The Epistolary Insights of Aging Writers

One can only hope that our greatest writers today are carrying on significant email correspondences with one another–and that one day we’ll have access to these exchanges. I can’t say I’ve seen anything like this yet, no hint of The Collected Emails of David Foster Wallace or Christopher Hitchens: The Yahoo! Years Last fall I received an advanced copy of Samuel Beckett’s final volume of letters. I’d just written about Beckett for The Millions and was happy to continue thinking about this odd and fabulous Irishman.

I’d also been doing some thinking about aging, and was struck how Beckett’s legendary detachment–explored and cultivated since youth–had seemingly prepared him well for the challenges of aging. I got the kernel for an idea, tracked down some additional epistolary volumes: Saul Bellow’s letters and the fascinating correspondence between the poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. My article appeared last month in The Atlantic under the heading Finding Wisdom in the Letters of Aging Writers

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During the last month or so I also published two short stories in online literary journals. They are both chapters from a novel I recently completed. The first piece was titled “The Phenomenon” and published in The Courtship of Winds, and the second was “If it is Beautiful, it is Passing” in the The Furious Gazelle.

Anxiety & The Writing Life

When I decided to write about Tim Parks’ new essay collection Life and Work: Writers, Readers, and the Conversations between Them, I didn’t intend to write about panic attacks, anxiety and the emotional toll of the writing life, but these themes curiously bubbled up to the surface. I was also writing it for The Millions, which unlike the Los Angeles Review of Books, for example, avoids straight-up reviews, forcing me to look for interesting themes across Parks’ divergent essays. One of his pieces focused on Samuel Beckett–no stranger to anxiety himself–and this led me to Anthony Cronin’s fine Beckett biography, which helped give me some additional material.

samuel beckett photo
Photo by TANAZE

The piece is titled “The Writer is Not Here: On Nihilism and the Writing Life,” and I can also say that when I was reading Parks’ collection, I was finishing my own novel and experiencing a certain amount of anxiety in the process. Not anxiety in the career sense (i.e., have I written a good book?), but at the level of raw nerves, of scratching at emotional wounds, of going deep.

The essay was well received. It has been mentioned in The Paris Review Daily, 3 Quarks Daily, and also in The Rumpus. I suppose the topic is not unfamiliar to writers who “go deep” on a regular basis.