July 18, 2023

Only connect


Dear readers, seekers, and imaginers,

On a recent walk with my best guy, he told me he’d reread a love letter I’d written him years ago. I was curious and even got a little tingly thinking about how he’d saved my note. But after I read the faded ink, I understood why he’d held onto it: we agreed the power of the words to embody my deep feelings had not diminished over time. Decades later, the passion and authenticity were still there.

The letter sparked a conversation about the ways people respond to the written word: how language can incarnate in a reader certain emotional states but how not all eloquent, wise, informative, or well-written pieces pack a wallop. What unnamable quality sets off a chain reaction from writer to reader? It’s a mystery. As a writer, I want to know!

(James Baldwin wrote: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.” It’s a brilliant observation.)

Perhaps you’ve been moved by something you’ve read? And not necessarily by reading a love letter. Perhaps a poem, a spiritual author, an essayist, science writer or novelist has invited you into the realms of feeling and depth. I have many favorite Buddhist authors, but the one whose writing has a special vibration was a poet himself: the Vietnamese monk, Thich Naht Hanh.

The wisdom traditions, East and West, have taught me that the more I can empty myself of self-concerns and be in an open and receptive state while I’m writing, the more likely I will be able to be a conduit for conveying depth experience. But this emptying out does not come easily: it is a practice, a meditative state, a lifelong learning. It requires stillness, patience, fortitude, determination, trust. If you’re interested, I have distilled more about writing in several blogs: “Finding Your Hidden Self: How to Start Contemplative Writing,” “Art and Empathy: Who Gets to Tell Your Story,” and “Write Your Own Fairy Tale.”

I wonder what writers move you, and why. What books have had a lingering effect? I’m curious. We think of reading and writing as solitary activities, and they are, but readers and writers are also in conversation. I can say personally that everything I write aims to communicate with another, which is why I’m humbled and awed when I receive a letter or email from a reader telling me how a particular passage from my novel or a poem affected them.

Tonight, I’m thinking about language not only because it’s my business to do so, but because language is a danger zone these days. We risk being misquoted, misinterpreted, misunderstood. We risk shame, embarrassment, mental and physical harm. The list of ways we miscommunicate, misinform, disinform, or otherwise corrupt meaningful and honest exchanges is growing. The vicious cultural battles over definitions of truth, free speech, historical accuracy, and the ubiquitous use of slogans and propaganda terrify me. The imagination reels when AI is thrown into the mix.

But here is some exciting writing news: By the time you are reading this, I will have been one of five other writers invited to participate in a project sponsored by the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin. The project is called Quick Collaborations: Science and Writing. I will be speed-dating six science researchers from the UW campus. That is, I will have 15 minutes to interview each scientist about their work. The idea is to bridge the gap between science and art through an exchange of ideas. I’ll be talking to an immunologist, an entomologist, a biostatistician, someone studying virtual reality, someone else working on perception, and someone studying neurodegenerative disease. I anticipate this will be a heady and engaging experience.

For those of you wondering about my next novel: the work progresses. It’s been a long labor, a dedicated and intense labor, but the end is in sight. And the play in which some of my poems from M will be featured is also unfolding. It’s set to appear in Madison at The Overture Center in 2024. The stage production will be called Step Right Up, Ma’am integrating different stories and different disciplines and will be part of Overture’s Great Performances Series. An actor will be performing my poems. Woo hoo! What a spectacular evening of theater!

Outside my studio window, darkness is falling between the trees. Fireflies light the dusk. Rabbits appear out of the mist. Yes, these are troubling times, but always there is beauty and comfort if only we will look.

Would love to hear from you!

Fondly, and with care,


P.S. “Only connect! Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”—E. M. Forster, Howards End


Top image: “Dig”. Poster by Sadie Wendell Mitchell. Part of the artist’s “Girls Will Be Girls” poster series. Chromolithograph by Close, Graham, & Scully, Inc., New York, 1909. Public Domain