I wrote this piece in 2007 for an issue of a literary journal that was going to be dedicated to the work of writer David Bradley. This was before I won the Bellwether Prize, and had already racked up some three dozen publisher rejections. The literary journal issue didn't come together as planned, and the essay was never published.
I thought I would share it with you here because as I read it today, it helped me remember how I was able to connect with the writing and the words when I hadn't published a word. It was a great reminder. Maybe it is something that connects with you.
A Letter to David Bradley from “Kel,” a Fiction Writer
copyright Heidi W. Durrow
It was ingenious of you to write your letter to me in that book, Letters to a Fiction Writer, since you didn’t have my address. I never put in a forwarding request when I moved a couple of years ago; and since we talked last, I also got a new email address.
How did you know that I would find your letter at all?
Well, no matter. I did. And I’ve been meaning to write back ever since I read the letter back in (yikes!) 2002 or 2003? I didn’t see it until after the book came out in paperback. I hope you will forgive me for taking so long to respond.
“Dear Kel” is quite a stretch from “Dear Heidi,” but it was thoughtful of you to obscure my identity in an open letter. Just so you know—I wouldn’t have minded if you had used my real name. Actually, I thought you would have called me something different–something like Harriette, or Mara, or Cecile. Just a note: if I ever appear as a character in one of your books in the future, I like the name Cecile the best.
Describing me as a “rising star” was a little too much, though. Seriously, David, any “rising star” at Bread Loaf—with its well-established food chain of writers--would have been a Scholar NOT a Contributor (which is what I was). Still it was a nice touch. (I also liked that part about my being five-foot-two—I really measure in at five feet even.)
And let me finally admit: yes, you got me! I hadn’t read your books at all when we first met. I thought I had done a good job of fooling you in our initial conversations at the conference. You never quizzed me or cajoled me into giving you my take on your novels. Thank goodness.
To me, at least at first, you were just the black guy writer at the conference. As you know, I had come to see that certain “supernova” about whom you refer in your letter. I’d written an award-winning Honors thesis on the Supernova’s work. I attended Bread Loaf that summer to show the Supernova I was her number one Fan and receive her love in return. I quickly discovered the Supernova either didn’t want my adoration or felt uncomfortable about receiving it. I didn’t even get my well-thumbed books autographed while I was there.
Don’t get me wrong. I did know Who you were. This was before Google. Yes, it was that long ago since we met! I had taken the time to do some research “about” your work. I knew that you were the author of two novels. The second won the PEN/Faulkner Award and that was a big honor. Okay, maybe I got all that information from the conference brochure. I did buy The Chaneysville Incident before the conference on a good deal at Powell’s. I was impressed by the cover blurb. “The Chaneysville Incident rivals Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon as the best novel about the black experience in America since Ellison’s Invisible Man.” You can’t get better kudos than that.
I knew enough about your work to be stunned into silence when I did actually meet you at the conference. Day 2, in my journal, I wrote: “I wanted so much to talk to David Bradley but I couldn’t quite offer myself up.” It wasn’t lost on me that 1) I was at Bread Loaf; and 2) you, like Ralph Ellison had been some forty years prior, were a member of the Distinguished Faculty. I had to give you your props for that alone.
I can’t tell from my journal exactly what happened between Day 2 and Day 3, but it looks like I worked up some courage. Day 3, in what looks oddly like shy sixth-grade handwriting (there was a big circle above the “i” in your name), I wrote: “David Bradley sat next to me at the reading.”
You tell the rest of the story of how we came to meet better in your letter. Though, to be honest, I don’t remember it that way. We talked outside of the Barn during the dance? I do remember the DJ played a lot of white-people wedding music, but back then I wouldn’t have minded. I wasn’t much of a dancer—I’m still not. I’ll assume that detail in your letter was fictional license (like the pseudonym).
I remember that I’d wave to you when you passed by for your daily run: it’s hard to miss a black guy with a linebacker’s build running in the Vermont woods. (You know, I wish you had stressed how helpful an exercise regimen is to a writer. I took up weight-lifting and running a few years ago. And I agree with your remark I read in Runner’s World magazine: “To hear somebody tell me I’ve screwed up is a lot easier when I feel I can break him in half.”)
I remember you were always joking like that. I remember that you were generous with your stories and your time.
I had never known a real writer before. It was kind of cool.
The funny thing is you weren’t my workshop leader; still, I felt like I learned a ton from you during our talks and from your lecture on craft.
What was the title of your lecture? If only I could find my old copies of “The Crumb!” I think of it as The David Speech. Do you remember what you said? You told the apocryphal story of Michelangelo who was once asked how he had sculpted the extraordinary statue of David. His answer: “I just carved away everything that wasn’t David.” I sat in the front row and took notes that I carried around at least until—well until somewhere around that last move when I lost my old copies of “The Crumb,” and didn’t put in a forward-address request.
I was at the conference because I wanted to write a novel, but I didn’t have very much, if anything, written. I didn’t have a sense of who the characters of my novel would be, or anything about the story or plot. I did have philosophies, ideas and theories, and a heap of random notes from years of journal-writing. Your advice was: just keep chipping away—the novel will reveal itself. It sounds simplistic when I explain it. You said it perfectly, and entertainingly, and in a way that made me connect. Maybe the lecture is a kind of stump speech for you, but, without overstating it, to me, it was a revelation. All I had to do was keep writing and the notes and scribbles would become my novel.
I shouldn’t have let our correspondence slip given how important your mentoring—dare I say “friendship?”-- was as I took those initial steps pursuing a writing career. The truth is: I have been upset with you, as you guessed. I am “just like every other writer.” That comment cut me to the core.
Not knowing the Bread Loaf hierarchy, I thought just being a Contributor was something special. I mean, the acceptance letter said only some 13 or 15 percent of the applicants were admitted.
Being special meant something to me. I had just left my job as a corporate attorney to pursue a writing career. (By the way, it would have been fine to write that I was a lawyer. But, maybe you were going with the fictional license thing again when you described me as a lab researcher. Maybe you wanted to prove you knew something about High Pressure Liquid Chromatographs?) I believed that I had to be special to have made that transition. I had to be special in order to make the transition make sense!
I was like your John Washington, a card-carrying member of the Talented Tenth. I was, as you described him, “not the typical black” with my fancified degrees and such. You know that role too. You’ve played it. You’ve had to do ten times more work, ten times better, and you’ve got to uplift the folk. How could a “wannabe writer,” as you phrased it, do all that? When you said I wasn’t special, on the inside I was saying, to paraphrase Jesse Jackson’s famous chant: I am . . . special. I am. I am. I am.
You also insisted I give up my timetable. I refused. I was 27 when we met. I planned to write and publish the Great American Novel in three years. Why would I give up my timetable at the urging of a guy whose biography in Contemporary Authors Online begins:
“David Bradley has reaped considerable critical acclaim for his novels South Street and The Chaneysville Incident, both published before he turned thirty-five.” [emphasis mine] How many other writers can say that they have contributed a significant text to the body of contemporary American literature—much less before thirty-five? (Not that you would say it yourself, but it’s nice to have it said of you, right?)
I’m impatient. You must have been too. You wrote South Street in college. You’ve won most of the major prizes with your two books. Maybe you knew, as I did, that Michelangelo sculpted David at 27! So, why would you try to dissuade me?
The “wall,” as you describe the silence between us, started going up then.
I didn’t wannabe a wannabe writer. I didn’t wannabe thought of as a wannabe writer. I am special. I am. I am. I am. That’s when the chant inside started to sound like a child’s tantrum.
I can imagine now how you might have responded had I shared that inner-drama at the time. You would have posed the question as a challenge: “What are you gonna do with this ‘special-ness?’”
I did nothing for a long time. I didn’t write. I had writer’s block. Being described as “not special” was a good excuse to not write. It was a favorite excuse of many. I was depressed: my acting instructor thought it was okay for my white classmates to call me a “nigger” in improv skits because it was all “for-pretend.” I wasn’t writing because of my brother’s illness, and September 11th and then a move West. There was a long list of things, real and imagined, that kept me from writing and held me hostage to my identity as a “wannabe writer.”
I am special. I am. I am. I am.
That mantra became: I was special. I was. I was. I was.
I suffered a great deal. I’d sit down to write, pretend to write, then open a new bag of chips or cookies or whatever was at hand.
And then, one day, I read the letter you wrote to me in Letters to a Fiction Writer. It was completely by chance that I found it. Who knows what I was looking for at the bookstore that day—if anything. Visiting the bookstore was always a good excuse to get me away from my desk and that awful blank page—I called it “research.”
I was drawn to the title of the book: Letters to a Fiction Writer. Wasn’t that supposed to be me? But I didn’t expect to find a letter written specifically to me in the book. In fact, I was shocked to see it, to be honest, and also thrilled. I was certain you had forgotten all about me. It had been years since I met you, years since I had bumped into you at the Portland airport, and years since I had last written you. How was it that, I, a “wannabe writer,” was still on your mind after all those years?
I sat down right there at the bookstore and read the letter through a couple of times. I read again and again this part near the letter’s end:
[by attending the conference] we were both making significant statements about ourselves, our lives, our ambitions. You were saying you wanted to be a writer. How can I claim to respect you as a person if I do not take you at your word? And if I, with whatever benevolent intent, were to take the pressure off, I would betray you by becoming part of a world that does not take you and your desire—and yes, your Goddamn talent—seriously [emphasis yours] . . . it matters to me whether or not you progress as a writer.
Thank you, David. I really needed to hear that. I can’t say that the words cured me instantly, but I think they started the process that let me heal.
I was tired of suffering. I was tired of not writing. I was tired of being in the state of wannabeing.
I took up weight-lifting and lost 15 pounds. I took up running and built up to five miles a day. I started writing. And then I wrote some more. Soon, I was getting rejection letters. It was wonderful. I was writing.
I hoped that you would see that first piece I published in a literary journal, or the announcement for some contest I had won. I hoped that you would be proud.
Sometimes, when I would get stuck, I’d re-read the letter you wrote me. “[H]ow much we write (or don’t write) is something all writers have to think about, and that wannabe writers have to think about especially hard.” Then I’d go write some more.
Now, David, I don’t mean to harp on this, but when I read the letter I sometimes feel like you’ve changed too many details about me and about our meeting. I may just be remembering things differently. I do think you take fictional license a little too far in some instances. Like the detail about my mom dying? In terms of fictional license, that’s kind of creepy. Mom’s alive and well, thank you very much! I’d advise being a little more careful about playing with details like that. You saw what happened to James Frey!
Anyway, with my pen as my chisel, the blank page as my block of stone and a couple of years of hard work, I chipped away until I finished my novel. I finished!
I’ve also had the really amazing experience of reading my writing to audiences all over--New York, and Wyoming, and Minnesota, and even overseas. Recently, as part of a lecture-reading I gave at a college in upstate New York, I quoted your letter:
The level of talent is only a minor factor in calculating the probability that a wannabe writer will become a writer. Talent may influence how good a writer you ultimately become, or how quickly you master certain technical aspects of the craft, but there are so many other factors that even a great deal of talent quickly becomes unimportant . . . thank God. [my emphasis] Because wanting to be a writer is a dream. Dreams can’t depend entirely on any a priori for their realization. The most dramatic and wonderful dreams are those that fly into the face of the greatest obstacles.
Here, I had come full circle. I was the writer and they were the wannabes. And guess what? I agree with you: those kids needed to hear that they weren’t special, and they didn’t need to be. All they had to do was do the work and dare.
David, I hope so much that this letter can re-open communications between us. There are tons of things I want to tell you like:
1) I read The Chaneysville Incident. I loved it!
2) I got another piece accepted in a good literary journal.
3) I got my first “fan” letter. Isn’t that wild?
And I have questions for you. No, not “can you introduce me to your agent?”—Ha! I already met her. I’m serious here.
I want to know how you’re doing. I want to know when I can get a sneak peak at Raystown or The Bondage Hypothesis. I want to continue this conversation that we started at Bread Loaf almost ten years ago
Do you know this quotation attributed to Michelangelo? “It is well within me only when I have a chisel in my hand.” Well, that’s me now—I’m happiest when I am chipping away, writing.
P.S. You know--it would be a little embarrassing if there really were some person named Kel. There isn’t, is there?