From back when I did athletic things I remember enjoying the practices as much as the games—hitting a tennis ball against a wall over and over and over again, observing the strict rituals of baseball workouts, running basketball plays against token red-shirt defenders. Practices were play with teammates (or a wall or an empty basketball court). Games were challenges from unknown opponents, enjoyable in another way, but mainly if you won.
Of course, you could not play at all if you did not practice. Missing practice was the worst offense. Somewhere back then I was taught that there should be at least ten hours of practice for every hour of game time. The all-stars were the guys who were most obsessed with practicing. I was not one of them. I just enjoyed the time I got to spend on the field or on the court.
That is called a sports analogy, because what I mean to write about is correspondence. A perennial publishing phenomenon is the issuance of new volumes of dead authors’ letters. One of the rungs of literary fame is having one’s letters collected, selected, edited, and published. Critics then use them to either polish or abrade an author’s public persona. The letters are not part of the oeuvre, but they do become essential to the encompassing penumbra necessary for nurturing enduring fame, for ill or nil.
I think of Bloomsbury and the missives that Virginia and her gang sent back and forth by the morning and afternoon London post. These were not just pre-digital Tweets or the equivalent of text messages. They were mini-performances of style for peers, written in ink with a pen in hand, with pauses to find the right phrasing. They were part of a day’s work with the English language as a clear and clever means of connection. Those writers enjoyed the time they got to spend on their messages, just as I enjoyed the time I got to spend on the playing fields of Buffalo. In their own way they were practice.
Throughout my career as a writer—and I have thought of myself as a writer for more than half a century now—I have considered all writing as correspondence. Poems, essays, short stories, novels—they have all been written to someone. They each had a message I meant to convey. The actual letters, the missives to individuals—and they are approaching 10,000 now—were the warms-ups, the stretches and sprints, the lay-ups and batting-cage swings for what followed—the real game of literature. Many poems found themselves born in lines from a letter.
I have been blessed with some fine correspondents, friends for whom language likewise held powers of discovering meaning, for whom finding the right words and sharing them was an important, an essential way forward. Many of them are dead now, and my world of correspondents shrinks. This is problematic, as I need those teammates to practice with before the games I play with other forms. They are part of the mix, part of the measure, a constant reminder that what I am doing is speaking directly into a personal listener’s ear.
In return, they would favor me with their insights. We practiced together, hitting the ball back and forth over the postal net of distance and delay. But that letter writing craft now seems to be dying out as well, for ill or nil; and I worry for that, for what is lost. There is a reason this discipline carries the label Arts & Letters. To whom shall I send this? Who will respond?