This week I sent out a TinyLetter about distance and in some ways also about the courage to write across any perceived distance. The previous letter was about loss, and not necessarily that of physical form.
Borges writes that “in due time other men will rewrite the same books and nothing will really be lost” (excerpt sent by a friend, pictured below):
Rushdie wrote: “It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity.” I, for my heart, couldn’t afford to lose these things. I could, instead, tell stories: I could become a writer.
In my letter I voiced my gratitude for living in an era that offers vast multitudes of methods for communicating. We’ve had books and poems for thousands of years, but now barriers of distance are easier to cross than ever with language. Messud uses the metaphorical British film quote “hands across the ocean” to indicate this power of words:
Even a single successful sentence can be transformative; and a single poem or novel can alter someone’s life forever. That, my friends, is “hands across the ocean,” and it’s a meeting that happens if not only, then most fully, through language. With words, we can travel across nations and through time; we can inhabit lives far from our own.
What is our hope for the experience of literature, if not to share this: shards of memory and new worlds discovered? What, indeed, if not this, is the best truth of our experience of life?
I have my own collection of little literary and philosophical heads, my own stock of single successful sentences. Each of us is constructed, like a magpie’s nest, from these as much as from our childhood experiences and our temperament and our loves and losses. We are as much the sum of our lived literary experiences as of our literally lived experiences. This, of course, is what T.S. Eliot expressed in The Waste Land, and his is one of the essential sentences I carry with me everywhere. I’ve slipped it into several of my books. “These are the fragments I have shored against my ruins.” That’s all. It’s why I write, really. Fail again, fail better—to cite another from my collection. A single successful sentence, a so-called philosophical hue. Each an invocation; each a hand across the ocean; each a seizing of power away from fear and desire; each a small magic.
Perhaps, as writers, we hope that the more we share, the less we lose.
Perhaps, as Borges insists, there is no actual loss due to the repetitive nature of the very experiences we write about. We truly are rewriting the tales of every generation before us.
I write to carry my past with me, as much as I write to let it go.
J.L. Carrell wrote: “If I could, I would move mountains to reach you. You must know that. If you are reading this, the mountains have proved beyond my strength.”
And so I write to reach you across distances I have found that I am unable to cross. I still may never arrive, but perhaps arrival was never the point. I write to take you with me, though we have no more shared road ahead.
Hands across the ocean. Words between our hearts.