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On Writing a Novel: Three Letters from John Clellon Holmes

by James White

When at thirty I arrived at Brown University as a new graduate student in the writing program, I had never taken a creative writing class. I had published roughly a dozen stories, but had not met any novelist, or for that matter, another short story writer. I had studied and taught history. I had fearfully avoided creative writing classes because my sophomore American literature professor during a summer class at Arlington State Junior College, warned me: "Never think of being a writer," after I had shown her my poems.

The afternoon that I walked into the English building at Brown and climbed the stairs to John Clellon Holmes's office, I did not know the campus at all.I had decided to live in New York City rather than Providence. I would commute to class. Locating Holmes's office, I felt as if one second had passed since I'd been discouraged at the junior college. I had sent Holmes my work; it was in his possession. I had read two of his three novels: Go, and Get Home Free. I had bought the third, The Horn. He was the first of the Beat Generation writers to have a novel published and a close friend of Jack Kerouac's. I knocked on the door. "Come in," Holmes answered.

He had big eyes and wore glasses. His smile was evident. My impression of him was blurred because of my nervousness. I sat down, as he did.

"I don't know what you're doing at Brown," he said.

My worst fears were realized. Why hadn't he just told me not to come?

"You're the best student in the program," he said. "You're already a writer. Go back to New York and write. We can correspond about it."

I felt as if something joyous and fragile had been created--his liking the stories I'd written while reading history day and night. I thanked him enthusiastically.

Although we would correspond for twenty years, I was to see him only once more--at the Providence train station one late afternoon several months later. I spotted him twenty feet away and immediately went in the opposite direction and hid. I worried that his knowing me better might jeopardize his liking my work. Perhaps it was like not wanting to disturb the calm surface of a body of water. Certainly, it was insecurity.

During that academic year (1971-72), he wrote me letters resplendent with skills of a master teacher. I anticipated each letter, and took his advice the best I could. We would continue to correspond until shortly before his death, but I would never meet him again.

From the first letter about an unpublished novella I had written, he showed unusual generosity and care for a novice writer. I quote the letter entirely because of what I now see it reveals of Holmes as a teacher. I have taught writing in college since I left Brown in 1973. In fact, since 1977, I have taught fiction writing exclusively. I have known literally hundreds of other writing teachers, but I suspect that none would have taken the trouble that Holmes did.

He took the time to write in detail; he encouraged in extraordinary ways. Too, he commented about his own work, which was another compliment. His earnestness about the situation I faced, showed everywhere. Surely no writing student could have found more expert advice than what he gave me. His letters could serve as a goal for writing teachers. I hardly remember the novella, Pot of Ivy, other than as a springboard for his extraordinary letters. The first letter I've chosen to quote also should be of value to anyone who has need to work on plotting narrative:

January 1, 1971

Dear Jim:

I apologize for the amount of time it's taken me to read POT OF IVY. Things at Brown have been unusually hectic, and I wanted time, and quiet, so I saved the book for Christmas vacation.

It's the best piece of work you've ever done. It has an accomplished mood, characters that live the way people live--mysteriously, uniquely, and above all it has an authorial-tone that allows you to move into, and away from, and around the central event. Again, I am struck by your skills. Your style is, with some lapses, absolutely assured, beautifully concise and yet evocative of more than lies on the surface, capable of suggesting so much more than it says, sometimes almost Jamesian in its overtones. Fain, of course, is a marvelous character, and you give him to us so obliquely. The book is taut with his enigmatic presence, with his increasingly encapsulated life, the prisoner of taste, this lonely soul surrounded by things. Yes, the style here is better than in the stories. For one thing, it characterizes the narrator. It has, at once, warmth of observation (that is, what is described is bathed in feelings), and a necessary detachment, and your usual marvelous feel for the incongruity (Sugie, for example, is a terrific character, she whisks thru the book like an antic pseudo-muse).

There's something very moving about the book. I think it has to do with a feeling of the incommunicability of certain lives. I kept thinking of Fitzgerald's long story, THE RICH BOY, because Fain is rather like the protagonist of that story. Gifted, narrow, special, ultimately separated from other people by his own conception of his life. you've managed to bring him to us, from the outside, very strongly. The "group of friends", also, are done very well. I believe them as friends, I believe them as a group, I understand why they are there, and yet you spend so little time establishing this. It's marvelous.

The structure, of course, is a set-up. You handle it well. A central, conclusive event, occurring after a separation, from which the narrator muses back on the enigma of personality. I found myself saying, during that last-but-one scene of Fain and his mother at the graveside, "How does the narrator know this? Shit, what does it matter?" That's how well the preparation had worked. If I have any cavils, they are all in the area of "plot". Again, almost nothing happens in this story. I feel you succumbing to your unique gift for characterization time after time, characterization that is based on your observations rather than on actions by the characters. There is almost no development in the novel; it has a sense of the emptiness, the aimlessness, of provincial life that reminded me of Chekhov, but I felt you shying away from any big, pivotal scenes. When we talked, I mentioned that I got a feeling of overdone subtlety about some of your work. I think it's present in the novel, too. Fain's "secret", as the narrator describes it, was not clear enough, weighty enough to hold up the end. I think that considerations such as these make the book seem slighter than it really is. Of course, it's short anyway, but as it stands it has more the quality of a character-sketch ( a sketch done with great perception and sensitivity) than a novel, in which we should come to see below the surface of appearances, some to understand motivations, observe changes. Fain changes, of course, but I missed having a scene where Fain unmasks himself, where we get some indication of his awareness of how isolated he has become. You tell us a lot of this, but telling is never as good as showing. Again, I feel you backing off from really dramatic scenes, so that the primary time-level (the day of the funeral) and the secondary time-level (all the flashbacks and memories) have a tonal similarity that fails to distinguish them, aesthetically, from one another. For instance, inthe matter of the funeral itself: you describe it for the most part in flat narration, and yet it is the signal event of the book, it is the event around which the whole book turns. Always, I find you more at ease when you can muse, analyze, describe, explain and you are least assured when you are building up a scene, catching a real moment that is developing towards something more. I don't mean to stress that this"dramatic" deficiency too much, but I think you ought to spend some thought on it. Go back and read THE RICH BOY, for instance. It's not much shorter than IVY, and as I say there are certain similarities between the two works: they are narrated by a person connected to the essential action, but only indirectly. They cover a span of time that is roughly similar. Both works are equally alive to social nuance. But if you break down Fitzgerald's story you will see that he has skillfully alternated passages of straight narration with small, but telling dramatic scenes which heighten it. Another writer that I think of in connection with your work is Katharine Mansfield. Go read PRELUDE (or indeed any of the longish, autobiographical New Zeeland-stories), and you'll see this same thing happen: narration, characterization, alternated with scenes of action, even though some of the scenes involve only a page or two of dialog.

What I mostly want to do at this stage of the game is to encourage you. Your work gets tighter, more ambitious, and more controlled all the time. You should now worry less about your prose and more about structure, motivation and action. Your style has an authority, and a beauty, and a range that are already exceptional. I'm a little afraid that you may stand in danger of indulging this gift at the expense of action, "plot", structure. When in doubt, you seem to fall back on further explications of Fain's character, and after a while the reader hungers to see Fain doing things, to observe these people in interaction, to witness the mystery of reality as it happens. You have all the necessary gifts, and are acquiring a lot of the important skills, but I think you have to spend more time on the meat and potatoes of fictionalizing. you have to ask yourself just what a story is, what it accomplishes, why it moves us. Take any two longest stories, or novellas, that are favorites of yours, that move you, and re-read them less for the felicities of their styles than for the hard bones on which the flesh of the prose hangs. Even make a graph of the movements in the stories: the pivots, the turns, the points where the story moves on, and what these points accomplish. Then try to make a like graph of the action in your own work: how A leads to B, which in turn either moves toward C or back towards A, etc.

Of course, we can correspond, and of course it will be a pleasure to work with you during the spring semester. As to my own imagery, I approach it very deliberately The first thing I try for is what I call verisimilitude. It must refer directly, and as economically as possible to the reader's idea of reality. Imagery, after all, is simply a short hand which everyone can read. One wants to find an image that will reverberate in the reader's mind; it's his associations that I want to release, not so much my own. I'm a firm believer in Carlos Williams' dictum: "No ideas but in things." For years I tended to write an explanatory, analytical, abstract kind of prose. I tended to exposition, and it took me a long time to root this urge out of my work--I've never fully succeeded. In THE HORN I found myself trying to get a richer, more evocative prose-density, something rather along the lines of Melville's chapter on the Pacific in Moby Dick. But psychology, if you will, or character, remained, still, my strongest fascination. THE HORN suffers, it seems to me, from being mythologized, its prose is far too rhythmic, too elegiac. It lacks humor, verve, crudity, sweat. What I was trying to do when I got to THE RAW MATERIALS sections of NOTHING MORE TO DECLARE was to strip everything away that smacked of over-explanation, and to snare the meanings within the imagery, and above all to break down the mesmerizing unfolding of the long sentence. I wanted, in other words, to attempt to establish the very real differences between eloquence and rhetoric. I'm still working on it, and the novel that's underway right now is written in the first person, it's slangy and idiomatic, and the problem to is get to maximum intensity and still leave myself prose-room to expatiate and comment, and thus, hopefully, deepen the significances of the material. It's a continuing process. In my own case, I was lucky enough to conceive a passion for Dostoyevski and the Russians when I started out writing seriously. From them, I learned a lot about scene-building, about confrontations between characters, about dramatic action in terms of dialog. My first novel was very crude as a work of prose, but it had movement, conflict, a sense of time passing, because of my study of how Dostoyevski achieved his mammoth emotional and philosophical effects. Then, naturally, I became concerned about the deficiencies in my style, and succumbed to an equally long-standing love of Melville and Shakespeare, etc., and in THE HORN I tried for far more than it explicitly said. I was unhappy with the results, though I'll stand on the book, and went on to try to hone the style in the service of the story, to use it instead of being used by it. These days I find myself far more interested in motivations, in movements, in content, particularly from a thematic point of view. I'm trying for a greater objectivity on my own part, so that deeper levels of meaning and complexity can be gotten into the work. It's extremely difficult, but a late-blooming appreciation of James is a great help. A few years ago, I had occasion to teach THE AMBASSADORS, which I hadn't read for years, and for my own instruction I made up a kind of outline of the book as I read along: that is, I tried to sum up in two or three lines what each chapter accomplished in terms of the story. It was a revelation. Thematically, the book was revealed as being almost orchestral in its structure: theme and counter-theme, development and arrest, crescendo and diminuendo It doesn't matter whether this was fully conscious on James' part, it is the reason for the book's greatness, and surely it came from a clear notion, in James' mind, of just what the book was going to be about. The same can be done with Bellow's HERZOG, with ABSALOM ABSALOM, and most other great novels. I stress all this because I feel, as I've said above, that you need to work harder, and think deeper, on these aspects of fiction. Do you like plays? You might go back and read some of Tennessee Williams', just to bring yourself more alive to structure. Fain, after all is very like the unseen-hero of SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, and Williams approaches his character on-a-slant, more or less as you have with Fain. And yet Williams uses any number of devices to gradually reveal the true nature of his character. The revelations come slowly, enigmatically, but they do come, and the cathartic effect of the whole work is directly connected to the gradualness of our understanding.

Well, as per your instructions, I'll hold onto the first part of the new novel, and not comment on it now. When you're ready, you have only to drop me a line, and I'll write you my impressions. Again, let me emphasize that I think A POT OF IVY is a great leap forward. It can't say if it will be published (to read the minds of editors and publishers one has to combine the talents of a swami and a con man), but it was well worth doing, and you ought to feel a great deal of assurance having brought it off.

Hope you can keep in victuals (victuals? vittles?) long enough to give the new book a good, solid GO. Write me whenever you think I can be of any help. And we can get together if you think that would be valuable, or correspond in the meanwhile.


John Clellon Holmes

Holmes's sensibility of writing his thoughts down, is clearly shown in this letter. Here is someone committed to the written word and not just in creating fiction. One can not help but admire his patience, and wish for a collection of his letters.

This past year I taught an excerpt from The Horn to a Form and Theory of Fiction class. The students responded to his prose and were interested in his letters as well. They found an originality in the style that led several to read his novels and express admiration. The following passage from The Horn shows Holmes' dense, reflective style:

Edgar fingered lazily, ignoring Cleo's solid, respectful chords, one shoulder swinging back and forth slightly, his chin pulled in. His hair was long over his large collar, he padded up and down on exaggerated crepe soles, between solos he chewed an enormous wad of gum soaked in benzedrine. They said he had "gone queer," but there was something soft and sexless about him nonetheless. Then he smeared a few notes over a pretty idea--a crooked smile glimmering behind the mouthpiece, all turned in upon himself, all dark; and Walden alone seemed to catch the sinister strain of self-ridicule behind the phrase, behind the sloppy, affected suit, the fairy hip-swinging; and at that moment the presence of a secret in Edgar reached him light a light.

For if jazz was a kind of growing Old Testament of the Negro race--and of all lost tribes in America, too--a testament being written night after night by unknown, vagrant poets on the spot (and so Walden, reared on a strange Biblical confusion, often thought of it), then Edgar had once been a sort of Genesis, as inevitable and irreducible as the beginnings of things; but now, mincing, chewing, flabby, he sounded the bittersweet note of Ecclesiastes, ironical in his confoundment...

As a graduate student I was interested in my professors' work, and when I could, asked them about it. Partly, I wanted to know them better personally, but also I had little information as to how writers thought and what kinds of work habits they had. I wrote Holmes, inquiring about the novel he was writing. The second letter, selected from a number, points out the complexity of shaping a narrative idea and the difficulty of structuring plot and theme. His awareness of technique is part of what makes a novel one piece. The amount of time that can be involved, the number of attempts tried and failed, and the need to throw away pages, are important concepts for a young writer to learn. At the end of the letter he refers to my health. I was experiencing a mysterious, unidentified internal bleeding that couldn't be identified or stopped for over a year. The physician suggested that I warn my professors that I might hemorrhage at any moment in class.

Any young novelist would greatly benefit from reading this letter which indicates what he has in store for him:

August 4, 1972

Dear Jim:

Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you. Immediately after closing up shop in Providence, I went to Maine for a while to work on our little clammer's shack up there, and get a rest. When I got back, I had a long (and long overdue) magazine piece to finish, and now we're off again to Maine for the rest of August.

You ask about the novel I'm working on; how do I approach it? Well, the kernal of the idea came to me a long time ago. It came first as a one-act play, which never got beyond the most desultory note-taking. A few years later, I realized that it was a novel--that is, that I was as much interested in the three main characters as I was in the "plot"-idea. It expanded itself naturally, still keeping the severe time-limit-actions of the play-idea, but fleshed out with backgrounds, a stronger, denser sense of miieu, flashbacks, and other subsidiary characters. It germinated for a long time while I was engaged in doing another book. In 1969, I started to get down to work on it, filling a large loose-leaf workbook with notes, sections of prose, and references to journal-entries that were germane to the project. I started serious prosing in early 1970 after a trip to Los Angeles (which is the setting of the book), but immediately had problems of "entry": I had thought to begin the book a year after the major action, and then drop back. This proved unweildy (sic) and cumbersome. I spent a month trying to solve that difficulty and realized that I had conceived the book in the wrong point of view. I made a shift from third to first person, and started the book directly in the middle of the penultimate action (the last day of a complicated, three-way relationship), and it went along fine. I wrote the first three chapters (of a possible eight or ten) in a couple of months. Much of this time was spent getting into the specifics of my character's tone--a complicated tone in that he is a wry, somewhat involuted type, who is addressing the reader, and slips back and forth from the first to the third person. That is, he sometimes speaks of himself as if he was speaking of someone else. The viewpoint, as well, is complicated (perhaps the major theme of the book has to do with identity-sense, and so there's a lot of role-playing, masquerade, and mirroring), and this took time to get accustomed to. By the third chapter, something of a digression, the thing was starting to open up. A minor character, and her involvements, abruptly became more important; I saw reflections of the basic situation in this character--reflections which, towards the end of the book, will become more important, and will serve to build the thing more forcefully towards its end. Then in the fourth chapter, I struck my first serious snag. It wasa flashback (which I usually like doing), and I hadn't thought very much about it in advance, but when I got going on it the prose turned bad, my selectivity-gieger-counter went dead, I wrote reams and reams of stuff that I knew I didn't need. This went on for months until I realized that I had placed this particular flashback in the wrong spot. I moved along better for a time, though I still had an uneasy feeling. Then I ran entirely out of money, and had to stop and do magazine-articles, go back to Los Angeles to do a long piece on that city for PLAYBOY, an then the job at Brown came along, which put the book off until now.

How do I work? I work in the morning usually, and usually for no more than four-five hours. If I'm hot, I continue, but more than five hours is about as long as anyone can take. I tend to write slowly, and re-write as I go along. I like to have fairly finished product behind me. if I write five hundred words a day it's a good day. In recent years, I've been writing a little faster than that, and usually at the end of a scene it goes rapidly--up to a thousand sometimes in a few hours. I try to work every day, but there are times when you realize you haven't solved the problems, and until you do there's no point in going forward. I guess the way I conceive a novel these days might be described as a process of ACCRETION. If I have the strong central situation, and the characters, I find that other, necessary things and people and reactions attach themselves naturally, or emerge worrying it too much, and then later I go back and see what's out of proportion, what needs to be built up, etc. I go a lot by feel, how it feels, how it sort of hefts in the mental--hand. I think a lot of structural-sense comes from this sense of feel. It has to do with a feeling for proportion, nuance, balance--it's very architectural, and I'm not sure one can "learn" it, except by reading and becoming more sensitive to balance, etc. The only unities (in the Aristotelian sense) that apply to the novel are, I suppose, a feeling for limiting, or compressing, your material so that maximum aesthetic-tensions build-up, a sense of how a story can be made to move forward by grounding it in time (which is the heart of the novel), and the crucial importance of a strong sense of milieu that will make the characters vivid because of the sense of "world" that the reader gets. I used to be far more hungup on prose than I am now I strove for "fine" writing, every sentence a jewel. This slowed things up for me, and I think did the same thing for the reader. Now I'm more interested in getting flow, in breaking up the rhythms, and picking up the pace. I've found that story is far more important than I used to believe. By that I think I mean, movements, pivots, hinges. The difference between a novel and a short story lies in this matter of movements: a story has only one or at most two. A novel never has less than three. These changes (in character, in situation, etc.) are what relate the novel to time, to a feeling of the passage of time. Any great novel can be reduced to these bare bones. Reducing it does it damage in the reader's mind (even if the reader is a writer), but the process makes it clearer to the writer how structure functions in producing the "feeling" of a given book. Hemingway, for instance, was basically a short-story writer. When he comes to the novel, he is often on unsure ground, and that's why you get those magnificent set-pieces in all his novels (the Retreat from Caporetto, El Sordo on the mountain, the last section of ISLANDS IN THE STREAM), set-pieces that often seem far more assured and memorable than the novels in which they occur, set-pieces that, on investigation, we see to be marginal to the basic action of the books. They are, in effect, short stories.

Tolstoi, who does great battle scenes too, perhaps the best of all, never uses them as digressions (sic), separate narratives, but always as climaxes for some far more important interior event in his characters lives. Dostoyevski, on the other hand, rarely writes set-pieces. His novels move gigantically along by a process of ever-intensifying acceleration--the method of the thriller until his great climaxes (the trial in Karamazov, Raskolikov's confession, the various murders in THE POSSESSED) cap everything off. his method is dramatic: huge, intense scenes placed cheek by jowl with one another like massive building blocks, with very little narrative connective. This is perhaps why so many attempts have been made to transform his novels to the stage or the screen--most of them dismal failures--and failures because his scenes are bigger than life, they explode time. Faulkner works with a kind of mythic flow, he's very Greek in some ways, his people are all doomed, driven by forces they barely comprehend, tiny figures in a vast, exotic landscape of fates. But he, too, is always moving forward, and he keeps the reader's attention by a series of hints-at-future-action, by deliberately withheld information, by a process (influenced by Conrad) of continual circling-back. One could go on. there are limitless possibilities in structuring one's material, but they all involve a feel of proportion, attention-riveting, and moving the ball forward. Modern material, modern experience, has demanded all kinds of new techniques, but they are all attempts to solve the same old problems, the major one of which is simply to keep the reader reading ahead. I have found that a strong grip on theme is often a help in these matters, because it gives the writer a yardstick by which to measure what is needed, what isn't; what to cut, what to expand. The writer must continually ask himself: what is this book about? Because of the length of time that it takes to write a novel this question must be repeated over and over again.

For myself, I find that I can't hurry a novel. that is, I'm constantly learning more about it, cautiously digging its shape out of nothingness, and often I don't know precisely how it's going to turn out until I'm well along in it. Not one novel of mind, except the very first, has come out the way I thought it would when I conceived it, and even the death which ends GO didn't occur until I'd written almost half the book. THE HORN changed drastically as it went along , and deepened too as I saw more possibilities. GET HOME FREE was literally conceived backwards, and the hardest parts to write were the three New York sections. The book suffers a sort of structural schizophrenia as a result. The current novel is strong and simple structurally, and yet I have to beware of becoming too rigid, too imprisoned by the movement of my own events. The danger here is that I'll scant all the "little lower layers", without which it won't work at all. Yet if I succumb to the delight of my leading character's tone, comments, etc. the book will be self-indulgent and outre. Again, a question of finding, and striking, a balance.

Novel-writing is the hardest work I know. At times one can suffer what feels like an actual mental unbalance from trying to get into a character's head. It's very unnatural. Yet, for me, the creation of believable characters is the ball game, people that live, whom we understand below the level of mere intelligence, about whom we intensely care. For me, character is still the core of the novel, but I mean this in Fitzgerald's sense that "action is character". What a character does defines him. A writer knows that he's getting it when a character starts acting more or less on his own, when the action emerges out of the character without the author's intervention. The best characters I ever wrote ended up writing themselves. They took on a life that seemed utterly independent of me and my initial conceptions of them. The ones that worked best for me were STOFSKY in GO, EDGAR in THE HORN, and MAY in GET HOME FREE. But perhaps this has to do with the amount of difficulty I had in getting them to walk and talk on their own...

These are a few very unsystematic reflections, just what comes to mind this morning. Of course you can continue to write to me, and I'll answer any questions that you have. If my replies are tardy sometimes, I know you'll understand it's because I've got my head down in the well.

In any case, I hope you have a great year at Brown, and I'm glad you're getting out of New York. Also, that your health improves. I can't write a coherent sentence when I have as much as a head cold.

All the best,


This letter is remarkable in expressing the confusion and work that each novelist faces. Holmes's skills, integral to his fiction, of delineating what a character is confronting in life, in his thoughts, and trying to come to some resolution, are shown in this letter as well. That he would write it to a graduate student he didn't know well, but whose work he encouraged, is probably more understandable to a writer.

The third letter I've selected concerns the first draft of my first novel published,Birdsong. After I read this letter, I threw away all but the first thirty pages of a five hundred page manuscript. I did so gladly, the letter encouraging me. I subsequently rewrote the novel to five hundred pages, then discarded allbut the first thirty pages again. I then wrote the final version, about one hundred eighty pages. Curiously, a few years later, I was introduced by an English chairman at a California University who stated: "I'd like to say I admire this book. I think it is real literature, except for the first thirty pages."

Again, Holmes' letter encourages, probably the most important tool of the writing teacher. He is urging me to concern myself with exactly what he writes of in the second letter--rethinking the narrative. It is, of course, what I did. And what a pleasant way to be taught! His encouragement in the last paragraphs meant a lot to me, and gave me the needed confidence to throw away pages and restart.

April 23, 1972

Dear Jim,

I've read the novel, and wanted to get word to you as soon as possible.

I think it's mostly good. The writing is a joy: clean, lithe prose; perceptive and lean. I think you've got your instrument now. You write with authority, you're free of mannerisms. at your best, you write very fine stuff--that is, your writing has an individual tone, a Jim White tone. I think this book is probably the best thing you've done so far. The first half is absolutely assured. you have humor now, you have distance, there's an ironic warmth in the writing about all our yesterdays that I found marvelous. You move from Dewey to Alice with a certain calm rightness that is a pleasure. Alice, particularly is something of a triumph, because doing a girl this intimately is difficult. The admission of love between them is convincing and moving. Also, I liked the army-stuff.

The problem, as far as I see it: the book makes a strange shift from them to him. It gets subjective, and ends up somehow inconclusively. I think I felt this shift about the time that he joins the army. That is, the focus changes there: Alice tends to disappear, to become less the other half of a single relationship and more a kind of foil. It's evidenced in the technique. You suddenly go into first person. I felt, in fact, that Dewey's army experience had been written before you got down to do this book. The writing's good, the insights work, butit's different, and the reader pulls up short, he's jerked out of the flow of the book. I don't think you gain anything by this shift.

What I'm trying to say is this: you have created a strong and moving account of young love: Dewey and Alice are wonderfully individualized, you catch love in America in all its poignancy and unlikeliness, your authorial tone is assured; and then, somewhere just after college, just before he joins the army, the focus seems to blur a little. I didn't quite understand why they didn't see one another, why Dewey failed to call. You've done the relationship between them better than you know. there seems to be a missing piece: had they drifted apart? Did they have a fight? The reader has been delicately poised inside their intimacy, and suddenly he's outside it. he feels more intensely than Dewey seems to.

The book doesn't end with any rounding-off. Does Dewey go AWOL? Towards what are he and Alice moving? I miss her in these last sections. I want to know what she's feeling. I want that sense of marvelous intimacy (with her, as well as him) that makes the first half of the book so good. Also, there is a fuzziness in some of the army-prose---bad sentences, too over-packed and too-abstract--that indicates uncertainty on your part, particularly because of the swift, telling and assured prose of the rest of the book. It's their story, not just his.

I think you have to sit down and think about the overall shape of the book. It needs a finish. Dewey is curiously will-less. Where is he heading? How has marriage changed him? What does Alice do during the weeks when he's on the base? Does he miss her? What does he want for the rest of his life? Has the fact that he considers leaving the army affected them? How? One of the most interesting moments is when Alice seems about to urge him to go over the hill. We yearn to know more.

What you have here is a fine account of the birth of love, done with marvelous impartiality (you write Alice with admirable perception into females), and then, somehow, it turns into a young-man-in-the-army story--all good, but not the same thing, not what we've been led to expect. It's the tone of objectivity, of sympathy and humor and largeness that gets lost. Would it be possible for you to re-think the last third? Can't Dewey do something? Can't the army sections be angled towards their married-relationship? Can't Dewey realize what she means to him, or doesn't? The reader badly needs a sense of authorial perspective at about this point.

These are simply just-up-from-the manuscript meanderings. I can't tell you how solid your writing is now. you need to think less about your prose and more bout structure, nuance, and the mysterious rounding-off that makes a novel emotionally satisfying. I've told you before that you don't have to worry about your writing--you write marvelously--but you do have to think about the even-deeper aesthetic questions of overall shape, of architecture, of the "dying fall". we owe the reader a completion of the emotional expectations that we have aroused. I think the second half of the book needs to be re-thought, and re-written. Ask yourself, baldly, what the book is about: it's about Dewey and Alice; it's about love's unlikeliness; it's about hope.

Mostly, I believe in your future as a writer. You have perception, sympathy, a good eye and ear, and you work hard. That's all you need. I'd say this: get out of New York if you can, get to a calm and supportive life, believe in yourself. I'm sure you're going to make it. Your prose has that kind of inevitability about it. It's important that you maintain the right perspective about your work and your life. Take time off. Remember oleanders. Enjoy the drama of your own sensibility. There's time.

I haven't had a chance at WIVES yet. I'll get to it in a week or two. The semester gathers toward doom, towards the dark avalanche of last-minute, grade-assuming work. I have over 100 students, and sometimes I can't even remember my own name. In any case, keep in touch, and don't despair. if I can help, you have only to ask.



This letter was the best possible guide to what I was struggling with in my novel manuscript, and helped me focus. That Holmes could write it while teaching one hundred students, startles me.

Even now, at nearly sixty, I learned something new from his letters while preparing this article. He writes, in a letter dated August 19, 1979:

The writer's problem, seems to me, is basically lack of confidence during the years it sometimes takes to harden up one's personal voice and habits, and make (as Eliot says somewhere) certain "meek adjustments". As I get older, I'm more interested in writing what I want to write, rather than tooling it for the current taste...

Holmes' work, besides the three novels (Go, Charles Scribners, 1952; The Horn, Random House, 1958; Get Home Free, E.P. Dutton, 1964), includes Nothing More to Declare (E.P. Dutton, 1967), a collection of essays about the Beat Generation. The essays first appeared in Esquire, The New York Times, Playboy, and other magazines. In 1977, Holmes published a collection of poems The BowlingGreen Poems, printed as Volume 7 of a literary review, The Unspeakable Vision ofthe Individual. He died of cancer in 1988.