Sometimes nothing can satisfy your cravings for a favorite author. You might scour used bookstores and libraries, research unreleased publications, and acquire new biographies. You might even read literary criticisms, just to get deeper inside their head. But nothing is more personal or closer to a writer’s true feelings than the letters they write to their editors, fans — even their paramours. Delve into these letters written by classic authors.
Jean-Paul Sartre, to Simone de Beauvoir
My dear little girl
For a long time I’ve been wanting to write to you in the evening after one of those outings with friends that I will soon be describing in “A Defeat,” the kind when the world is ours. I wanted to bring you my conqueror’s joy and lay it at your feet, as they did in the Age of the Sun King. And then, tired out by all the shouting, I simply went to bed. Today I’m doing it to feel the pleasure you don’t yet know, of turning abruptly from friendship to love, from strength to tenderness. Tonight I love you in a way that you have not known in me: I am neither worn down by travels nor wrapped up in the desire for your presence. I am mastering my love for you and turning it inwards as a constituent element of myself. This happens much more often than I admit to you, but seldom when I’m writing to you. Try to understand me: I love you while paying attention to external things. At Toulouse I simply loved you. Tonight I love you on a spring evening. I love you with the window open. You are mine, and things are mine, and my love alters the things around me and the things around me alter my love.
My dear little girl, as I’ve told you, what you’re lacking is friendship. But now is the time for more practical advice. Couldn’t you find a woman friend? How can Toulouse fail to contain one intelligent young woman worthy of you*? But you wouldn’t have to love her. Alas, you’re always ready to give your love, it’s the easiest thing to get from you. I’m not talking about your love for me, which is well beyond that, but you are lavish with little secondary loves, like that night in Thiviers when you loved that peasant walking downhill in the dark, whistling away, who turned out to be me. Get to know the feeling, free of tenderness, that comes from being two. It’s hard, because all friendship, even between two red-blooded men, has its moments of love. I have only to console my grieving friend to love him; it’s a feeling easily weakened and distorted. But you’re capable of it, and you must experience it. And so, despite your fleeting misanthropy, have you imagined what a lovely adventure it would be to search Toulouse for a woman who would be worthy of you and whom you wouldn’t be in love with? Don’t bother with the physical side or the social situation. And search honestly. And if you find nothing, turn Henri Pons, whom you scarcely love anymore, into a friend.
I love you with all my heart and soul.
John Keats, to Fanny Brawn
My sweet love, I shall wait patiently till tomorrow before I see you, and in the mean time, if there is any need of such a thing, assure you by your Beauty, that whenever I have at any time written on a certain unpleasant subject, it has been with your welfare impress’d upon my mind. How hurt I should have been had you ever acceded to what is, notwithstanding, very reasonable! How much the more do I love you from the general result! In my present state of Health I feel too much separated from you and could almost speak to you in the words of Lorenzo’s Ghost to Isabella
‘Your Beauty grows upon me and I feel
A greater love through all my essence steal.’
My greatest torment since I have known you has been the fear of you being a little inclined to the Cressid; but that suspicion I dismiss utterly and remain happy in the surety of your Love, which I assure you is as much a wonder to me as a delight. Send me the words ‘Good night’ to put under my pillow.
Lord Byron, to Teresa Guiccioli
My dearest Teresa,
I have read this book in your garden;–my love, you were absent, or else I could not have read it. It is a favourite book of yours, and the writer was a friend of mine. You will not understand these English words, and others will not understand them,–which is the reason I have not scrawled them in Italian. But you will recognize the handwriting of him who passionately loved you, and you will divine that, over a book which was yours, he could only think of love.
In that word, beautiful in all languages, but most so in yours–Amor mio–is comprised my existence here and hereafter. I feel I exist here, and I feel I shall exist hereafter,–to what purpose you will decide; my destiny rests with you, and you are a woman, eighteen years of age, and two out of a convent. I love you, and you love me,–at least, you say so, and act as if you did so, which last is a great consolation in all events.
But I more than love you, and cannot cease to love you. Think of me, sometimes, when the Alps and ocean divide us, –but they never will, unless you wish it.
Virginia Woolf, to Vita Sackville-West
Look Here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.
Louisa May Alcott, to a fan
I can only say to you as I do to the many young writers who ask for advice — There is no easy road to successful authorship; it has to be earned by long & patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties & trials. Success is often a lucky accident, coming to those who may not deserve it, while others who do have to wait & hope till they have earned it. This is the best sort & the most enduring.
I worked for twenty years poorly paid, little known, & quite without any ambition but to eke out a living, as I chose to support myself & began to do it at sixteen. This long drill was of use, & when I wrote Hospital Sketches by the beds of my soldier boys in the shape of letters home I had no idea that I was taking the first step toward what is called fame. It nearly cost my life but I discovered the secret of winning the ear & touching the heart of the public by simply telling the comic & pathetic incidents of life.
Little Women was written when I was ill, & to prove that I could not write books for girls. The publisher thought it flat, so did I, & neither hoped much for or from it. We found out our mistake, & since then, though I do not enjoy writing “moral tales” for the young, I do it because it pays well.
C.S. Lewis, to a fan
Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them…
Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
John Steinbeck, to Robert Wallsten
Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised…
Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down…
If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it — bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
Kurt Vonnegut, to high school students
What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow…
Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?
Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.
Zora Neale Hurston, to Annie Nathan Meyer
I am tremendously encouraged now. My typewriter is clicking away till all hours of the night. I am striving desperately for a toe-hold on the world. You see, your interest keys me up wonderfully — I must not let you be disappointed in me.
No, no the little praise I have received does not affect me unless it be to make me work furiously. Instead of a pillow to rest upon, it is a goad to prod me. I know that I can only get into the sunlight by work and only remain there by more work. But you do help me immensely. It is pleasant to have someone for whom one thinks. It is mighty cold comfort to do things if nobody cares whether you succeed or not. It is terribly delightful to me to have someone fearing with me and hoping for me, let alone working to make some of my dreams come true.
William Gaddis, to Don DeLillo
Dear Don DeLillo.
Why in the world have I waited till the day your Libra gets its nihil obstat from Christopher Lemondrop to send you a note. It showed up in galleys in New York 2 or 3 months ago when things were ghastly (health) about the time I saw you, I looked into it then & should certainly have written without waiting to read it through because my response was immediate, it is a terrific job. I don’t know all your work & also hesitate to say to any writer whatever comparing one of his works to another but in this case must tell you I find it far beyond White Noise. Obviously if we take our work seriously we do not try to clone one novel to its predecessor so comparisons are indeed odious, & equally obviously the constantly shattered & reknit & fragmented again style of this new book appeals to me rather more than the linear narrative, when it’s always 9 o’clock in the morning at 9 am & 3pm at 3 in the afternoon if you see what I mean; but the hard cover arrived here a couple of weeks ago & I’ve just read it & confirmed all my earlier impression, its marriage of style & content—that essential I used to bray about to ‘students’ in those grim days—is marvelously illustrated here I think & especially as it comes together at the end as we know it must, speaking of the ‘nonfiction’ novel if we must but why must we, except that concept does embrace the American writer’s historic obsession getting the facts down clear (from “tells me more about whales than I really want to know” to Dreiser tapemeasuring Clyde’s cell at Sing Sing, or Jack London’s “Give me the fact, man, the irrefragable fact!”) & again one marvels at what you’ve marshaled in this impressive piece of work. We’ll be out of the country for August but may hope to see you in town in the fall, meanwhile high marks.
Norman Mailer, to William Styron
You certainly deserve a fan letter. As a matter of fact I’ve been meaning to write ever since I read “Long March” about a month ago. I think it’s just terrific, how good I’m almost embarrassed to say, but as a modest estimate it’s certainly as good an eighty pages as any American has written since the war, and really I think it’s much more than that. You watch. It’s going to last and last and last. And some day people will consider it as being close to the level of something as marvelous as The Heart of Darkness, which by the way, for no reason I know, it reminded me of.
Barbara mentioned that you’re without a book at the moment. No solace I can offer, except that crap about waiting and patience which is all true, but no consolation at all.
I have only one humble criticism. I wonder if you realize how good you are. That tendency in you to invert your story and manner your prose just slightly, struck me—forgive the presumption—as coming possibly from a certain covert doubt of your strengths as a writer, and you’re too good to doubt yourself. Which I suppose is like saying, “You, neurotic—stop being neurotic!”
Anyway, I did want to write you these few things.
My best to you, Bill,
Charles Dickens, to George Eliot
My Dear Sir
I have been so strongly affected by the two first tales in the book you have had the kindness to send me through Messrs. Blackwood [Eliot’s publisher], that I hope you will excuse my writing to you to express my admiration of their extraordinary merit. The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of those stories, I have never seen the like of; and they have impressed me in a manner that I should find it very difficult to describe to you, if I had the impertinence to try.
In addressing these few words of thankfulness, to the creator of the sad fortunes of Mr. Amos Barton, and the sad love-story of Mr. Gilfil, I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume. I can suggest no better one; but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seem to me to be such womanly touches, in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me, even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman, since the world began.
You will not suppose that I have any vulgar wish to fathom your secret. I mention the point as one of great interest to me—not of mere curiosity. If it should ever suit your convenience and inclination, to shew me the face of the man or woman who has written so charmingly, it will be a very memorable occasion to me. If otherwise, I shall always hold that impalpable personage in loving attachment and respect, and shall yield myself up to all future utterances from the same source, with a perfect confidence in their making me wiser and better.
Your obliged and faithful Servant, and admirer
George R. R. Martin, to Stan Lee
Dear Stan and Don,
After receiving and reading my subscription copies of FF #32 and AVENGERS #9, I have finally come to the decision to have both mounted in bronze and set on a pedestal in the center of my living room. Although the F.F. is “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine”, I must admit that on this occasion AVENGERS #9 was slightly the better of the two. This is not to say that F.F wasn’t up to par, but rather that the Avengers was—er—breathtaking, shall we say? What a story! It was beyond words; the fast-paced action, solid characterization, and that terrific ending all gave it that extra oomph and catapulted into the great class. Stan, old boy, you can put another notch in your pen for this masterpiece….
George R.R. Martin, 36 E. First St.
Bayonne, N.J. 07002