I think the most beautiful words
are drifting, smoky things
with such long histories
you would have known them
as I know them – Eloise Klein Healy
I wrote all the profiles in The Slaves Have Names first as letters, my words sent sailing back over time to the people who walked the land on which I sat and wrote. I addressed them – “Primus, did you ever . . . ?” – and let my questions pour out, childlike and pure. The only way I knew to write – person to person, my story to theirs.
Now, as I start this new project – for I think this is what is coming – this new book about this new place that I will call home, I find myself addressing these five people whose names I do not yet know. It feels good to write this way, personal, honest, raw. As a first draft should be.
I might need to reread The Color Purple – to study the way Walker lays out stories in letters, to see how her truth comes in the direct address of second person – you, you, you. The relationship built between the you of the receiver and the I of the sender. That tentative bond carved in ink.
There is a way that letters transcend time. They rise above technology and politics and sink deep into the near-truth of language and yearning. Epistles – to call in the Biblical story – write from one to many, or one to one. But always just one voice, even if we claim to speak for many.
I do not know any nonfiction books that are formed from letters – just novel after novel – Griffin and Sabine, the Guernsey Literary Society, Bridget Jones, Werther’s sorrow. But maybe there are some I have not yet read or have not recognized in that form? Maybe poems like “Not Disappearing” by Eloise, whose words gave me mine today?
Here, in this starting place, I feel like the best thing is to begin with the personal, to reach out from me to her, to him. To speak quietly and tentatively as I might to a new friend with whom I only spent some small time but wish to continue to know.
Dear Woman, [Dear, Dear Woman, I want to say, but that is too personal, too soon]
I wonder if you might help me to understand the room they call the “dining room” in the cellar of my house. Did you coax flame from ember in that now stoned-up fireplace? Can you tell me what you saw there in that space? Was it then a dirt floor, too? My mother-in-law finds that a bit appalling.
Can you tell me your story? Please. I so want to hear it.
What epistolary books do you know? Have you ever written creatively in letter form or in second person? What was that experience like for you?