Dear G

July 29, 2011

[My student G is a brilliant sixteen-year-old wordsmith. She showed me her folder of various writings, and then I wrote her a letter.]


Dear G,

Every letter you write is a letter to Literature.

Every word you set down is an imprint on Literature.

The writer creates a deep impact on her readers because she herself has absorbed the impact of words. This impact often starts out from pain, confusion, disorder, countless resolutions, anger—we all experience this, we all live through our own terrors, both the silent ones and the explosive ones.

In time the writer learns to harness these terrors into some substantive thing, to hone in on the substance of their wildness and find the truth in telling stories.

—telling stories—sharing stories—breathing stories—beat-boxing stories—slamming stories—lifting our stories—burying our stories—freeing our stories—

Our brains, these pulsing organs soaked with terrors, have the capacity to embrace the opposite of terrors—to become a cabinet of wonders, “wonders” in the Alice in Wonderland sense, in the sense that language itself becomes the focus of wonder, that the play in the language (play-ful, full of play, play-billed, play-acted, play-thinged) reveals the play in our development as writers and as readers.

Because while Literature is a force, it is also a wonder.

Because while our environment can be an overwhelming source of darkness, it is also a source of overwhelming brightness.

The heat in this city, for example. The sweat rolls down my back without asking. It’s as though a towel appeared above me, was squeezed very gently and then put away. We can be cooled by our own metaphors, our own flights of fancy.

Once, I woke up from a dream with a full sentence on my lips. I wrote down this sentence, and then I wrote more sentences following it.

This thing that artists do, G—

For writers, dreams are written down to enforce a coherence onto what’s been experienced. Narratives are shaped. Let’s say the shape of a narrative is oval—no, let’s say it is triangular—no, circular—no, shapeless

No—something doesn’t have less of a shape just because we use the word “shapeless” to describe it. A shape is always apparent, even if it’s unusual or unstructured or unfamiliar.

This is true too of the narratives you write down.

You will always be a writer as long as you shape your words.

And since you have always been shaping your words, you have always been a writer.

And since you will always shape your words, you will always be a writer.

In your letters to Y, to F, to SC, you reveal secrets. I’d like you to write a letter without writing a letter—that is, write out these secrets, or a character’s secrets, without formally addressing a Y, a F, an SC. I’m not saying to not write to them anymore; I mean simply to see your narratives as stories about a character rather than written to a character.

This is a writer’s evolution. This is a writer’s shaping. This is a writer’s experimenting. This is a writer conducting interviews with Literature.

Literature, you see, is bigger than a boy, bigger than all the boys in the world combined.

So write about heartbreak, yes—but write with a clinical eye.

Write about a clinical eye, yes—but write with heartbreak.

Write about an eye at a clinic—but write from a heart’s perspective.

Write about perspective, write to analyze, write to inform, to teach, to discover, to play.

Write around something, not at it or to it. Indirectly. Slyly. Voice-ly.

Write a longer story, write just a little bit more, write for just a little bit longer—ten minutes, thirty minutes, an hour, hours, days. Years in one day.

Do not write diary entries all your life.

Write life entries.

The stories we read are devastating life entries. Or uplifting ones. Or fantastical ones. Or all at the same time.

What is the structure and impact of a J. M. Coetzee story? A Teju Cole story? A Chinua Achebe story? A Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie story? A colonial story? A postcolonial one, or a post-postcolonial one, or post-post-postcolonial? A precolonial? A procolonial? An anticolonial? A José Saramago story? A César Aira story? A Gabriel García Márquez story? A Lydia Davis story? A Bohumil Hrabal story? A Haruki Murakami story? A Roland Barthes story? A Nadine Gordimer story? A Miguel de Cervantes story?

Will you read these writers and tell the world what you discover about them?

Write your discoveries in the form of a story, a poem, a prose poem, a poem in prose, a story to read aloud, or to bury deep inside, or to rework all these narratives into your own, singular voice.

Your daily experience will inform how these discoveries are written.

Your life, that is.

Your life that is at times dark with the weight of history, with the pain of love. Your life that is at times light with the brightness of community, with the thrill of discovery.

In class Teju Cole mentioned that our thoughts are like a river—the water is always rushing no matter if you step into it or not.

I liken our thoughts to clouds—the sky is always filled with them, even if we see only a blue, blue blueness. And what happens when thunder and lightning appear? It means our thoughts have gathered together to gain insight on a thing.

Continue wading through your clouds of riverstream.

Read, write—it doesn’t matter.

Write, read—it surely matters.

all my best,


5 Responses to “Dear G”

  1. MayB. Says:

    Dear WMC,
    I wish one of my teachers had written to me a letter like that when I was sixteen. I sometimes still wish that someone would write to me a letter like that now. I think I’ll print it out, put it into my wallet, and pretend I’m sixteen for a while, then sit down and write something about a forty-two-year-old woman wandering around her birth village in the last days of July, reading a letter to a girl on an other continent.
    Thank you,

  2. Beth Says:

    Yes, if one of my teachers had written this to me, the paper would be falling apart by now. But I do carry their words around with me, both spoken and unspoken, and try to take them out of my pocket into my palm and blow them gently in the right direction.

  3. Peter Says:

    The kids come in tomorrow — my usual ninth graders and, new this fall, three sections of AP Lang. Your letter is bracing, cold water in the face after this past week’s spirit-numbing planning and meetings for the as-yet nameless, faceless writers.

    Your lovely, chiasmatic, Woolfish syntax is a joy to read. I’m going to make it part of my AP Lang material if the powers that be will ordain it.

    What a closing.

    I’d love to see you teach.

    So you see Barthes as a storyteller! I’ve always seen him that way.

  4. […] From wmc is now here. Filed Under: Passages Next Post Previous Post Via Negativa Short & slow […]

  5. wmc Says:

    Thank you, Maria, Beth, and Peter! I had the privilege to teach writing for one intense month this summer. I found critiquing student writing to be soul-draining and so decided that my responses should be personal notes. This letter is the culmination of all those notes and, yes, something I also wish a sensitive teacher had written to sensitive me when I was sixteen. These are the things I’d neglected to say in class, but are also the things I *had* said but said in an incomprehensible ramble.

    M: We write to each other all the time in our tweets and updates, but I would love to write a longer letter like this to you. And I would love to read your letter to your birth village.

    B: Your message reaches us, believe me.

    P: Yes, I feel that Barthes is very much a storyteller. Anybody who shapes narrative so precisely and lovingly is a storyteller, it doesn’t matter how unformed or clinical or abstract the style. And I hope your transition back to the classroom is a smooth one!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: