Tuesday, December 8, 2009
A Postcard from My Favorite Living Writer
I recently wrote a fan letter to Louis Auchincloss, my favorite living writer. Guess what? He wrote me back! This was an auspicious start to the holiday season, indeed!
Let me tell you a bit about this writer that you never heard of. Louis Auchincloss is 92 years old. He has written 31 novels, 17 short story collections, and 17 non-fiction books, but for most of his adult life, writing wasn't his day job. He was a wills and trusts attorney until he was about 70 years old.
My therapist first turned me onto Auchincloss after I told him how much I enjoyed the writings of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton. I also mentioned that I was sad to be running out of material, as I was rapidly gobbling up their work. He handed me a pile of Auchincloss novels and I've been chipping away ever since.
Auchincloss is a lot like Wharton, focusing on that same lofty class of New Yorkers, but about 50-75 years later. His characters tend to be as wholly imprisoned by the conventions of their limited society, but modernity makes it easier for them to eke out a bit more joy.
Auchincloss grew up in that society. He attended the Groton School (the Roosevelts's prep school of choice) and Yale. He comes from several generations of wealth. He's quite familiar with the crowd of white guys who run the world. I love his writing, because he helps me understand those guys by way of beautiful, subtle, and often heartbreaking character studies.
At the same time, Auchincloss is really good at understanding individuals that would seem alien to him. In my letter, I told him (and pardon me for quoting myself, but I don't think I could express it better than I did in the letter) "I think that the quality in your writing that I most admire and wish to emulate is your remarkable perspective. You and I come from very different worlds, and yet I can relate to so many of your characters. The most stunning example for me was Harry Reilly from 'The Mavericks'. Like Harry, I come from a large, working class, Irish-Catholic family, with an awful father. But what really struck me was when you said that Harry would have been more successful in his job if he hadn't been so sensitive to real or imagined condescension. I remember my shock in reading that line, because I felt like I was reading about myself!" Truly, Harry Reilly might be my all-time favorite protagonist, not just because his major shortcoming happens to be one of mine, but because he is also inspired to overcome it.
I also told him about another of his characters who helped me overcome a fear - my timidity in hanging out with my siblings again. In his story, "The Anniversary," a middle aged minister is uneasy about attending the party celebrating the 25th anniversary of his marriage. Through flashbacks, we learn that early in their marriage, the minister's wife left him and their two children to run off with another man. She returns a couple years later, tells her estranged husband and children that she wants to come back, though she understands they may not want her. The children eventually warm to her again, and so does the minister. She becomes an excellent wife and mother.
Understandably, the minister has a lot of weird and unresolved feelings about her having abandoned them. But I loved the wife because she helped me figure out how to approach my family. I wrote to Auchincloss, "the estranged wife in your story was my model. I loved her unassuming and frank manner, the way she refused to force a reconciliation, but let others decide if they would accept her. Reading that story helped me to build my confidence and face my family without fear. And I was fine." Herry Reilly helped me know myself better, but she helped me to be a better person.
I said a lot of other things in the letter (not just about myself). The main reason I wrote it is that I feel it's important to let others - artists, especially - know when they've done well. Whether that person writes or acts or sings karaoke, I try to let him or her knew when they've rocked out, so that they'll keep doing a great job. I guess this thing called "encouragement" seems pretty obvious, but we humans don't offer it to each other enough. Too often, we let our admiration turn to jealousy. I don't know any more filthy-feeling emotion than jealousy, so I'd much rather replace it with sight of someone's smile when I tell them how much I enjoyed their work.
The note I received from Mr. Auchincloss was like I smile I could carry in my pocket. I hoped he would write me back, but I didn't expect it. I found his postcard in my mailbox the day after Thanksgiving. The little kid handwriting threw me at first, but then I saw his signature and I admit, I squealed. He thanked me for my very sympathetic and understanding letter and said, "It set me up - at 92! Bless you for writing it".
I've been carrying that postcard in my book bag every day since. I don't really need anything else for Christmas.