January 21, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Waiting for Guidance

This post is the work of Jesse Donaldson, a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers.–TM

Throughout the 1950s Aidan Higgins, an Irish writer whose novel Balcony to Europe was short-listed for the 1972 Booker Prize, wrote to Samuel Beckett for advice on his not-yet-burgeoning writing career.

A letter Beckett wrote to Higgins in April 1958 encapsulates the sometimes humorous relationship between the established author and the aspiring one. Beckett begins by apologizing for his “remissness” in responding to Higgins’ earlier letters and then compliments Higgins by saying a story he sent Beckett is “very good.” The praise then turned to a critique that Beckett is not sure will be helpful to Higgins but proves he spent time with the young writer’s work.

He gives the critique in bullet form. Among my favorite suggestions are:

pp. 1, 11, 13: “menacing as banners” “ “cumbersome as manacles” “ “ponderous as a juggernaut” “ “colossal as a ships hull” “ “reckless as the sibyl of Cumae” “ “indelicate as chinaware” “ “incorrigible as murder” “ You want to be careful about that.

P.7 “Hypertrophy of the prostate”. Women don’t have one (I’m sorry to say). No harm in that, as long as you make it clear you know.

Beckett goes on to give more general advice to Higgins. “Work, work, work, writing for nothing and yourself, don’t make the silly mistake we all make of publishing too soon. What I have said is much too abstract and personal and black and white, that’s what comes of trying to get down to the root.”

I don’t know to what degree Beckett helped Higgins get to the “root” of what it means to be a writer, but the letter is an admirable mixture of humor (prostate reference), forthrightness (be careful with the simile), and praise (very good).

As a student in an MFA program, one of those pipe dreams you imagine as you submit applications is that you will find a mentor, a writer to take you under their wing and guide you. I’m not sure that happens for most people–it would require a rather cosmic meeting of two like souls and talents.

I instead have come to believe that to write an author whose book you’ve admired may actually be the best way to achieve this sort of guidance. This remains an untested theory, not because I lack writers who I would like to thank for having written the books they’ve written, but because it is sometimes difficult to find the proper mix of humor, forthrightness, and praise when writing a letter.

Note: This Beckett/Higgins correspondence resides at the Harry Ransom Center for the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin, which Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky has written about here.

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