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On Practice: Letter to Holly from Cougar Ridge

by Brenda Miller

Editor's note: Brenda Miller and Holly Hughes are collaborating on a book on writing tentatively titled The Pen and the Bell: Reading, Writing, and the Contemplative Life, which will feature a series of letters the authors have written to each other. Following is a sneak peek at a letter by Miller that speaks to the practice of letter writing as a form of contemplative practice, and to the concept of “practice” in general. (Keep an eye out for writing exercises and suggested readings at the conclusion.)

October 14, 2008
Letter to Holly from Cougar Ridge

Dear Holly,

Your letter from Hornsby Island arrived just as I’ve begun my own mini writing retreat in Port Townsend. I write this to you in a cozy studio apartment in the trees, my dog asleep in her tiny bed. The gas fireplace flickers and pops. Morning sun parts the clouds from the storm the night before.

I think about your apples that washed onshore and the gifts the world offers us when we slow down long enough to notice. And I’ve been thinking about letter writing as its own form of contemplative practice – a way of slowing down, getting into the present, honing our senses so that we can express a moment fully and then offer that moment to the other as a gift. Something shifts when we feel ourselves not as solitary beings, existing in our solitary ways, but in deep communion with another. Our writing takes on a new kind of vitality when it spins outward in this way; having a “you” as a counterpoint to the all-too-familiar “I” provides an audience that helps shape our thoughts.

Letter writing, as many have noted, is a dying art. We now have so many ways of instantaneous communication (to the point of absurdity), and so we communicate constantly, back and forth, the world becoming an endless stream of trivial matters that take up all our attention. To sit down to write a real letter, ideally with pen in hand, requires at least a few moments of “stopping,” becoming present both to where we are and to the distant correspondent. I love the word “correspondent.” It implies that the two of you work together in responding to the world, you are “co-responding.” And it’s just the two of you, for a moment, cordoned off from the busy-ness that swirls around outside. In a world where we can now overhear – whether we want to or not – the most intimate conversations as people blather on their cell phones, this moment of true intimate communication is a rare gift indeed.

I think of the letters of Emily Dickinson, or John Keats, or Elizabeth Bishop, or Rainier Maria Rilke. I think of the heart-stopping letter-poems of Richard Hugo, where we are allowed to witness two minds – two hearts – moving together. Here’s a little bit from Hugo’s “Letter to Kathy from Wisdom”:

….Oh, my tenderest
raccoon, odd animal from nowhere scratching for a home,
please believe I want to plant whatever poem will grow
inside you like a decent life. And when the wheat you’ve known
forever sours in the wrong wind and you smell it
dying in those acres where you played, please know
old towns we loved in matter, lovers matter, playmates, toys,
and we take from our lives those days when everything moved,
tree, cloud, water, sun, blue between two clouds, and moon,
days that danced, vibrating days, chance poem. I want one
who’s wondrous and kind to you. I want him sensitive
to wheat and how wheat bends in cloud shade without wind.
Kathy, this is the worst time of day, nearing five, gloom
ubiquitous as harm, work shifts changing. And our lives
are on the line. Until we die our lives are on the mend.

Hugo’s letter-poems have a depth of emotion, a surging momentum, an authenticity to them that I think might be impossible to achieve without both the correspondent and the place from which this correspondence is born. Each of his poems is titled like this, “Letter to ______ from _______,” the poet knowing that both the correspondent and the place are the foundations for these pieces that feel not so much like poems, but urgent communications. In this particular missive, the poet offers the gift of his attention, not only to Kathy’s sorrow, but to the land that is her home, the land that shapes her. All these things “matter,” including the small things the casual observer might not notice, such as the way “wheat bends in cloud shade without wind.” The litany of physical details leads us inexorably to the emotional heart of the poem, a proclamation not only to Kathy but to the poet, and to us: “Until we die our lives are on the mend.” We’ve arrived at this place together – our common humanity – line by line, moment by moment, through the force of the poet’s attention.

One of my favorite lines from a Dickinson letter goes something like this: “The world weaves a spell so exquisite that everything conspires to break it.” It’s our task as contemplative writers to keep weaving that spell. To incant the magic of the world, lure it out of its hiding place. To hold ourselves and our readers spellbound. Letter writing can be its own contemplative practice, creating a quiet, vibrant space for a communication that speaks from the core of the self.  Tolstoy once said that great art speaks “from soul to soul,” and we can revive letter writing as a practice of this soulful murmuring.

You speak of serendipity – its own form of magic. I had a serendipitous moment the other day: on the radio show “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” guitarist Glenn Kurtz talked about the beautiful art of practicing. He said: “My attention alone makes this a performance. Attention changes everything…each instant is urgent. Practice lets us grow in our own time. Every single day you fail; practice is the process of returning, trying again. Practice is the inward turn that allows us to move forward. Practice is a dream of perfection.” His words made me think in new ways about how both writing and contemplation are forms of practice in this elemental way: practicing the way one might practice the guitar, attuning ourselves to our instruments.

As a kid, I envied the other children who had something to practice: violin, piano, basketball, gymnastics. Though most of them claimed to hate it and slunk to their practices with pouts and glares, they still seemed to have a sense of purpose about them, carrying their sturdy black cases, or changing into their uniforms. I had nothing, no special way of delineating the day. It’s not my parents’ fault; I probably adamantly refused all lessons to the point of hysteria, afraid of failure, and so I wandered rather aimlessly in my backyard, pretending to practice. Like Snoopy, I became “world famous”: the world-famous gymnast practicing her round off from the jungle gym; the world-famous basketball star, clumsily dribbling my brother’s basketball on the makeshift court and heaving the ball toward the net. I swam in the pool, around and around, pretending to practice synchronized swimming with an invisible team.

What did I yearn for so much as I did my solitary, imaginary practices in the backyard? I think it was the sense of growing better at something, a visible, tangible manifestation of growth. I wanted to be shaped by practice, to have some kind of skill infiltrating my very being. I wanted the focus and direction practice gave to the amorphous days. And I wanted to feel a part of something – either part of a team that grew better together, or a servant to something beautiful, like music. When I went away to college, I would see the serious musicians in their practice rooms, the little windows in the doors allowing a glimpse of their bodies leaning into the music. They stayed in there for hours at a time. There seemed something almost monkish about them, in their devotion, and they emerged weary, sometimes frustrated, but triumphant. They could put away their violins or cellos for the day, knowing they had spent the day well.

Kim Stafford has likened the practice of writing to the practice of playing the violin; he writes about how a violin, played every day, will keep the vibrations of the music in its body, even while lying still and silent on the wall. If it is not played every day, the vibrations dissipate and the wood grows lifeless. Our own writing practice can infuse our bodies with the energy and vibrancy of music, keeping us always at the ready to unleash a gorgeous song. I’ve mentioned before that “discipline” is an extension of the word “disciple,” and if we consider ourselves disciples of writing, we might find the energy and devotion we need to keep going, even when it feels like the practice is arduous. Practice, as Glenn Kurtz said, “is the process of returning, trying again.”

As an adult, I have many things I practice: writing, meditation, cooking, yoga, knitting, bread-making, friendship. We can reclaim the word, as Kurtz has, and see practice, itself, as the point. We are always practicing, until the very end. For a while there was a popular bumper sticker: “Life is not a dress rehearsal,” it commanded, but now I want to say back to it, “Well, golly, maybe life is a dress rehearsal, maybe there is no one perfect performance toward which we’re aiming.” We just keep practicing, over and over. When we meditate, and when we write, we are practicing every day, our arms and minds and hearts in constant motion, warming up. There’s something kind, gentle and forgiving about seeing both contemplation and writing (and life itself) as practice, while at the same time, there’s something quite rigorous about it. As a kid, I even fantasized about the mean coach or music teacher who would make me practice for hours on end – an authority figure who might yell at me, but who would eventually melt that stern facade and beam with pride at my progress. We all need that coach, whether it be kind or curmudgeonly, strict or nurturing. We need something urging us on.

There’s a joke I told all the time as a kid: A tourist in New York stops a man carrying a violin case to ask for directions. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” she asks, holding out her crumpled map. The musician replies,“Practice, practice, practice.”

Practice, practice, practice. It’s all we can ever do.

Yours truly,

Suggested Readings:

The Letters of Emily Dickinson
Richard Hugo, 31 Letters and 13 Dreams
Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Kim Stafford,“Playing Daily, Playing in Tune,” from The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft
Glenn Kurtz, Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music

Suggested Writing Exercises

1. Make it a habit to write a letter at least once a week. This can be a letter you send or one you keep for yourself alone. Your correspondent can remain the same, or you can switch it up from week to week. Your correspondent can be human or animal or spirit. Take a few moments to stop and breathe before beginning. Write each letter for at least a half hour, communicating whatever is most “present” for you at the time. Save these letters and see what you might be able to mine for other writing.

2. What did you practice as a young person? Write some scenes about something you practiced a lot as a child or a teenager. What was this practice like? Who was your coach or teacher? What kind of discipline did it take? If you stopped practicing, why did you stop? What do you practice now?

Brenda Miller is the author of Season of the Body (Sarabande Books, 2002) and co-author of Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (McGraw-Hill, 2003).  Her newest collection of essays, Blessing of the Animals, is forthcoming from Eastern Washington University Press in January 2009. Her work has received five Pushcart Prizes and has been published in such journals as Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Sun, Utne Reader, Georgia Review and Witness. Miller is an associate professor of English at Western Washington University and serves as editor-in-chief of the Bellingham Review.