For the Girl from Manitoba

by Camille Dungy

When I was about ten years old, I tied a string to a helium balloon and tied a note to that string. The note included my name and address and a request for a response. I completed that one project, and then I let it go.

Against relatively large odds, someone responded.

Somewhere in my parents' basement I probably still have the letter the girl wrote. I saved it so I could write the perfect response. As I never did finish that response, her note must still be there, waiting on me to get my act together and send something out.

The girl who responded to the note on my balloon was from Canada.

Manitoba I recall. I don't think my balloon flew all the way from Irvine, California to the Manitoba Province. I think the girl was probably on vacation at Disneyland, just a couple towns north. Still, the idea that my balloon had made it to Canada is what I remember being excited about. I was a writer with a reader as far away as Canada! My balloon had garnered me an international audience.

Somewhere in my parent's basement I might still have the notes I drafted for the letter I planned to send my would-be pen pal. I had a novel planned in my head. You might know a would-be-writer with a big novel planned in her head. She may even talk about what it is she plans to write about. I shared my ambitions for my letter over more than one family dinner, but I never managed to get the words on the page in what I felt to be an acceptable manner. And I never managed to get anything out the door. I did work on some drafts. Working on drafts is a step better than just talking about drafts. But drafts are not completed projects. The job of a draft is not to go out the door.

I remember writing a fair amount of exposition about our family room carpet (green, plush but not shag) and the color my mother had recently decided to paint the exterior of our house (sea blue with a Navy Blue trim, the first such in the entire city of Irvine). I didn't get a chance to tell the girl from Manitoba about the human drama in my life because I was stuck on evoking the setting. I thought my would-be reader needed to know where my words were coming from, and I was unable to move forward, to allow my letter to do what it was supposed to do, be a letter, because I was perseverating on what turned out to be fruitless details.

I wrote and erased and wrote and erased. This was just before we had a home computer, so it would be more accurate to say I wrote and scratched out, wrote and scratched out, or that I wrote and discarded, wrote and discarded. I wanted it to be absolutely perfect so that the girl from Manitoba would be fascinated by what I wrote to her. But I never completed my project. It wasn't that difficult of a project, but my dreams of grandeur made it impossible to complete. The girl from Manitoba never got so much as a, "Hi! Thanks for writing back!" Despite my over large ambitions, that's all I needed to write.

This might be one of the reasons I'm a writer today. I failed so miserably at that first shot at an international audience that I refuse to be the one to foil my own chances again. When I set out to start a project, I also set reasonable parameters for myself so that I can be assured of finishing it.

I mean, really, how hard would it have been to write a quick note in response? Why did I feel the need to write a novel? Even if I did want to produce a memoir of those first, exciting, ten years of my life, I could have produced it serially, sending off a small chapter to Manitoba every few weeks. I think my realization of how and why I failed, has a lot to do with why, when I had an idea for a novel in 2003, I wrote a series of poems instead. I had a leave from my teaching position thanks to a grant from the NEA, and so it would seem that I could have taken on the big project that was in my mind, though it would have also required me to switch genres and learn a whole new skill set. But when I sat down to outline the novel, what came out was a poem. And I liked the poem. It was a good poem. It didn't flesh out every detail I'd thought of when I originally came up with the idea, so I wrote another poem that fleshed out a little bit more. I was happy with that poem as well, and I sent them both out into the world. When I realized there was even more I needed to say about the subject, thanks in part to the response I received from people who were able to read the poems because I had completed them and sent them out into the world, I wrote another poem, and then another, and then another. And soon enough, I had produced Suck on the Marrow, a novel-in-verse. A book I'd produced one completed project at a time.

I have learned, thanks in part to that first grand failure, that small progress is better for a writer than no progress at all. I have also learned that the only way to get your audience interested in what you're writing is to write what you're writing, edit what you're writing, and then share what you're writing with said audience.

Yes, I strive for perfection. Yes, I want what I write to be really, really good. That said, I learned early that perseverating over something for so long you miss the opportunity to complete it isn't the way to accomplish these goals.

It's been 30 years since I failed to send a response to the girl from Manitoba, and I still think about this failure with some frequency. I wonder what she thought when she never received a response. It must have been a terrible sort of disappointment. It was a terrible disappointment I'd created. That's all that I created, in the end.

I think about this girl's likely disappointment from the perspective of a young child. I have never actually moved past this perspective when I think about the loss I forced onto someone else because I couldn't just write a few words down and call them complete and send them out in the mail. If I were to think about this as an adult, I'd think that no one asked me to send off a balloon (or poems or essays). Sending off balloons (or poems or essays) is a thing I decided to do by myself. But now that I've done it, now that I've sent my words into the world and sought a response, it is my duty to keep up my side of the conversation.

After all, that's what writing is, a conversation. How different is writing a poem and publishing it than sending off a balloon and expecting some sort of direct response? Not very different at all. And yet, against relatively long odds, people do write to each other. All of us who read and write are in a long conversation with the ages. We converse with people as far away as Manitoba and as close as Anaheim. We converse with people from our time, and we converse with people throughout the ages. Yesterday I wrote all the way to the 8th century BC when I sent Homer an epistolary letter.

When I wrote Homer, I wasn't worried that he had to know everything there was to know about my life today or what I thought about his life in the 8th century BC. I've gotten over the need for excessive exposition and scene setting. No. I got straight to the point. "I love you, man, but I'd like to discuss those sirens. Get back to me when you can." The letter/poem I wrote Homer is only 38 lines long. I narrowed my focus to the most important things I wanted to say. I'll keep the rest for another letter. I'll be reading a letter from Homer again soon. I can count on that. I've got his address, so even if he doesn't write, I can still write him.

The girl from Manitoba must have moved by now, so even if I found her note in my parents' basement, I'm not sure that writing to her after all these years would do any direct good. That's okay. In fact, I've been writing notes to her all these many years. I write to her every time I start a piece, finish it, and send it off. Who knows that someday she won't happen upon another one of my balloons?



Camille T. Dungy is the author of Smith Blue, Suck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. She edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, and co-edited the From the Fishouse poetry anthology. Her honors include an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, a California Book Award silver medal, and a fellowship from the NEA.  Dungy is a Professor in the Creative Writing department at San Francisco State University.

Read Camille Dungy's poetry in Fourteen Hills 18.2
Other Essays

Hacking and Packing

by Carissa Halston

Developing a Dramatic Experience

by Junse Kim

Why I Teach

by Maxine Chernoff


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