Though I have produced quite a few poems and short stories, by age twelve my great goal is to write a novel. In the summer of 1964 I am sent to day camp because my mother is working and my sister and I are not allowed to stay home alone all day. I think this is the first summer in which we have to find supervised activity because of these changes. At camp, I to struggle to be allowed to write instead of playing volleyball or doing archery. Some of the counselors are sympathetic, others less so, about my bids to opt out of group activity and structured distractions. I show them this manuscript and they at least take my pleading seriously, and some let me sit by the side of the games, composing sentences. This solipsistic activity gives me unparallelled pleasure.
I experience camp as a form of social cruelty. My age group is filled with girls just on the edge or over the edge of puberty. We have to dress and undress together before and after swimming every day, gauging ourselves against each other's development in stark ways. They are more socially advanced than I am. They have boyfriends, they go steady, and they wear fancy underwear, all of which is out of my league. My shyness nearly destroys me and I suffer on a daily basis, humiliated by their stares and by the unfairness of the circumstances. They are not even necessarily mean girls, just that the conditions of forced contact and sociality encourage comparison. We are all measured against each other, and a hierarchy is established according to criteria of poise, beauty, and privilege. I feel I have none of these, only the ability to write. Writing is not on their minds. I am an anomaly in their perception. I want to be left alone to the task of composition and its absorptions. Nothing else matters.
I am committed to finishing this book. Completion becomes a goal in itself as well as for what it represents. I will have written an entire novel, if I can fill the notebook and bring the narrative to conclusion. I know how the story will end, and I write with that final scene in mind. The shock of the ending, in which the author of the "letter" of the title throws herself from a cliff in a violent act of suicide, is always present as I set the scenes of thwarted romance, apparent betrayal, misunderstanding, and imagined deception. I work all summer and into the early fall, and the book is finished early in the school year. I circulate it to my peers. None of them has written an entire book. They write stories, usually a page or two. Or they write poems. But a novel is unheard of in our lunchroom or among our peer group. The book may be formulaic, unoriginal in its general outlines and execution, but it is complete. Nothing alters that fact, and the status it confers.
My reading teacher, Mr. Kay, on whom we all have crushes, wants to read the manuscript. I lend it to him and he makes
some small corrections and comments which are still in the manuscript, and he encourages me to write more,
but to write
about myself, and what I know and live through. This is standard advice, as I know already, but I disregard it. I am simply interested
in the production of this book, and then the next one, and in the absorption it provides, escape, sense of
comes from the triumph of execution.
I am sure this book is only the beginning. I turn my attention to the assignments I have given myself, that list of titles in the back of the notebook, and I write.