient glimpse into my own not-too-distant future.
Maybe it’s because I’m in my early 40s, but I find myself peering into the cloudy haze of the future every so often. These words of yours spoke to me: “I wonder how much patience I have to build something whose rewards I might never enjoy, rewards reserved for people I might never meet? I think about that with my writing, wondering if any of it will go on speaking after I’m dead.”
And then I was reminded of something Ann Lamotte wrote in her book, Bird by Bird: “You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible. So, part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won’t really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand. Another part of us thinks we’ll figure out a way to divert the ocean. This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.”
Is that why I write? Because I don’t believe the ocean will wash it all away? I wonder. It resonates with me, with how I feel about my books, with the hopes I have for the stories I’ve written. Do I want my stories to be useful? Do I want them to make others laugh and cry the way good books have made me laugh and cry? Do I simply want to be remembered? All of that? I can’t say, for sure, but it seems an important thing to consider, the why behind the writing, especially seeing that it’s something to which I’ve committed my life.
I received an early look at the cover for my next novel, These Nameless Things, which comes out next summer, and I felt the same old thrill. It’s a good feeling, that sense of so much work made suddenly tangible, along with the hope that maybe this is the story that captures the imagination of millions of people, the story that “makes it.” I’m just being honest! But there is also the tempered hope that comes with having been a writer for a long time, the awareness that much of what I’ve already written has already been forgotten by most people. The tide has come and gone on those castles. All that remains is the symbol of them in my mind.
But they were so much fun to build! And maybe that, too, is part of why I write—because I seem to have a way with words, and I enjoy stringing them together.
I remember after my first book came out, how I felt so strongly that God was telling me to tend my garden, tend my garden. Over and over again this was confirmed to me in so many ways. Don’t worry about the endless fields others have been given to harvest—simply tend your own small garden. To me this meant, Write the stories I have given you and engage with the audience you have.
And that is where I find joy. In tending my own garden. In the writing itself. The rewards—good reviews, sales, the respect of fellow writers—come and go. But the joy of writing remains.
I would love to read your father’s writing someday, if there’s anything digital that you are able and willing to share. And I like the sound of your street in Toronto, the construction of the subway line, the growth of trees in your backyard that might go on growing long after you are gone. I like the idea of your husband and children coming home to that place, the home you’re building, the years accumulating around you all like layers of top soil, covering the seeds you are planting (sometimes unawares), preparing a harvest you may not see for decades. Or perhaps a harvest others will bring in, long after you and I are gone.
It really is a good life. There’s so much more creating to be done. So much more building. So much more home-making.
What are you writing these days? What sandcastles are you building, even though the tide is coming in?
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What began as a Twitter conversation between two writers on creative work and family life has become an exchange of letters. Here is a list of our prior letters for Postmarked: