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:
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!
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?