If you're playing around with what we call voice—your own or the voice of a character in one of your stories—try this writing exercise: Write an effusive fan letter—really let yourself go. Don't censor, just spill it. Pack it with superlatives and pump it full of emotion. Now write a second fan letter, to the same person, but make it painfully shy and unworthy, the voice of a baby sparrow addressing a royal falcon.
The following fan letter is one I wrote to Joan Didion in 2014, when her nephew Griffin Dunne was raising money via Kickstarter for a documentary about her life. I promise you, I labored over it, because the reward for my donation was the solemn promise that my letter would be READ ALOUD to my idol. I did not dare to hope that the author of Slouching Toward Bethlehem and Play It As It Lays would write me back, and of course she didn't. But at the movie got done, with a little help from me and my rubbish man. If you haven't seen The Center Will Not Hold, you should. Not because I am one of its sponsors but because it's really good.
Dear Ms. Didion:
In 1970, the year Play It As It Lays was published, I was a sophomore at Randolph High School in central Vermont. By the time I read the story of Maria Wyeth, four years later, I was waiting on tables in New York City and trying to be an actress. Grownup life was shockingly difficult. I was lonely and confused. The book spoke to me in a voice that I found exquisite. That was the coup de foudre.
A few years later, I composed a little essay and submitted it to an editor at Cosmopolitan, where I was a copy assistant. The essay made it to the desk of Helen Gurley Brown, where its title, "Slouching Towards Mayhem," caught Helen's eye. She decided to publish it. She even kept the title, a rare coup. She also began giving me her castoff party dresses and promoted me to copy chief. I would send you the essay but it is firmly buried in a closet 4,000 miles away. Its subject was the importance of good work habits, and I'm afraid it was insufferable.
I read The White Album while living in Los Angeles, where I worked for a series of doomed publications that included the once proud Westways and a startup called Buzz. Southern California was an enigma, and I read everything of yours that I could get my hands on.
I wish you could have explained Tanzania to me. Peter Matthiessen tried.
In 2007, I moved back home to Vermont to care for my mother, who was then 87. The Year of Magical Thinking opened on Broadway as I was leaving New York, and I missed seeing Vanessa Redgrave's performance, much to my regret.
In 2010, I raised $10,000 on Kickstarter for a memoir-writing project called the Hale Street Gang; the memoirists were my mother and a group of her contemporaries. Ever since, I've received emails from Kickstarter inviting me to contribute to somebody else's project. I never do. A few weeks ago, your name popped up. I clicked.
I am writing to you from Fontainebleau, France. My mother, Idora Tucker, died two years ago. She was the light of my life. The money that I am donating to your project is payment for an article about her rubbish man. His name is Clayton Butterfield, and he has been our family rubbish man for 50 years and we love him.
Recently at a dinner party in France a tiny white-haired lady told me that she has 4,000 books and that each one is a friend. I told her that I have a Kindle. She frowned. I hastily added that my mother had kept a large library, and that I had inherited this library. My dinner companion told me that I must dust my mother's books once a week.
Among the dusty books in my mother's house are several of yours. On my Kindle, which I carry with me wherever I go, are The Year of Magical Thinking, Blue Nights, and Where I Was From. I have read these books several times.
I cherish your words.
I clicked because I wanted to say thank you.
36 Highland Avenue
Randolph, Vermont 05060
December 17, 2014