Letter from Uncle Dean

Over the past 16 years, I’ve carried on a letter exchange with my uncle Dean. In these letters, Dean introduced me to the life of a poet–to the challenges, and surprises, and victories of the writing life. I still read some of the early letters Dean wrote, back when I was just beginning to write, for guidance and inspiration. Below is a letter he sent me when I was 21. I had just left college with a vague plan to travel and write.

Deano is facing an enormous challenge right now. He needs a new heart. If you’ve been touched by Dean’s poetry or teaching, please consider donating to his cause. Additionally, Anna Clark wrote a blog yesterday, detailing other means of support. Finally, please do send your well-wishes to Deano personally:

Dean Young
2809 French Place
Austin, TX 78722-2235

Update: Dean received his transplant and is currently thriving with his new heart. 



Dear Seth,

I was very happy to get your letter, and my mom sent me your story which I want to get to but things have been so busy lately, what with school here and all those demands, and I’ve been flying around doing readings, and always feeling that I’m not devoting enough time to anything, even my cat, I figured I’d better write you soon, even if it was before reading your story, because I guess you’re off across the seas soon. I don’t know if I can really help you through your uncertainties, but I think I understand what you’re feeling, and wondering, and maybe doubting. As far as missing out on life because of devoting your time to writing, I don’t think you need to worry about that: life will happen to you no matter what you do. There will be joys and celebrations. There will be nights crossing bridges you don’t know the name of when some unspeakable beauty envelopes you. There will be nights looking from windows upon the staggered lights of some town when some unspeakable sadness envelopes you. There will be people you love who you can no longer find your way to. There will be new discoveries, new clouds that resemble strange and terrible things, tangerines and hangovers, and long, long telephone calls made of almost entirely silence. There will be enormous pains and small pains that are almost pleasurable. There will be haiku that suddenly make sense, and the feeling that something has been taken from you, and songs, always songs. So don’t worry about missing life, it’s like missing the sky, you can’t, you’ll always be under it and in it and sometimes high in it, but often just on the ground, moving from thing to do to, needing, crying, making people laugh, although it’s hard to tell what they’re laughing about because it seems you were just talking about how terrible life is. But one thing that won’t just happen to you, like life, is teaching yourself to write well. So whatever time you spend doing that, can stand to spend, and need to spend, all that time that seems wasted and those rare moments that seem volcanic and so sure, is the time that must be spent, otherwise you’ll never become the writer you want to become. And there’s a funny thing about that, too. One is that you’ll never become the writer you want to become. You’ll never be satisfied, never really know if you are any good. You’ll never be certain. I mean to you it probably seems I have some sort of certainty, I’ve published some books which sometimes show up in used bookstores right down there with Yeats and John Yau (who?) and just in the last couple of years or so people have started to hear of my work, of me, and now I’m teaching at this la de da writing program and poets who I think of as giants are treating me as a friend, which is, I admit, great, but there is flattery and there is the truth and one can never tell where one stops and one begins. My own sense of my own writing is what have I done lately? It’s the writing-nowness of it that matters, and in that we’re all equals in the fog, each of us with a single flashlight with the batteries only lasting so long and we’re not sure if we should signaling to some landing airplane or is that the galloping of horses we hear coming our way, or should we be just trying to find house again, that place where we were born, where some huge, beneficent force would lift us from our groggy tatters and fit us into a voluminous bed. So don’t worry, Seth, you’re feeling what you have to feel, and as John Ashbery says, The reasons that religions are great is that they are founded on doubt. So you have to be the religion of yourself, which surely Walt Whitman said somewhere, and it sounds like you’re finding your way. Because it has to be YOUR way. Certainly there are teachers who can help you with things like dependent clauses and plot formation and run-on sentences (yikes), but all the hard play and work you must do yourself, which means above all else doing it. In my experience, the people who become writers are the ones who keep writing through the yards of silence and the years of discouragement. I think you may be worrying about things more then I did when I was your age. At least about writing. I knew it was a thing I did. I started writing poems in the third grade, and although I’m disappointed I’m not a lot better, it is something I do and therefore part of who I am, and cannot be reft from me. Perhaps I was too stupid or stoned or drunk or distracted or comfortable, or it was another world of skinny-dipping in the Bloomington quarries with a group of friends most of whom were trying to write well, with stupid jobs, and reading Frank O’Hara. I guess it was something I had faith in. It was later, by the time I was in graduate school, that the real ambitions (and poisons) of trying to get published and all that came into play. By then, well, it was too late. It was what I did. Remember, Seth, you can’t sustain inspiration, you can only court it, and here’s the thing: it happens WHILE you work. It’s not something to wait around for. You have to sweep the temple steps a lot in hopes that the god appears. Go back to college. It is a good place to try to teach yourself to write and to be surrounded by fellow blockheads that love books. Now I must get back to working on a poem I have no hope for because it is important to keep writing even when you aren’t writing worth shit. There’s a lot of luck involved in being struck by lightening, so you want to make sure you’re holding a pen when it happens. Write again soon, dear nephew. Allow yourself to be uncertain, but don’t let your uncertainty turn to despair. It can be wonderful to write when you’re sad and full of the dark bouquet of doubt, but misery leads itself to silence and one must get out of bed every morning and prepare for the great celebration of one’s own imagination, even if it doesn’t happen that day.



18 thoughts on “Letter from Uncle Dean”

  1. Beautiful, just like the man. He's right (as always) about that religion thing too. I'm praying to my God (which may or not be the same as Dean's) that he'll come thru this & be with us for a little while longer.

  2. Seth,
    I came to this post in a roundabout way, but I am so, so glad that I followed the link. I only wish that someone had written me a letter such as the one that your Uncle Dean took the time to write you, even in the midst of his own writing and admittedly without having read your story.

    It's a letter so full of truth and hope and obvious love–love of life, of writing, of creating, and of you. Thank you so much for sharing this. I would love to repost it, but would not presume to do so without your permission. Please let me know.

    Keeping good thoughts for Dean and your entire family.

  3. Thanks for posting this lovely letter. Dean had written a few of this sort to me in the late 80s, early 90s. And I know some others who can say the same. He's helped so many of us. I wonder if he still uses that manual typewriter?

    Dean, you're in my thoughts, continuously.

    Andrew Cole

  4. Aspiring to an inspiring state of creation needs devotion to hard crafting. A great-leveller letter full of compassion & humanity. Thank you. ~O.

  5. Thank you for sharing that letter. Such powerful images of hope, so inspiring.
    He's given so much–hope he will recieve what he needs.

  6. Thank you so much for posting this. It is truly a beautiful letter charged with so much of the honesty of heart. What a blessing to have an uncle who is so encouraging and willing to share his journey. And thank you for sharing it with the rest of us. Very, very inspiring.

  7. This is beautiful Seth. Thanks for your generosity in sharing something so personal. The first part of the letter brings to mind Dr Seuss's "Oh the places you'll go!" and the whole speaks to the glorious pain of love, and of simply living the best life we can live.

    If I have to pick out one line as resonating for me (many did) it would be this one: "The reasons that religions are great is that they are founded on doubt." This is so insightful and beautiful. It touches me deeply.

  8. I thank you for sharing this wonderful, personal letter so that it may provide insight to all. It is such a great reminder that we cannot help but live life, and rather than trying to 'figure it out', should instead embrace it fully.
    My heart goes out to you and your family in this trying time.

  9. A very moving letter from a poet that feels as personal, yet as distant as the ocean when you live in Chicago. It humbles me to think I should stop writing about oceans and write about what I know, which is Lake Michigan, a place I've lived all my life. I've been to many sides of the Lake, loving how the sun sets on the lake on Silver Beach in Michigan when the sky is clear, full or oranges and reds like rainbow sherbet(a line from one of Dean's poems.) Good luck with your writing. Peace and Best Wishes, Ruben Santos Claveria Read my book of poems for free at: http://Www.Ruben.Openhill.com

  10. Thank you for this. We're holding a benefit for Dean here in Columbia, Missouri, where some of his former students are graduate students.

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