March 5, 20—
Thank you for the opportunity to read your charming epistolary text. While I find it hard, as well you might imagine, to comment on a narrative such as yours, which—given its personal nature—inclines one away from criticism, it is my training, as you know, and my vocation to teach others how to write so that they might most clearly and convincingly express their deepest truest thoughts, and so I will do here, as you know I always try to, my best.
As one who has dedicated herself to the teaching of composition for going on ten years, I consider textual analysis to be an essential component of the examined and well-lived life, the ideal means by which to discern the most just and best relation among people, and our best hope against the onslaught of corporate control of what we optimistically refer to as our Culture. Thus I apply myself to the task of responding to your letter of March 3, to which you explicitly requested a response, stating, in fact, that you await same with, alas, that threadbare cliché of the oxygen deficient—bated breath. First, let me say that I admire your courageous use of the first-person POV and your almost confessional tone. Your choice of the risky brittle present-tense, that fashionable artifact of the information age, favored by the slouched and baseball-cap-wearing set weaned on MTV and the internet, serves to give your narrative a quality of urgency that seems apt.
I commend your inventive language as well, though at times your idiosyncratic usage would appear to border on illiteracy, as when you say, “You’re well I’ve ever wanted.” But perhaps I quibble and this was a typo? Did you mean perhaps “all I’ve ever wanted”? And yet I have my doubts; one must bear in mind that you teach in the Department of Computer Science at a time when university administrators no longer see fit to require non-majors to take an English class (the humanities having been deemed irrelevant to a liberal education that is meant merely to feed the corporate maw, but I digress).
Let me say that I admire too the obvious passion you bring to your subject here and the skill with which you render it on the page. Of course there is the tendency to say too much, feel little. To go over the top, as it were, when speaking of the subjects of which you speak: romance, marriage, matters of the heart, and the like. Abstractions are the writer’s enemy and so to use phrases such as “kindred spirits,” and that dreadful Seventies cliché “soul mates,” is to risk losing credibility and the attention of your reader which is always best won and held with specific detail.
What would happen, for instance, if instead of opening as you now do with “From the first moment I saw you,” you had tried something more exact, such as, “When I first saw you, seated alone in the fluorescent-lit cafeteria in the basement of the student union, at a table cluttered with student papers, on an otherwise unpromising Tuesday in May, I felt heat rise to my face which I knew even then might someday come to love and has”? Okay, so this is a bit much, but you see my point. Specificity is all. This, I’d wager, would be a far more winning way to write and woo. By the same token, note the list that constitutes the body of your penultimate paragraph: “I long to touch your hair, your face, your lips, to kiss your eyes and ears [etcetera].” Although lists are a fine narrative device and these are concrete nouns, not the dreadful abstract, this ardent litany would have far more heft were it rendered in specific rather than general nouns. Thus, one might revise this to read “I long to nibble on the tendons of your neck, to lick the pools of shadow beneath your clavicles, to run my index finger from your ankle to your knee up your thigh and under your heavy denim skirt...” One might even wax Latinate, though this of course would inflect the characterization, suggesting an erudition (or at least a familiarity with medical terminology) which might or might not be true to your character, and say, “I want to press my pecs to your latissimus dorsi, I want to clasp your gluteus maximus to my...” You get my point.
Despite the many strengths of your piece, I’m afraid the narrative falls flat at the end. Specifically, your deployment of clichés in the closing paragraph seems a misstep. The topic sentence in particular is so hackneyed as to seem absurd; to say, “I cannot live without you,” serves only to call into question the credibility of our narrator. Are we to understand that this narrator literally cannot live without the one he addresses (who bears, in a deft meta-fictional move, my name and address)? Or is this blatant overstatement strategic, meant, that is, to suggest that ours is an unreliable (not to say mentally unstable) narrator?
I love your final gesture, the bold proposal of marriage and all. I think you’ve simply done the best thing here in over-writing (the bit about the future we might share, talk of kids, cars and all that is a hoot) and should now cut back. I’ve made marginal notes suggesting edits I would make.
You close with “I love you,” that tried and true conclusion to the love-letter form. But I wonder, considering what has preceded that line on the page and in life, have you earned that cliché? Ultimately, I regret that I find your ardor unpersuasive. I ask myself (having reread your text three times now), Have you earned love?
I think, regrettably, not.
I suggest you revise.
Originally published in the Sonora Review
E.J. LEVY’S nonfiction has appeared in BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 2005, THE NEW YORK TIMES, ORION, THE NATION, SALMAGUNDI, KENYON REVIEW, and THE TOUCHSTONE ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY CREATIVE NONFICTION, among other fine publications. Her short stories have appeared in the PARIS REVIEW, GETTYSBURG REVIEW, and MISSOURI REVIEW, and elsewhere, with two named among the year’s Distinguished Stories in the BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES. She was the Margaret Bridgman Scholar in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and has received a Pushcart Prize, a Chicago Literary Award, a Nelson Algren Award, a Loft-McKnight Award, a Michener Fellowship, and an Associated Writing Programs Intro Journals Award. Her anthology, TASTING LIFE TWICE: LITERARY LESBIAN FICTION BY NEW AMERICAN WRITERS, won a Lambda Literary Award. Levy's story collection, MY LIFE IN THEORY, won the 2011 Flannery O'Connor Prize and will be published in 2012, as will her memoir AMAZONS: A LOVE STORY.