Letters to grandboys

Joseph Mansfield


Last November I spent several days in Oaxaca attending a music conference, arriving the day before the conference began.  The following morning, at breakfast, I found myself seated beside Bob Waters, an organ builder from Vermont, also there for the conference, and immediately fell into conversation with him.  This conversation, in installments, ran through the length of the conference, from Thursday morning to Monday morning, beginning at breakfast every day and ending with a late evening chat before retiring.  Later on the first day, Bob and I met Bill Baker, also an organ builder, who was in the middle of a move from Massachusetts to Sonora, and he fell in with us, so that sometimes we were two and sometimes three.


My circumstances are such that I rarely have a chance for interesting conversation.  You might say I am perpetually thirsting for conversation.  Passing four days with Bob and Bill was a special time, a precious time.  We could, and did, talk practically the whole time we were not attending lectures or concerts.  Well, not the whole time.  We would separate for a good part of each day so that each of us had opportunity to get acquainted with some of the other thirty or so people at the conference, all intelligent, interesting people.  But I would say I passed perhaps as much time with Bob as with everyone else put together, and Bill was there for a good part of that time.


Under these delightful conditions, I found myself bubbling over, chattering away, and no matter that I tried to cut back my flow of words, I just kept going, one topic after another.  I ran on until at some point I apologized for doing more than my share of the talking.


The response from both men was quick:  “Not at all!  You have something to say.”


Well, I always thought that myself. 


Few others have ever thought that of me.  But there have been some who did.  Some who have gone to the length of exchanging letters or even visits with me just for the purpose of conversation.  One is Tom Goyer, up in Arizona, who invites me into his home for a few days, several times a year.  Like me, he lives in a rural area where there is not much chance for intellectual exchange.  Like me, he reads books and has no one to discuss them with.  He thinks, with no one to hear his thoughts.  When I see him it is like the conference with Bob and Bill.  We will spend a couple of days mostly in conversation, sometimes keeping it up until late in the night.


*          *          *


My web page, on which this discussion will be posted, came about as a convergence of two lines of thought and event.


The first:  I began writing the stories that would eventually make up El camino a México because I had something to say, something within me that wanted to be said.  I knew that the feelings, the emotions that accompanied my early experiences in Mexico would be evanescent.  If these were to be said, they had to be said in writing, had to be captured while they were hot.  So I wrote.  By the time I had a few stories written, I began to think that the finished series might be rolled up into a marketable book.


About the time I had this thought, one of my quinquennial high school class reunions came around.  I took the opportunity to discuss my writing with a classmate whose career had involved considerable writing and who had published a couple of books.  I asked him if he might read some of my work and give me his opinion on its marketability.  He read “Dance” (a chapter of Camino) on the spot, said it was quite good, and that he would read the rest when time permitted.  Well, time never did permit, or at least has not yet permitted, the reunion being now almost two years in the past.  Mark one would-be-writers’ lesson completed:  It is hard to get someone to look at one’s work.  The alum’s wife, by the way, had worked for a number of years as a publisher’s reader, or maybe it was editor, and my friend asked if she might read my work too.  Well, of course!  But she did not.


My classmate also gave me writers’ lesson number two.  One of his published books was a novel.  He told me that his editor had made him rewrite the ending of the book, that the ending as published was inferior to the original and was not what he had wanted to say in the original.  That sounded all too familiar.  What few things of mine had appeared in print, letters to editors, short articles, had all too often been altered by editors, occasionally for the better but usually for the worse, and, with exactly one exception, without my consent.  I knew my experience was not atypical.  Writers frequently have to alter their work if they want to see it in print. 


That discovery, not really of something new but rather a focusing of my attention on something I had known all along, has led me to question the desirability of commercial publication. I write to say things that I want to say.  What, pray tell, is the point of sweating away to make my text to say exactly what I want to say if I am going to have editors make me change the substance of it?  Editors have a legitimate function; they are there to make the books they edit more salable.  But I do not write for the purpose of selling.  I write so that others may hear what I have to say.  Publication, and a check, would be nice, but not at the price of not saying what I must say.  I can say what I want to say on a web page, and say it exactly as I wish.  Occasionally someone reads it.  That is enough.  Writing is one job.  Marketing one’s writing (and writing for marketing) is another, and one I would just as soon not be involved in.


The lesson has also come home as I have offered a few items for use on other web sites.  The usual response I have received is a gracious suggestion that I change this and change that and resubmit.  I am grateful that the editors have read my work and granted me the courtesy of these responses. If I had their job I might do the same.  But I do not write to say what someone else wants said.  I have my own things to say.


This is as good a place as any to throw in a comment about El camino a México which does not really fit anywhere.  The stories in Camino are for the most part first drafts.  I left them that way on purpose.  I wanted my classmate to read the stories in first draft and judge them at that stage.  As we saw, the reading never happened.  There are places that could stand some polish; I know that.  But the stories are nearly two years old now and are cold.  I would write differently if I set out to tell the same story today.  It is unlikely that I will do any further work on them.


The second:  I have two little grandsons, both born while I was living in Chattanooga (1997-2000) and preparing to move west.  For reasons of distance and other factors I am not able to spend nearly as much time with them as I would like.  Very much of what is good in me grew from seeds that were planted or nourished by certain of my grandparents and great-grandparents.  I want to pass on as much of this inheritance as I can to my grandsons.


Perhaps a time will come when I will have more time with the boys.  Perhaps not.  In any case, I was still in Chattanooga when my son’s military duties took him and the boys far away.  It was then that I conceived the project of writing a series of letters to the boys, letters that they could read and keep and read again.  Letters that would survive me, would be something they could have long after I was gone.  Letters that would say certain things to them at age ten, and other things at twenty-five, and quite other at seventy.


I also thought that if the writing turned out good enough, the collection of letters could be gathered into a book and published in print.  Today I am not thinking in that direction, for the reasons mentioned earlier.  The letters—or stories, essays, whatever—can be placed on the web, where they will be accessible to the boys as well as to anyone else.  But it is particularly as a legacy for the boys that the web site exists, and everything on it is placed there with the thought in mind that some day they will read it.


Before shelving the book idea, I did come up with a best-seller title:  Letters to grandboys, whence the title of this essay.  It occurred to me this morning that “Letters to grandboys” would be a right nice title for my web page too.  I will have to think about it a bit.  The singularly unimaginative title that is on it now, “Welcome to the web page of Joseph Mansfield,” was put there only to last until I could come up with something better.


In fact from the beginning I disliked that word “welcome” in the title.  It seemed to say something like “thanks for coming here”, or even “please read this stuff”, and I did not want to say that.  If a reader finds himself better off for reading my work, good for him!  If not, I surely do not want him to read it for my sake.  But as the title was temporary, I just let it stand.


“Grandboys” is my own word.  I invented it.  Other people did too.  I searched the web on grandboys the other day and found 1040 hits.  But there was not a single hit on letters to grandboys.


The “Harry Clack” item, written in 2000, was the first piece I wrote specifically for the boys, and, to date, the only one in the format of a letter.


© 2006 Joseph Mansfield

2006.02.18 First draft

2006.02.22 Revisions

2006.02.28 Revisions

2006.03.02 Posted