Message in a Bottle

categories: Cocktail Hour



[How do your writing projects grow in conception?  What have you heard back, and when?  I’m looking for stories, as always.  And I’ve got one to tell, as always, as always…]


I often get emails and even letters from people who’ve found my books in libraries or summer cabins or on remainders tables years down the line, one of the great pleasures of writing, like you’d sent a message in a bottle out into the impossibly vast hitherto and gotten a reply.  Okay, and recently I got a reply to a literal message in a bottle, not the first one, either.  Back in the fall of 1999 I had this idea to put messages in Newcastle Brown Ale bottles–those are clear glass–and chuck them into Temple Stream, which happened to be in high flood.  The message just said I was investigating the stream and gave my phone number and address.  (At that time, I didn’t consider email important enough to include!).   Being a seasoned writer, though, I did roll-up and insert a stamped, self-addressed envelope.  I stuffed ten bottles, flung them into the raging torrent, and then I forgot about the whole bottle thing, which was just a vague part of a vague idea about writing an essay about the stream.

In the end, I did write an essay, “Temple Stream,” which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in December, 2001.  But no mention of the bottles there.  The essay had inspired an idea for a book, and I began work on it–not merely an expansion of the essay, but something quite different, an exploration of the stream from mouth to source, difficult in conception, difficult in execution: what would the story be?  How to construct a through-line? And doesn’t a perfect and perfectly whole stream fall apart when you begin to examine its parts?

While the Harper’s piece was in gallies, the first note-from-a-bottle came back, borne in the hands of a pair of little girls who’d found it while fiddle-heading, not 200 yards downstream from where I’d thrown it in.  (One of the girls came to the launch party for Temple Stream the book.  By then, 2005, she was a young teen.)  The second note came back about the time I got word that Susan Kamil at Dial Press was making an offer for the book based on my proposal (she’s now editor-in-chief of RandomHouse after a big shake-up there).  This one was found below the Shawmut Dam on the mighty Kennebec River, some forty or fifty miles downstream from my house, having made it all the way down the Temple and all the way down the Sandy River, wow.  The next one–unvbelievable–was found on Popham Beach–all the way down to the ocean, probably 100 miles as the water flowed.   After my book was published, a fourth bottle was found, too, but its resting place and finder stays a mystery–because I simply got an empty envelope in the mail, familiar mildew spots, the letter apparently having fallen out, the seal all soaked off by the ride downstream, postmark illegible.

My fond dream had been that one of my bottles would make it clear to the ocean, then out across the Gulf of Maine to the Gulfstream, and from there past Greenland and Iceland and England and Europe to Africa, where some Ivory Coast child would find it and send it home.  Still, four out of ten, plenty of collective miles, pretty remarkable.

And then, last week, this email:

Hi Bill,

My name is Olivia and I am a high school science teacher at Lisbon
High School in Lisbon Falls, Maine. Recently I had a student bring me a
glass bottle her father found with a message inside. I teach marine
biology and we opened the bottle together as a class and were delighted to
find that we had become part of your flood dynamics and poetry of streams
study. I wish I would have captured the opening of the bottle on video…
you would have loved to see the excitement of these 17 and 18 year old
kids huddled around your somewhat now tattered message, the finder of the
bottle reading the message to the class- it was priceless! Anyway, the
kids are very very excited about the discovery of one of your bottles.
The neat thing is that I actually have your book and have read it about
Temple Stream, when I noticed your name I thought it looked familiar-
about 3 in the morning that night I sat straight up in bed realizing that
I knew who you were… via your book.  I told the kids the next day and
they thought that was really cool!

Anyway, I am writing to you the information you asked for in your letter
and hope to hear back from you- it is so exciting that so many kids are
benefiting from this message!

1. Where did we find the bottle:
Eastern Shore of the Kennebec River right at fort western in Winslow

2. Date: Easter Sunday 2010

3. What were you doing: Just walking along the shore

4. Who are you: The actual finder was the father of my student named
Hyun Ja. His name is Jim, instead of opening the bottle he
gave it to Hyun Ja to bring to me (her science teacher Olivia).

5. Any notes: Jim told us that the bottle was washed up pretty close to
the waterline along with all the other springtime debris. Also- we would
love to talk with you about the findings of your other bottles… are you
still finding bottles or has it been awhile… etc! We are really
interested in anything you may wish to share with us!

Looking forward to hearing from you!
Olivia G.

Ten and a half years since I threw that bottle in the stream!  And a 50% return ratio.  It’s a lot like publishing.  Many thanks, Jim, Hyun Ja, and Olivia!  I look forward to speaking to your class.  Any more stories out there about a late response to something written?

  1. Barbara Knox writes:

    I am an apprentice writer now even though I’m an 85-year-old great-grandmother. My learning to be a writer began years ago with the mechanics. In second grade in a small Oklahoma town, I was taught Spencerian penmanship, using the kind of pen that I dipped in an inkwell on my desk. I had to make rows of connected, overlapping ovals and more rows of connecting slanting lines, keeping all my strokes inside two horizontal lines. When I ruined a pen point with too much pressure, I had to take it out and slip in a replacement. Oh, yes, and be careful not to get ink on my dress. My classroom was in one of four one-room bungalows at the end of the dirt road that went by my house .

    The first content I had to write, painstakingly, were compulsory thank-you notes to my aunts. Learning spelling started with learning to read and went on for life. Sixth grade brought learning grammar by diagraming the parts of speech of sentences, and being taught how to punctuate. I learned how to write content with written homework assignments, term papers and essay exams, all before spell checkers and cut-and-paste revision techniques. Erasers were indispensable. I hand-wrote these things.

    In high school I took a journalism class because it fit my schedule and filled a requirement for an elective. It was in high school that I tried to escape using penmanship by taking a class in typing. I then had to deal with carbon paper, correction fluid, and my lack of manual dexterity. My children were amused to discover that it was a myth that I had always made A’s. They found my report cards in my scrapbook with my only ever D — in typing. But I got the journalism award at my graduation ceremony.

    I went to a small college in Missouri my first two years. As a sophomore I was invited to work for an English teacher correcting lecture notes the freshmen were required to take for a humanities survey course. Building on my high school experience, I was coeditor of the college paper where, in the print shop I watched one of my schoolmates operate the linotype machine and another one construct headlines from lead type mounted on wood blocks. I learned proofreaders’ marks and to proofread galley proofs, among other things. I also had a few late night trysts after curfew in the dark printshop, but I never got caught, and I didn’t write about them either.

    I took required courses in literature and read lots of books, but I never considered a career as a writer. I majored in economics when I transferred to Ohio State for my final two years.
    Later, when I traveled with my husband and children, I would write to my parents about our trips. Mother would send those accounts to her sisters in their round robin letter, and my aunts began to say I should send them to a magazine to be published. I tried but gave it up after a few rejections slips. I had a very tender ego.
    After we spent a couple years in Germany as a military family, I wrote about some of our experiences. This time rejection letters inspired me to take a correspondence course in magazine article writing. I chose the University of Wisconsin. I produced a piece that made it into the Sunday supplement of the Daily Oklahoman and even paid me a little money, but my articles about Germany still didn’t go anywhere.

    Somewhere in there I started keeping a journal. I wrote a few poems in it. I was in my late thirties when I enrolled in a summer course in short-story writing at Oklahoma City University. I’d been pretty much a straight A student in college, so when I got a B, I again gave up the idea of writing for publication. Perfectionism is one of my faults.

    I married and started a family soon after I got my economics degree, so I had no career as an economist, only a year as a key punch operator and processor of labor statistics. After 20 years as just-a-housewife and a doctor’s wife, I got a job as a caseworker in a welfare department in Annapolis, where I wrote progress notes on my clients. After two years of that I went to graduate school, this time in Maryland, to learn more about how to do that difficult job. I liked life as a student and chose to go on for a Ph.D in the field of psychology, which was awarded to me when I was fifty.

    I worked for twenty years as a psychologist and loved it. I wrote hundreds more pages of progress notes. I finally retired at age 70 to a farm that I had bought, a place where I could live sustainably and self-sufficiently. From my farm in rural Pennsylvania I wrote a letter to the editor of the small-town, local weekly newspaper, commenting on something he wrote in his column. In response he invited me to write a column, which I did, a column about environmental issues. He also printed some of my poems.

    I wrote more poems, but had no formal training. Then a new friend encouraged me to submit some poems to a new writing contest she was starting. I did, and over several years I won with a number of my poems. I wanted to be a better poet, so I went to the University of Wisconsin distance learning program again and studied writing poetry by mail for a couple years and then online another year.

    After going to a Saturday poetry workshop given by a professor at the small local Juniata College, I persuaded that prof to tutor me for another couple of years. One year he invited me to give the annual poetry reading evening at the college. I was 78 by then. I was invited to give more readings. My daughter was impressed and had my poems published in a very professional-looking little book. I illustrated it with sketches. (Mother intended for me to be an artist, but I only got a B in that class in high school).

    So I’m finally ready to tell you about my current, real apprenticeship as a writer. After I moved from my farm to a retirement community back in Maryland when I was 81, my Juniata poetry tutor, still working with me by email, was telling me my poems were no longer poetry and that I should try prose. I had begun to take my turn at speaking for programs, and was so successful with what I wrote and then read about my experiences, that I decided to try writing a memoir.

    I researched writing memoirs, and the best by far of the five or six books I found and read was Bill Roorbach’s book, Writing Life Stories. So I contacted him, then sent him a couple chapters I had written (and read as programs for this place where I now live). He agreed to take me on and be my consultant for writing the story of my life.

    So I am finally an apprentice writer. Bill is very encouraging and a wonderful teacher. His criticism inspires me instead of making me angry, a real gift. He says he thinks my memoir will be publishable. I’d like that, of course, but more important is that I love writing it. So far I’ve never had writer’s block, just frustration that I can’t free up more time to write. I’m working on the second draft. My goal is to finish my memoir before my memory goes. Bill keeps suggesting topics for more books for me to write when I finish this one. He must think I’m immortal.

  2. Steven Stafford writes:

    That’s a really cool story. That’s got to feel good.

  3. John Jack writes:

    Messages in bottles sent out onto the whim of the world, time capsules sent to the future, in time and space.

    What about the other way around? Messages from the future to the present. Say prescient dreams?

    I had a recurring nightmare in early childhood that followed me into adulthood. I’d wake up screaming when I had it. By the time I figured out the message, it had come to pass. I’ve written the story of the dream many times, trying every grammatical person, every tense, a range of voices, only recently getting it into a form I’m satisified with. I don’t have that one anymore. It involves losing marbles.

    There’s another recurring dream now that’s two-thirds come to pass. The third part resolves a lifelong personal loss. I wake up feeling happy.

  4. Jess Robert writes:

    How wonderful! I loved reading about Temple Stream and your bottle experiment years ago. Fun to hear that you’ve had another return. I love that a father saved the excitement for his son, and that the son shared it with his peers, that a whole classroom of kids got to liberate your words from the ale bottle together. How magical.

    And I love the analogy of our pieces of writing being like messages in a bottle just waiting to be found.

    I haven’t published enough to have any great stoires here. But I have had the thrill of my words touching a complete stranger… the thread of words, like an ever flowing stream, that stitch us together for a moment in time.

  5. Erika Marks writes:

    Hello, Bill–Nice to have found this blog. You already had my attention with the title and then I became even more delighted to read a reference to Popham and my smile grew. I’m a debuting author from Maine (and thinking right about now on the waves at Popham and those steamy walks from the road to get to the beach in high season).

    This post is a great one. My husband is a teacher and this idea is inspired–the Lisbon Falls teacher must have been thrilled.

    Looking forward to checking in again, catching up on past posts and adding to the mix (pun intended!).