Last month, I began this series to share various books I have found helpful for my own writing practice. As I wrote in that first post, these are not necessarily all traditional writing how-to books. However, they do all deal with the art and craft of writing in some way or another.
This month, I am sharing three letter collections: Chekhov, Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, and Vincent Van Gogh. Each of these collections is, to me, like a masterclass in writing while also being a beautiful work of art in itself.
If you have followed my blog over the years, you will know that I am a big fan of letter collections, especially those by writers and artists. It is, of course, a dying art nowadays, where social media has replaced both letters and emails.
The most difficult part here is selecting only three letter collections because, as you will read in the previous letter-related posts, I have many and much-loved letter collections on my shelves. And there are many letter collections addressed specifically to writers/poets (e.g. Rilke, Keats, Colum McCann, et al.) So I might just have to return to this sub-genre in a future post and share a few more.
Chekhov wrote some 4,500 letters in his short life of 44 years. Let that sink in for a moment. In addition to his many stories and well-known plays, he found the time to write all these letters to his family, friends, other writers, even actresses. Taken together, they give us a sort of life history of the man and his evolution as a writer. They are also filled with all kinds of nuggets of writerly advice that continue to be useful even today.
There is this famous piece of advice he wrote in May 1886 to his brother Alexander, who had literary ambitions:
In descriptions of Nature, one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.
There’s also the famous “gun” quote, which he wrote about in several letters.
Here are a couple of my favorite bits:
You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist. In “Anna Karenin” and “Evgeny Onyegin” not a single problem is solved, but they satisfy you completely because all the problems are correctly stated in them. It is the business of the judge to put the right questions, but the answers must be given by the jury according to their own lights.
That the world swarms with “dregs and scum” is perfectly true. Human nature is imperfect, and it would therefore be strange to see none but righteous ones on earth. But to think that the duty of literature is to unearth the pearl from the refuse heap means to reject literature itself. “Artistic” literature is only “art” in so far as it paints life as it really is. Its vocation is to be absolutely true and honest. To narrow down its function to the particular task of finding “pearls” is as deadly for it as it would be to make Levitan draw a tree without including the dirty bark and the yellow leaves. I agree that “pearls” are a good thing, but then a writer is not a confectioner, not a provider of cosmetics, not an entertainer; he is a man bound, under contract, by his sense of duty and his conscience; having put his hand to the plough he mustn’t turn back, and, however distasteful, he must conquer his squeamishness and soil his imagination with the dirt of life. He is just like any ordinary reporter. What would you say if a newspaper correspondent out of a feeling of fastidiousness or from a wish to please his readers would describe only honest mayors, high-minded ladies, and virtuous railway contractors? To a chemist nothing on earth is unclean. A writer must be as objective as a chemist, he must lay aside his personal subjective standpoint and must understand that muck heaps play a very respectable part in a landscape, and that the evil passions are as inherent in life as the good ones.
There are some 1300 letters (not all included here, of course) over a 40-year-long friendship between a British writer (Townsend Warner) and her American editor (Maxwell) at The New Yorker. How many of us are as lucky? And, on every single page, there is love, gratitude, respect – even as they discuss everything from literature to politics to neighborly gossip. Maxwell was also a writer, so these letters have both of them sharing thoughts about their own writing, each others’ writing, and the writing of those they most admired. Townsend Warner, in particular, had an amazing, encyclopedic knowledge of literary works and her sharp, insightful critiques are a joy to read too.
Though they were both married/partnered with others, their particular respect and love for each other, as editor-to-contributor and writer-to-writer, is beautifully evident in these letters. She told him he wrote better letters than Henry James and he returned the compliment by saying hers were better than those of Virginia Woolf. At one point, he even wrote her something about how reading a sentence by her was like listening to music by Mozart and Schubert. Imagine an editor saying that to a writer.
Here’s Townsend Warner writing about why Maxwell’s praise of her writing means so much (it is not vanity — nor is it with most good, dedicated writers):
It is very pleasant to have you saying such nice things about my writing, when you have been a writer as long as I have you will know how very reviving it is to hear such things. It is not merely one’s pride and vanity that is eased, but a queer sort of sense of responsibility, like finding that some tree one planted and cared for and quitted is getting its proper pruning from a new owner. Being a writer makes one a ghost before one’s time—the kind of ghost that likes a libation. War—or rather a state of things that antedates war—makes one feel more ghostly still; and so your words were doubly welcome.
Here’s one of Maxwell’s kind rejections:
“Bruno” isn’t quite right for The New Yorker. It is beautifully written, but it has a curious quality: you give your sympathy to the characters, each in turn and then withdraw it. As if, in the end, you had come to dislike them all impartially. Which is perhaps the case, and your intention. At all events, I don’t think you ought to change anything; it clearly is what it is; this is what came. Now that you are delivered of White*, will you do more? I know you won’t hold this particular failure to like something against us, and besides there is much in the story that we did like. Will you do five or six more right away and one after another?
*White is T H White, the author of among others, ‘The Once and the Future King’, and Warner had just completed writing his biography.
This is a selection from Van Gogh’s vast collection of letters. These are all addressed to his brother, Theo, who was his greatest supporter during his lifetime (see note below.) You can read the entire lot annotated and online here. Or just go for the entire 3-volume hard-bound collection like I did. I’ve written about Van Gogh a few times now and, no doubt, will write more as the mood suits. Not only is he is my favorite painter of all time, but he was also quite the writer and storyteller as these letters show.
Both from his paintings and his letters, you get a sense that this man was deeply moved by the world around him — whether a little room in the yellow house in Arles, a farming couple resting under a tree in a field, cypress trees in the countryside or the many irises and sunflowers in different settings. And, in many of his letters, he described these things that moved him and why before he was then compelled to paint them.
Consider this description from his time in Isleworth, England, in a letter to his brother, Theo. Vincent was only 23 years old and, by then, had already tried a few professions and given up on them. Here, he was now teaching the Bible at Holme Court House, a private boarding school run by Reverend Slade-Jones, a non-conformist minister. Van Gogh was so poor that he had to walk to Isleworth from Ramsgate, where the school had been previously, and that took 3 days. This brief time (till about Christmas that year) was the only time Vincent Van Gogh was in England. He never returned. Although, his love for English literature, particularly Dickens, stayed with him his entire life.
Last Wednesday afternoon, we took a lovely walk to a village an hour away from here. The road there goes through meadows and fields, along hedgerows of hawthorn full of blackberries and clematis and, here and there, a tall elm tree. It was so beautiful when the sun went down behind the grey clouds and when the shadows were long, and we chanced to meet Mr Stokes’s school, where there are still several boys I know.
The clouds kept their red glow long after the sun had set and the twilight was gathering over the fields, and, in the distance, we saw the street-lamps being lit in the village. This morning, there was also a beautiful sunrise. I see it every morning when I wake the boys up.
NOTE: Theo passed away not too long after Vincent’s death. Theo’s wife, Johanna, worked hard after that to ensure that Vincent’s works received the recognition and fame they enjoy today. Read about that here and here. I intend to explore Johanna’s efforts in a separate post sometime.
Till next month, then, readers and writers.