Our chief want in life is someone who shall make us do what we can. This is the service of a friend. With him we are easily great.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, philosopher, poet, author, and essayist
One of the greatest tests of friendship is what happens when friends, particularly those who meet in a confined environment for an intense, fixed period of time, go back home to restart their lives or elsewhere to blaze new paths. The spectrum of experiences ranges from losing touch altogether to intimately knowing what is happening in each other’s lives. My long-distance friendships fall in-between these extremes.
I have known my friend Jack Beaudoin since we entered Syracuse University’s Creative Writing Program in the fall of 1988 – 25 years ago. My first impression of him was when he and another classmate burst into the teaching assistants’ offices in the English Department and proclaimed that he did not want to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, rather he was aiming for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Hunkered down in my cubicle, I was in fear and awe – such confidence in his voice. I was already intimidated by the East Coast campus and the well-known writers in the program. I felt like a country bumpkin, and later I would find out from one of the faculty poets that being from California, where all the “nuts and fruits are,” was a strike against me. Being the late-bloomer that I was, I should have still been learning the fundamentals of fiction as an undergraduate. If my classmates in the fiction section were this self-assured and talented, I braced myself for a heavy dose of humility in our workshops. But at the same time, I knew it was an opportunity to learn from my more skilled fellow writers. I just had to have the courage.
Suffice to say, I was the beginner in the group. I had stories and ideas – gathered from my two years after leaving UC Davis, as a Jesuit Volunteer working in a Catholic high school in rural Alaska and as a newspaper editor for a prisoners’ rights union run by a Jesuit priest cum lawyer cum masseur in San Francisco. I also had stories to tell from my Filipino community. I wrote the occasional sentence or description that was spot on, but I required hand-holding on plot, structure, pacing, character, and point of view – all the technical elements of fiction. My stories could not be contained because I needed, according to the faculty novelist who “selected” me for the program, a “bigger canvas” – the dreaded “n” word, novel. This was all overwhelming for me.
We were seven writers in the fiction section. Two have gone on to achieve the dream of being published and having garnered critical acclaim, with one of them being a professor in a creative writing program at a respected university. Another is a successful young adult novelist along with her husband. One is writing screenplays, which was really his first love. Another kept writing, but I’m not sure what happened after she published a story in a well-known literary journal a few years post-Syracuse. Jack returned to Maine, where he hailed from, and then spent time in France with his wife Fay, whom he met our second year at Syracuse. He went on to write award-winning articles and had a successful career as a journalist based in Portland, Maine, before starting up a B2B publishing company with his business partner. [And I later joined his company, first as a freelance writer 10 years ago. I’m currently an FTE heading up the content services department.]
Why letter-writing matters
In those early post-Syracuse years we sustained our friendship with letters that ran pages long. The written words also helped us to sustain our vision that we struggled mightily to make good on – as writers who continued to hone our craft long after the workshop critiques and dedicated time to write ended. Understand that this was no small feat, given that our time in Syracuse was not nurturing from a program perspective, which shook my confidence and gave me permission to plant seeds of self-doubt once I left. That said, I thrived being amongst really talented writers. I humbly knew my place in this world, but took advantage of the genius and generosity of my fellow writers. I remember before we scattered that we sternly told one another that we must continue to write. I laughed nervously for a reason.
The most important thing I came away with from my time at Syracuse was my friendships and my friends’ literary guidance. Laurel Kallenbach was in the poetry section, and we have remained friends since. John Farrell and I still keep in touch, though we haven’t seen each other in perhaps five years. But with Jack, somehow our friendship expanded once we left Syracuse. We had a mutual respect for one another’s writing. Jack had a critical editor’s eye and read your story as if it was the only one that mattered in the world and was worth his time. At the end of our two years, Jack declared with sincerity that if a “most improved fiction writer” award existed I would have won it. It was a compliment I gratefully accepted.
For various complicated reasons, when I returned to San Francisco I did not write for nearly five years. I wrote a little in the beginning, mostly reworking stories that were largely unformed as part of my thesis. Being away from my literary support group and dealing with things that were making me unhappy numbed me, and I found myself in an environment in which I struggled to find the passion and the reason, really, to write. The letters allowed me to put chaotic thoughts into words that were tangible and made sense, and helped guide my lost self to find joy again – which was in my writing. [Shortly before my divorce, I began writing earnestly again, and then sporadically after remarriage, children, home remodel, multiple jobs, and so on. I wrote enough in the following 18 years to produce thousands of pages and several revisions of my novel, which Jack read and critiqued. At one point, he even counseled me to get rid of one of my main characters, which I did, at first painfully. Now I look back on that crucial recommendation with gratitude.]
Jack wrote the most beautiful, poetic letters, usually beginning with a description of the weather and his surroundings. His words carried a sense of immediacy. You were there, which was fertile ground for the opening of one’s mind and heart to communion and redemption. I sent a letter to Jack dated December 6, 1992: “Write me when you can. I truly enjoy receiving your letters. It brings out the truth in me, do you know what I mean?” And in another letter dated May 20, 1992, I entreated: “You must keep talking to me about writing. It’s my only connection to my Syracuse past as well as my present and possible future. I have to fit into that kind of writer’s world I thrived in when in Syracuse to feel comfortable to write in the world in which I now live. So, by all means, keep at it. [It] Keeps me on my toes at best, at least, [it] shows me where I should have been.”
What we write about when we write about fiction
We wrote a lot about what writing is and why we write. In a late 1991 letter he wrote: “Fiction was a way of remembering…. I remember and recall to feel again, not to forget; to summon, not to banish…. What I’m finding is that writing establishes regret as a positive value. Real writing for me is a summoning of old pains, but instead of working them out I want to work them into the web of my being, if that’s not too poetic. If I remember, summoning up what happened, then in writing I can redeem the pain I caused or felt by putting it to use. Who was it that said being a writer meant being someone on whom nothing is lost? [Thoreau] When you put it to use, you feel the pain all over again, which would be sadistic except for the fact that you’re trying to use it to establish goodness, or balance, as you referred to it (which I like very much). If it were truly therapeutic, wouldn’t you be done with the pain when you finished writing? Or rather, you’re finished writing once you’ve exorcised the guilt or pain. But that’s not where fiction ends. Fiction is probing the pain not just to feel it, but to feel it so that you can redeem something from it.”
I responded in a letter dated February 16, 1992: “Yes, I love how you say fiction is a way of remembering. Yes. For me, fiction is also exploring, creating possibilities that you would not normally have before you. Fiction is empowerment.” In a previous letter I had exposed all the demons that kept me from writing. Jack answered with bewilderment that he had not one hint of any demons while we were at Syracuse and therefore felt as if he hadn’t earned our friendship. To which I responded: “I do want to say that out of everyone at S.U., your friendship has had the greatest impact on me. I hope to Buddha that when we next meet I don’t feel somehow awkward or exposed or come to realize that openness in letters does not translate well to seeing you face to face and feeling as if we have earned each other’s friendship. I feel we have now. I do.”