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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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I Felt He Found My Letters and Read Each One Aloud

I’m enough of an asshole to imagine that someday an intrepid graduate student will track me down in the Jewish Home for the Aged and want to see some of my client files. We’ll look through them together and I’ll tell unforgettable tales about publishing in the olden days. The student will marvel at the long editorial letters, the rejection letters, the christmas cards with pictures of the author’s three children in the Bahamas. Contracts, royalty statements, reviews and remainder notices will tell another tale. The ups and downs of a long publishing life.

I had to archive some older files today to make room for new clients. I hate throwing out a single piece of paper. I have almost thirty notebooks and nine shoe boxes filled with every letter I’ve ever received. What’s the real reason for saving this stuff if not some outsize hope that someone will want to read it some day, make something of it?

What literary souvenirs are your hoarding?

56 Responses

  1. It’s a fire hazard by my bed. Stacks and stacks of letters, email printouts, good, bad, and almosts. Hey, Vivian, I beat you to it. Pay me the toll.

    • Dammit, I’m 5 hours ahead and I still can’t get in here first. Don’t you people sleep?

    • Especially these days.

    • I got a good night’s sleep last night so I’m ready to name drop regardless of the karmic toll. My literary souvenirs include a note from Nick Hornby who in 2003 very, very politely declined my invitation to pick him up at Newark Airport, drive him down the NJ Turnpike with the windows rolled down and the radio blaring to the Joyce Kilmer rest stop, turn around, and drive to the Meadowlands to see Bruce Springsteen (The Rising tour, Saturday night at Giants Stadium). Nick Hornby has very nice handwriting.

      And it’s nice to know that all those Christmas cards with pictures of my cats that I send Betsy are in safe keeping.

      • Oh.! Oh! How could I forget that ? I have a beautiful Christmas card with pictures of cats on it from PUBLISHED AUTHOR Vivian Swift.

        Vivian Swift also has very nice handwriting.

      • if i had a hand written note from nick hornby, i would frame it to hang above my mantel (the pictures of my kids could go somewhere else). i’d also carry a copy around with me to prove what i was always talking about.

    • Shoot! I didn’t realize there was a competition!

  2. Isn’t that odd.

    I thought I was the only one that saved all correspondence from friends and business contacts. I am lucky enough to have several file cabinets which are full of correspondence, clippings, notes, cards, pictures, magazine articles, and even random trinkets stuck in envelopes. I have two drawers full of old coins gathered over the course of the last 70 years by me and older relatives, manuscripts written by people other than myself, and shelves full of back copies of magazines I really, really must get to.

    I know in my heart of hearts I will never revisit a single one of them – but throwing them out seems so — well, final, like the end-of-life final.

    Maybe throwing them out means I think my life is over, and as long as I have the stuff i must still be alive.

    Thank goodness there are no characters in my novels that are like me. They’d be way too introspective to be interesting.

  3. Many letters, small notebooks filled with nonsense, old day calenders, a few journals, bookmarks I took notes on, napkins the same, and so many old literary magazines.

  4. Moving across the ocean tends to help with the decluttering process. But 10 years on, my stash closely resembles petty’s.

    • Agree with the transatlantic purge process. I saved some notes and cards from husband & friends but other than that got rid of it all including all my books. The Kindle with it’s 70+ books takes up far less room


    • I moved 38 boxes of books across the Atlantic and came back with 50. It’s a sickness really.

      • Long may it ail you.

      • I’m with you Deb. I moved across the Atlantic and sent myself books ahead. Since have been lucky to acquire many books since I work in a bookstore — but oh, do I miss my books (the old ones). And a bookshelf. I’ve been in this apartment for more than two years and it’s no home — there’s no bookshelf.

        That whole thing from yesterday about the perfect editor restraining one from using “just” too often and all the ellipses and em-dashes? Please send her my way!! I’m unable to throw away my crutches on my own.

  5. My mother’s letters to me. When I need a hug, I pull them out and read them. I’m so grateful I had enough sense not to throw them out.

    • I save Mother’s Day cards the same way, and my Dad’s e-mails.

    • Gone are most of the letters my mother sent–she liked to write about one a week–but whenever I find one that got away or meant enough to me at the time to save, the words bring her back, if only for a moment, and that’s some powerful writing.

    • That’s such a lovely comment Macdougal. Thank you.

    • My mother recently sent me a thirty-year-old letter in which she claimed that I didn’t love my sister enough. When she hugs me, her fingers are like claws.

      I don’t keep souvenirs, I resent them. I’m such a parody of myself.

      • I agree. I’m ruthless about this sort of thing. Last year I came across some old letters which had somehow survived intact, buried as they were at the bottom of a box of cookbooks. My mom used to send me recipes for stuffing and green bean casserole and snowball cookies. Occasionally my dad would enclose a page (my name is spelled with one L, Daddy).

        Then there were letters from my first husband, with lots of tedious paragraphs about his fake Army-discharge-inducing injury (amazing the way a flat aspect translates to the page).

        I culled and shredded my way through the debris of my early years, leaving a half-full shoebox of Cleaver moments and nothing more. I treat my personal history like a portfolio.

      • Amen, Glasseye. I don’t like being ambushed by memories.

  6. I keep all my stories, reviews, comments, rejections (the helpful ones), notes and cards from agents, unfinished novels, obsolete floppies, clippings, story ideas, and folders of little scraps of paper and envelopes I’ve scribbled over.

    I go over them every once in a while and read things and see how far I’ve come and get ideas and maybe practice my editing skills a little. Okay, a lot. But mostly I just know they’re there, marking my territory and my future.


    My husband once suggested we throw all of it away since I wasn’t “using it” . . . but only once. You don’t tell a dragon to ditch the hoard.

  7. My favorite English professor, to whom I write almost every day about writing, reading, words, and whatever’s going on. He’s like an invisible friend. He gets the best of my writing, and has for as long as I’ve known him, about five years now. Sometimes I think these emails could — and should — segue into an audience-gathering blog … but it wouldn’t be the same. At all.

  8. “What literary souvenirs are your hoarding?”

    This is going to be fun. Let’s see….

    All my adolescent student journalism, clippings of stories I wrote and photos I took for the school paper and yearbook. I haven’t seen this stuff in years and only suppose the bugs haven’t eaten it yet.

    A couple volumes of my adolescent diaries, having thrown the rest away.

    My first short story and my first novel, no more publishable now than they were when they were written in the 1980s.

    All the class materials, notes, correspondence, and mark-ups from my studies in NYC twenty years ago.

    Probably every acceptance notice I’ve received from a litmag.

    Probably every personalized rejection I’ve received from an editor, agent, or publisher, in the nature of, “This work is brilliant but we’re full up on brilliant this year so try us again next year if you’re not dead yet, we really mean it, good luck!”

    A hard copy of every poem and story I’ve had published, in its original venue, which is coming more and more to mean a few web pages saved to PDF then printed through my Laser Jet.

    Probably various other trash I’ve forgotten about and haven’t thrown away yet.

  9. I have a letter from a Pulitzer Prize winner telling me if I ever got my poetry published, he’d eat his underwear.

    • Please, please tell me you made him eat jockey pie.

    • i’m guessing he wears the edible kind, probably black licorice scotch flavored ones with a bit of pretentious preservatives mixed in for good measure.

      (that poem must have had something to trigger such a response.)

      • Funny thing is, a month before that (when I made the mistake of asking what was so good about a poet he loved, which prompted the insult), I got a letter from this same person stating that another poem of mine was “very good” – underlined three times.

        Three years later it turned up in his next collection, with only the title and one line changed.

        I didn’t write, but I hope he at least sauteed his boxers upon publishing it.

      • I was trying to respond to Maine Character’s (love the name!) comment about the Pulitzer-winner poet (pwp) stealing a poem, but I couldn’t see a “reply” toggle for the comment.

        MC, why didn’t you confront the pwp about his theft? I’m curious. Seems it would have been fairly straightforward, but maybe I’m missing some facet of the story (highly likely). Did the pwp come across your poem years later and “forget” he hadn’t written it?

        Makes me think of a good friend my youngest daughter had who pretended not to remember that the baby names she chose for her first two children were names my daughter had told her were ones she planned to use. Yep, the “friend” took not just one name, but two. And to add salt to the wound, my daughter miscarried. Hard, hard lesson for my daughter, but she won’t be sharing the names she and her husband select during their new pregnancy.

        Maybe a strange connection to make to MC’s story, but hey, I’m menopausal and hormonal. Perfectly understandable in my world. 🙂

      • Jeanne – I didn’t mention it ’cause I hadn’t written to him in years and simply took it as the compliment it was. If it’d been a hit song or screenplay, then I’d have had reason to bring it up, but as it was I simply felt I’d had the last word on his underwear.

        And yes, it’s possible he mistook it for a poem of his own – my work was heavily influenced by him – but I sort of doubt it since my name would’ve been on each page.

      • Glad to see the replies went to the proper place, after all.

        Maine Character, thank you for answering. Yep, at least you know your work has merit. Hard for me to call theft of work a compliment, but also hard to tell what any of us would do in the same situation. I was kind of wishing you had sent him a pair of edible underwear, but perhaps the intent of such a gesture would have been lost on him, anyway.

        Hope you are publishing some of your work under your own name. 🙂

  10. my journals are saved all the way back to when i they were diaries and i was writing about how unfair it was that i didn’t get to wear make-up to school.

    my desk is an old school desk that has a shelf underneath and many of my later-in-life journals have accumulated there. when my daughter asked why i have so many, i tell her that i’m saving them so that one day her kids can sell them for hundreds of thousands of dollars on ebay, “Journals of famous dead authors can are worth lots of money, they could be your kid’s college fund.”

    “But what if you don’t get famous?” she asks (she’s only seven).

    “Then you can throw them out, but wait till after I’m too old to know, okay?”

    I can’t imagine what her teacher thinks of me if any of these mother-daughter stories we share make their way into her first grade classroom.

    • I’ve saved my journals, short stories and bad poetry. To that I’ve recently added a stash of love letters and hate mail from my youngest. The hate mail is my favorite, but last night I did get a really sweet note delivered by cat messenger. He had a note tucked into a makeshift belt that had been tied around his waist. It must have been horribly embarrassing for him, but he followed her orders to go see me. Probably to end his pain sooner. Better to just comply and get it over with.

      It’s been a long week of being locked up together.

      And you can bet those stories make it to the teacher. Thankfully, most teachers are excellent secret keepers.

  11. If it ain’t worth remembering it ain’t worth saving.

  12. Mother’s Day cards from my stepchildren.

    A note from Dorothy Allison that reads, “Thank you. Your letter is like a friendly shout across a crowded room – welcome and timely.”

    A church cookbook of my mother’s in which she wrote “Love you. Mom.” Words she could scribble but never say.

    Enough books to fill a small library, and every acceptance and rejection I’ve ever received.

  13. A letter from C.S. Lewis telling my mother not to worry, things would be all right.

  14. I think I can honestly say that, after various moves, dislocations, and changes of attitude, I’m no longer hoarding anything but my memories and my books.

  15. Books, notebooks and little decorative post it notes. My desk looks like Dilbert’s.


  16. A rambling letter from Gordon Lish after a workshop where he told me I was obsessed with my cunt.

  17. When I lived on my own in Sag Harbor, my bathroom had framed rejection letters (hand-written, some of them!) from my favorite editors. My husband made me put them away. He said that was creepy. He’s right, in a way. If you think about the rejection part. But to me they were proof somebody had read my first novel. And the moment they were reading it, it was alive.

  18. Every scribble my mentor ever made on my WIP

  19. interesting thread … let’s see um old notebooks, letters, cards, post-its, sketches from friends and family have been saved, as have photos.

    re literary stuff, don’t have much, have only submitted work maybe 10 times. probably time to accelerate.

  20. A hand-written note from Dean Koontz and a hand-written rejection from Molly Friedrich. But if you think that’s all the paper I save, you haven’t seen my office. Oh, so many poor dead trees…

  21. Dear Betsy,

    I don’t think you’re an asshole, but than I hardly no you.

    It’s more likely you’re a dreamer like most of us and “the only trouble is, gee whiz, (we’re) dreaming our lives away.” (Thanks to Don and Phil)

    It’s more about memories than history… “Scattered pictures, Of the smiles we left behind… ” in your case thirty notebooks and nine shoeboxes worth.

    And those unforgettable tales of olden days,,, “Can it be that it was all so simple than? Or has time re-written every line?” We wish. And no, it wasn’t time that rewrote all those lines, ask my arthritic fingers. (I never realized how literary this sounds. I’m sure Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Marvin Hamlisch had writers in mind when they wrote this.)

    “If we had a chance to do it all again, Tell me, would we? Could we?” No way, to both.

    “So it’s the laughter, We will remember, Whenever we remember …(sniff)
    The way we were.”

    Or, according to ALW, the real reason we keep this stuff is more narcissistic…

    “I can smile at the old days, I was beautiful than” (weren’t we all were, well, at least less wrinkled)

    “I remember the time I knew what happiness was “(and energy, and hope, and regular bm’s, and…)

    “Let the memory live again” (please!)

    What would we do if we couldn’t cope pop music? Quote poets?
    I enjoy your insights. They’re killing me – softly.

    Now how did we start talking about my erectile dysfunction?

  22. I had to archive some older files today to make room for new clients. I hate throwing out a single piece of paper.

    This is why the Fujitsu Snapscan exists: so you can rapidly and easily scan files you don’t want to throw away. It won’t be quite the same as having the paper, but at least you’ll preserve the data for that future grad student.

  23. I did a reading this week at a bookstore, and I saved the scrap of paper that was saving my seat up front, with my name written on it with a fat black sharpie. I have no idea why I kept it. So when I become famous, I can say I knew me when??

  24. I knew from day one that my stepmother-in-law didn’t like me. And it never changed for the 35 years of our marriage that she was alive. But after she died, my father-in-law sent me a huge file with every by-lined article of mine from the 5 years I wrote features for the Sunday newspaper in our city (back when newspapers actually employed feature writers). Even I hadn’t saved them all. As she carefully clipped each out of the paper and folded them into the folder, I wonder if she was thinking, “that damn girl is not worth all this trouble”? Whatever, I was touched and grateful.

  25. My grandmother’s letter collection: her mother’s letters, her father’s letters (he was a newspaperman), her brother’s letter (who died when he was in his 20s in a bomber over WWII), love letters from her husband (who was a curmudgeon grandpa, but who loved his wife). It’s wonderful. I love reading them.

  26. When I left New York I threw out all the hand sketches for the scores of every opera I composed. I still have the final master score, but my path to those scores are gone forever.

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