I recently came across a half-forgotten drawer in an ancient but sturdy desk where my main computer and printer now sit. This drawer is stuffed with old letters, many of them over forty years old, written long before such contraptions as personal computers and printers existed. These handwritten letters reacquaint me with a world that no longer exists. Not only am I mostly out of touch with the friends who used to correspond with me, but the method of correspondence itself seems to date from medieval times. A message written in a friend’s handwriting provides a level of intimacy that simply doesn’t come across in e-mails. It reminds me that I had some vibrant friendships before and during college, and for a few years afterward. Those friendships have mostly gone by the wayside for various reasons, but there are no hard feelings, at least not on my part. Even if a few of them ghosted me, I’m grateful for the time we had. Without my small group of friends, I would have been lonely in high school and college, at least when it came to other girls. They were there for me when I really needed them.
Many years later, some of my college friends have turned up, unbidden and fictionalized, in my novels The Rock Star’s Homecoming and its sequel, Sycophants. My portraits of them are nostalgic but not altogether flattering. I gave them the collective name of “nondescripts,” not that I thought of them that way back then. It was a name they coined for themselves in the stories. The more popular and influential stars of the college tended to overlook them as part of the woodwork. But that didn’t mean they were incapable of exerting themselves behind the scenes.
It occurs to me now that in our post-college years, my friends were generally braver than I was. While I returned to my DC-area hometown and prepared for a fairly safe career as a bureaucrat, they plunged into the worlds of journalism and teaching. They all struggled some in the mid-1970s job market. The one friend whom I always thought had a real shot at fame, the aspiring journalist, is still obscure to this day. She lacked nothing in talent, drive, and ambition, but she could have used more luck. I remember how excited I was for her when she seemed on the verge of launching a reporting career in DC. One day I accompanied her to the office of a small publication, a local sports magazine, for which she had written a free-lance article. That rag folded under dubious circumstances, as someone apparently made off with the start-up money. Sadly, that seemed to be the story of my friend’s life. She started her own print newsletter, eventually to be superseded by digital ones. She had some great ideas for free-lance articles, but even when she scored the necessary interviews, they weren’t published. She moved away for her husband’s career, raised a family, and finally caught on with a mid-west newspaper, but worked mostly for free.
The teachers also had their share of struggles, given the state of education in their mostly rural jurisdictions. They learned their craft, slowly but surely. There was no such thing as leisure time for these young educators―they barely had a moment to write those letters. After-school hours were taken up with counseling students and preparing lessons. Some progress could be detected in their letters, as the tone moved from exhausted to merely stressed. The kids they described as their “problem children” gradually became less problematic.
Some letters contained bad news, and I can even say there were a few nervous breakdowns. I believe this was characteristic of the baby boom generation. We put so much pressure on ourselves to equal our peerless parents of the Greatest Generation, but we didn’t benefit from the same booming postwar economy that lifted them. I knew one girl who got so comfortable in college (or more accurately, scared of the real world) that she stayed on and took courses beyond the ones required for her degree. She clung to that academic shelter until the college kicked her out. Then she started running through part-time jobs, and managed to get fired from substitute teaching and waitressing. The last I heard, her parents were still taking care of her.
There were a few genuine tragedies along the way. A friend of mine since junior high, who to my chagrin always outperformed me academically in school, went to the state university and fell apart after being sexually assaulted on campus. She started writing me weird poems. I also received a letter from her younger sister, advising me that much of what I was hearing from my friend were lies. Soon she dropped out of college and had to be hospitalized in a psychiatric facility. After her release, she married hastily, had two children, became an abused wife, and was getting divorced around the time her siblings were getting married. “I made a mess of my life,” she wrote plaintively.
Sometimes the breakdowns were slow-moving. My best friend during my final year at college was one of the most stable and sensible girls I knew. She progressed farther as a teacher than any of the others, from junior high to the college level. You would think that having mastered classrooms full of hormonal twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds would prepare her for any subsequent challenge. As a professor and a dean, she published some articles about educational theory, but I’m guessing the writing part of her career dried up after a while. She may have felt her ideas were unappreciated, although I had never known her to be a fanatic. At any rate, she committed suicide by self-immolation, making the local news for just a day. I find myself reading and re-reading her letters, trying to glimpse between the lines any hint of the girl who would be capable of such an act.
I treated my best friends rather unfairly in my college novel and its sequel. It’s true they mostly stayed sequestered in the dorm on Saturday nights, the way I depicted them, drowning their loneliness in popcorn and soft drinks and gaining weight, while the big shots of the college turned up their noses at them. They didn’t actually plot ways of getting back at those snobs, as far as I know. I made up the scenes in which they crashed a Homecoming dance, fixed school elections, and finally set the spark to a more serious eruption of violence on campus.
Sycophants takes up the story several years later. My heroine, Imogene, has gotten a foothold in a film production company run by her dynamic former college roommate. She writes a movie script called “The Nondescripts,” to commemorate a crowd she was friendly with in college but avoided embracing totally. Imogene’s screenplay never gets produced as a feature, merely turning up as a few scenes of backstory in an ongoing movie project. When Imogene calls on the actual “nondescripts” to play themselves in those scenes, they are stars for a day.
The letters my real friends wrote back then are anything but “nondescript.” They are vital and ambitious, if sometimes anguished. I’d forgotten how alive we all were in those days. My secret drawer provides a disorganized jumble of memories, literally falling apart, but more meaningful than any e-mail trail will ever be.