A few years ago I was sitting in a cafe in Santa Barbara and felt an overwhelming urge to write to David James Duncan. I had just read a piece by him in The Best American Essays 2009 about birds and extinction and disintegrating marriage, which left me weeping at my table.
I’d read his nonfiction God Laughs & Plays several years prior, and had recently finished his novels The River Why and The Brothers K. Both books had touched me profoundly, as had a brief and intense romance I’d had in Alaska with a rugged fishing guide a couple years prior, sparked by a connection over Duncan’s writing. (Whisky may have had something to do with it, too). I don’t quite remember what the letter was about, except that it referenced the fisherman and birds and the tear-stained table at which I sat–and, of course, the immense impact his writing had made on me.
I was able to wrangle a mailing address for Duncan from an associate of his, and I put my letter in the mail (a real letter in the mail!). A few weeks later I was shocked and thrilled to find a letter from “DJD” in my mailbox. I remember running up the stairs, ecstatic, to our apartment, my hands shaking. I carefully opened the envelope, then sat down on the couch to savour the letter.
His response, which began, “Thanks for one of the best letters ever”, was as gracious and beautiful as everything else of his, and included a new, unpublished piece. I was thrilled for days, and I count that letter as one of my most prized possessions.
Here are a few excerpts from God Laughs & Plays that have moved me:
Wonder is my second favorite condition to be in, after love—and I sometimes wonder whether there’s even a difference: maybe love is just wonder aimed at a beloved. Wonder is like grace, in that it’s not a condition we grasp: wonder grasps us.
Grateful as I am for this condition, wonder, like everything on earth, has a dark side. Heartbreak, grief, and suffering rip openings in us through which the dark kind of wonder pours. I have so far found it impossible to be spontaneously grateful for these openings. But when, after struggle, I’ve been able to turn a corner and at least accept the openings, dark wonder has helped me endure the heartbreak, the suffering, the grief.
This in turn caused me to breathe deeply, as I have trained myself to do through the years, set aside my hot little head, and sink into the heart—an organ that I find, if you have faith and know how to surrender it, unfolds and unfolds in a most wonderful and unscientific manner, till it becomes the vastest and most pristine wilderness in existence.
From The River Why:
The morning star was twinkling through the same opening in the cedars and the world was too wide and lovely to leave unexplored.
And one last one, from The Brothers K:
He grabbed his cracked blue MOM mug, filled it with Chablis, sipped sedately as he worked, and realized that he was enjoying himself semithoroughly. “There’s something missing,” he told Chekhov, handing him the last brown bag. “But there’s always something missing. Having things missing, even indispensable things, is a fact of life, don’t you think? And life goes on anyhow. Except for the missing parts. Which were indispensable, so of course it goes on all out of whack…”
Have you ever written to an author (or other artist)? Would you? If so, to whom would you write and what would you say?
Photo of David James Duncan via Beargrass Writing Retreat