I ran a Young Writers Camp for thirteen summers at place called, appropriately enough, Story, Wyoming. A writer friend of mine, Dainis, and I started it, and over the years it expanded and we added staff, and changed staff, and kids came and went. But one of the things Dainis and I used to say to each other was that we did it because when we were kids we didn’t know anyone like us, meaning we didn’t know any writers. We were voracious readers, but the process of how the words got from a writer’s mind to the hard cover books we toted around, or to the paperbacks that we read to tatters was, we realized, a mysterious one, As we became adults who became writers, we found ourselves looking around and realizing that we had come to be writers without models, and really were, in those early days, kind of flying blind.
I have recently been using Sebastian Junger’s book War as a textbook for two of my English Composition classes. My students have responded enthusiastically to this book which recounts Junger’s time in Afghanistan as a journalist with troops in the Korengal Valley. It is a thoughtful and serious, meditative book, but it is also full of action and deeply engaging descriptions of life at a remote outpost.
As one of the last assignments of the semester, I have asked my students to write letters to Junger, commenting on the book, on the parts that were most moving, and also asking Junger questions that they might have about the book, the experience or the writing process. Students have been sending me rough drafts before they turn in their final copies that I will e-mail to Junger. What I am seeing is some of the best writing that I have seen all semester. These letters are open and honest. The sentences are clear. They are not trying to sound academic or awkwardly smart by using big words that aren’t quite right for the sentence. These letters appreciate Junger’s work, and really engage in a conversation with him about the book.
As a writer, I love learning about what people think about my poetry, and I think I am no different from most writers. We send our work out into the world and don’t always know, especially if we are writing poetry, how it is received. It is a gift for a writer to get thoughtful reactions to a book, but it is also a gift for readers, especially relatively inexperienced readers to have a chance to write to an author, even if they do not hear back.
Correspondence is an intimate form of communication. When students write to an author, they are engaging in the same process that the author has engaged in; that is, they are writing and using writing to explore questions that they have. When students have the chance to articulate what a book means to them in a personal way, it’s in many ways a richer process than the standard Comp I essay.
When my daughter was a young reader, she carried on a correspondence with one of her favorite authors. She exchanged a number of letters with Lloyd Alexander that ranged from her questions about his work to comments about the writing she was doing. It meant a great deal to her that someone whose work she loved so much would take the time to answer her.
I think about to Dainis, and how we spent those summer weeks engaged with our campers in writing, immersing ourselves in the work as much as the kids were, and I think about the kids who are now grown-up and working as writers and writing teachers. They did know “someone like us.” They knew practicing writers and, thus, for them, writing was not a remote skill that only someone with “talent” could do, but it was a process that we all engaged in. I would like to encourage all young readers, and not so young readers, to write to the authors whose work moves them. The writer might not answer, but I can pretty much guarantee that the act will be as important to the reader who writes the letter as it will be to the writer who receives it. Writing to someone is one of the easiest ways of joining the ranks of people who use words to think, to invent and to understand the world. It is a way of becoming “someone like us.”