This past weekend, I was part of a panel discussion on zines at the downtown Portland library, which was super fun and informative (Fun facts: Nicole Georges’s first zines were about ska music and Chloe Eudaly’s idea for Reading Frenzy started outside of a Nation of Ulysses show she couldn’t afford to get into).
During the Q&A, people asked us about the future of zines, what our favorites were, and if podcasts were “the new zines.” But one of the questions that got a lot of us talking was about postal mail. As in, do people still just write personal letters any more? Of course, the answer is yes, though not as much as pre-Internet days. It made me think of The Rumpus Letters In The Mail, the awesome subscription idea brainstormed by Stephen Elliot three years ago. If you sign up you’ll get actual POSTAL mail from a different author every two weeks. I highly recommend it. You can even sign up for letters for your kids.
Anyway, last year I wrote a letter for subscribers and it was really fun and I thought I’d share it here. I even got a bunch of letters back (including one from a death row inmate).
So pretend you’re opening an envelope and pulling out this folded missive. Here’s the letter I wrote (I added some pics for this Internet version). Enjoy!
Rumpus Letter in the Mail (January 2014)
I did not turn out the way I expected to. I mean, I probably grew up thinking I wanted to be a football player or a radio DJ or a cheesy pop star like Donnie Osmond. I don’t remember reading when I was a kid. I don’t remember being read to at all. I don’t remember learning how to read or write. But I do remember drawing fake football cards of my favorite players, complete with factoids about each one. I would steal football cards at the store and try to copy them.
But I was not an artist.
I think I wanted to be a reader. I wanted to absorb, if it were as easy as absorbing. But reading is not. I joined a book club thing out of the back of a magazine. I ordered fantasy books because I liked the covers—the strange creatures and mysterious landscapes. The bronze bodies rippled and set in heroic poses. This club was like those record clubs where you could order ten albums for a penny if you bought five more at regular price the next three years. I did that club too—I listened to the cassettes or eight-tracks or albums and I memorized every bad song. The books I set around the house, unopened. Maybe I showed them to friends, or possibly my older brothers read them. I’m not sure. I thought reading was boring. I’m embarrassed to say that now. I thought reading was fucking boring.
I remember seventh grade being the worst. What year was that? I guess that would be like 1980-81. Was that a good year for anyone? The thrill of the 1980 USA hockey team’s Cinderella story had worn off and people all around me seemed confused about the disco vs punk debate. I was probably listening to Fleetwood Mac or The Bay City Rollers. A Reagan-esque malaise had set in, though at first I kind of liked the president’s stern cowboy demeanor, his hostage-freeing power. My skin and hair seemed to be spouting grease and sweat and general grossness the whole year. Maybe I was afraid to take a shower.
I remember not wanting to shower after gym class even though we were supposed to. I didn’t want anyone looking at me or my penis, which I had become very intimate with around that time. I would sometimes get quick looks at other boys’ penises. Ugly snails, all of us. There was one fat kid who appeared to not have a penis. I felt mortified for him. No one would talk to him. I felt like I should be his friend, but I was afraid. (for some reason, whenever I write about this time period I have a feeling of déjà vu, like I’m about to remember something traumatic or important. I can’t put my finger on what it could be.)
It was the summer after that school year when I suddenly went through my one and only teen reading phase. I’m not sure what started it, but I read Brian’s Song in one day. I was in my parents’ bed for some reason and (spoiler alert!) I cried when Brian Piccolo died at the end.
After that, I read a couple of horror books that titillated me in some strange way. One of those books was called The Funhouse or something like that—it was set at a carnival. I recall a scene where a guy feels up a girl, maybe in a haunted house. I wonder if that was the first time I’d been “turned on” by words.
But despite reading books that inspired tears as well as boners (sorry, but teen slang probably works best right there), I didn’t really keep on with the reading bug. It wasn’t until a girlfriend of mine made fun of me (when I was twenty-one) for not reading books that I started reading—probably two months after breaking up with her. Still unsure if I felt like that was revenge or something. Like I’d see her out somewhere and say, “Hey, I’ve read ten books so far this summer. How many have you read?”
When I did start reading books (and therefore writing more seriously) I entered a sort of Phase Two of my life.
I taught myself a lot through books. I learned that we all build ourselves through them. I learned that they make me want to write. I never understood people who say they don’t read other books while they’re working on their own. I call bullshit on that. If you’re a writer who becomes so easily influenced by other writers’ books and worry about “starting to write like them” than you must not have found your own voice yet. You must not be confident in yourself.
I’m sorry. I don’t want to turn mean here. But it is kind of a cop-out. You must never stop reading.
So, I’d like to end this letter by asking YOU what book was the first to make you cry and what book first sent warm sexy waves through your blood.
Right now, as I write this, it is nearly Halloween (2013). In Portland, where I write and read and work (at Powell’s Books as luck would have it) it has become the gray season. This may last a few months. I’ll spend the season listening to music, watching football, doing some readings for my book (obligatory plug: This Is Between Us, Tin House Books), editing the next book on my press (another plug: Excavation: A Memoir by Wendy C. Ortiz, summer 2014, Future Tense Books), hanging out with my wife and going to her shows (she produces an awesome storytelling show called Back Fence PDX), reading, and eating a lot of fine food (In Portland, the foodie scene is as big as the book scene).
I didn’t become a football player or a pop star. I was a DJ for a while but that’s another story. What I became was a reader and a writer and that’s something that will last, something entirely satisfying. I’ve made my life what it is and it’s pretty great. I hope you’re as happy as I am. Thanks for reading.