Yesterday I got to share the amazing cover for SHE/HE/THEY/ME with the world. It is a thing of beauty! And, both the title and the subtitle rhyme, which makes me so, so happy. Like, verifiably happy. I read once that the sound of an alliteration (like, say, the name, Robyn Rae Ryle) or a rhyme makes us happy, just to hear. I believe it and I’m so proud of the awesome style of the cover and all the hard work from everyone at Sourcebooks that went into it.
It’s now less than a year until the book will be out in the world (March 2019, to be exact). The official acknowledgements are written, but I’m writing a series of blog posts about all the people, events and situation that helped me along the way. Today it’s Beverly Cleary.
In fifth grade, I read Dear Mr. Henshaw. It’s an epistolary novel, or a novel written in letters. The parents of the main character, Leigh, are divorced and he’s moved to a new town. He starts writing letters to his favorite author for a class assignment. Eventually, the author writes back.
I’ll confess I had to look up this plot summary and that my memory of the book is different from the reality. The way I remembered it, Leigh was writing to his former teacher. I didn’t remember anything about the divorce or the author or that the author writes back.
What I remember was the idea of writing letters, but not necessarily to your favorite author. I tried that, eventually. Issac Asmimov probably got a few letters from me in my adolescence. But it had never occurred to me how writing, “Dear _____” could open a flood gate for words that otherwise might be hard to come by. Reading that book revealed to me how a salutation could become sort of invocation, a bit of writing magic that allowed you to say things you normally wouldn’t.
After reading Dear Mr. Henshaw, I started my first diary. It was blue and small with a lock that quickly broke. I began every entry, “Dear Diary,” and went from there. I still have the diary and so I can tell you that it is very, very boring. I record what we had for dinner and which of my friends were mad at each other and then when they reconciled (often on the same day). There was a lot of anger toward my sister (sorry) and irritation and my little brother (sort of sorry). There are many stars and exclamation points. The most exciting thing that happens is when I “go” with Craig Wilmhoff for a sum total of 12 hours, most of them spent asleep.
The point is not that the diary was exciting or particularly well-written. The point is that it started me on a path of daily writing that lasted into high school. The blue diary was replaced by a red one, also with a lock that broke. And then with larger and larger notebooks, absent the pointless lock.* Eventually I settled for simple spiral-bound notebooks and these began to include stories along with the diary entries, the two types of writing intermingling. I still have those, too, and they’re definitely more interesting, though still surprisingly repetitive.
In the later notebooks, I dropped the salutation. There was no, “Dear Diary,” because I’d decided that was for babies. But you can argue the “Dear Diary” was still implied. I was writing to someone. Maybe a future version of myself. Maybe some part of me that cared deeply about all the boring details of my life. But I was writing and that’s what mattered. I believed my words were important.
I stopped keeping a regular diary in college, though I still wrote. And then during what I sometimes think of as the Lost Years of graduate school, I stopped writing pretty much altogether. Academic “writing” was not really writing at all and almost completely destroyed the writer inside me, which is a whole other story.
But it’s funny how in some ways, that salutation never went away. When I started writing my blog way back in 2010, it was an updated version of those diaries. There was an audience out there, even if originally it was an audience that existed only in my head. And I still find it so much easier to write a blog entry than I do an essay that’s not for the blog. I think that’s because of the audience. I know who I’m writing my blog to and for. I have no idea about an essay.
While he was working on East of Eden, John Steinbeck warmed up every morning with a letter to his friend and editor, Pascal Covici.** The letters weren’t meant to be sent, as they were written in the same notebook in which he was drafting the novel. Steinbeck compared it to a pitcher warming up. He needed that specific audience to get the words flowing. I was talking to a writer friend recently and she described how working on the last part of her memoir was easier if she imagined the chapters as written to a specific person.
Writing happens largely in isolation. A salutation, even when it’s implied, is an act of faith, a belief that there’s someone out there and they’ll find your words someday. It’s a reminder that your words matter. Dear Mr. Henshaw. Dear Diary. Dear Blog Readers. Dear Pascal. Dear Friend. Dear World.
*I have no idea if any of my family members ever read my diary, but I doubt it, because, again, they were so, so boring.
**You can read all these letters in The Journal of a Novel and they are fascinating. Also, deeply reassuring if you’re a writer or an artist to see Steinbeck struggling so mightily with what would become a masterpiece.