Each month, Catapult Community features a new TinyLetter writer and republishes one of their recent issues. This month we’re featuring Carrie Frye, whose delightful —and peerless freelance newsletter —are both known as editing company Black Cardigan .
“Lit Me Up”
Hi hi, m’pals,
I’m trying to think where to start with what I’ve been thinking about over the past few weeks and I’ve decided to begin with the fact that, back when I was in college, I knew three people who had been struck by lightning. I knew this about them because the strips on their student IDs would get demagnetized and so they’d have to be rung into the dining hall by a separate process than the regular scanning. This sometimes meant that they ended up in a little clump by the woman at the register. Amherst was a small college—maybe 1600 students then. Knowing three people there who had been struck by lightning now seems like a high ratio (I haven’t met anyone since who has been), but I remember absorbing it at the time as of a piece with all the other data I was then taking in about what the world was like outside where I’d grown up in Wisconsin: “Perms are not as fashionable as you think they are, and the world is apparently teeming with people who have been struck by lightning and lived to tell about it.”
One, my friend Herschel, had been struck on a baseball field in Connecticut. (I think that’s right.) The second, having sex with his girlfriend in a desert in New Mexico. (She had lived too, and I assume was walking around a parallel campus with her own demagnetized student ID.) And the third was my friend Karen, who had been having breakfast with her grandmother in front of a big window of their home in Jamaica, which overlooked the ocean. She had been eating an orange, and the lightning had come in and struck her there.
The day of the inauguration I was in New York and knowing the afternoon was not going to be a good afternoon no matter what I did, instead of trying to see friends I took myself to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to visit Leonora Carrington’s self-portrait . Leonora Carrington is an artist who means a great deal to me, and I’d never gotten to see one of her paintings in person before. To go see one seemed like the best thing to do on a sad, oppressive, grey, no-good day.
It was my first time at the museum. I started off purposefully, got lost right away, and returned to the front desk for help. The woman who helped me was briskly knowledgeable, and somehow we ended up murmuring to each other about the inauguration. She said, “I didn’t know if I’d even be able to speak today,” but then she’d gotten to work and it had been okay, better, she realized, than being at home watching the news. Everyone was chattering around us—tourists like me, gawking around. There was a way in which the world seemed just the same as it always had, and then a way that the fact of the museum itself—as this ginormous palace of a building where you, a fairly ordinary if lucky sort of mortal, got to walk around hallway after hallway of works of art and treasures—felt like a newly fragile enterprise. I am almost certain the woman shared that feeling too, even if we both would have thought it overly melodramatic to say so out loud: “My name is Ozymandias, and also I’m wondering where the restrooms are?”
She ended up drawing a mass of “x”s all over my map—first where I’d find the gallery with Carrington’s painting and then a bunch of other places I might like to see while I was there. X, X, X, X, X . . . then X, X, X, X, X and oh I think you would enjoy X, X, X.
And when, somewhere during our conversation, I mentioned From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and how much I loved it and how it made me extra glad to finally be visiting the museum, she warned me, with a gentleness I found both funny and kind, that the fountain where Claudia and her brother Jamie go fishing for change wasn’t there anymore and that a couple other things mentioned in the book had moved too.
I’ve written in this letter before about Leonora Carrington (and I wrote about her life here ). She was a writer as well as a painter: a collection of her stories and her memoir have recently been reissued, and her novel The Hearing Trumpet is one of my favorites. I’ve had a couple dreams about her over the years. In one of them, she was with Sappho, Emily D., and a bunch of other artists who I have categorized in some part of my brain as “very high up in the guild,” and they were all going in and out of a high vaulted hall. In the center of the hall was a pen—a sort of terrarium—with an assortment of animals living in it, I remember there were a few kittens there, some outlandish birds, and larger creatures too, like alligators and panthers, all sauntering and gamboling and fluttering around in rough Edenic harmony (the kittens, I remember noticing, were not in peril, though they were small and giddy). In the dream I had a few snails and worms and mollusk-y things with me—I was carrying them in the bottom of my shirt, like if you’d been out picking berries and didn’t have any other way of carrying them. The women invited me to add what I’d brought to the pen and I said, “I can’t, mine are too awful,” and showed the women how measly and gross my creatures were (snails, worms!), and they said, “Go on anyway,” and so I went ahead and emptied my shirt full of animals into the pen.
In another: Leonora Carrington and I were sitting in front of a big bay window with the sea in front of us, splitting an orange. The dream ended as lightning came in and hit me.
That day, I went to many of the “x”s the woman at the desk had marked, and over the course of it, I tramped back to look at Carrington’s self-portrait three or four more times. I couldn’t describe what I was feeling whenever I was standing in front of it. I’d been expecting to feel something big and purpose giving, as I had in the two dreams about her, and it didn’t feel like that. It didn’t feel momentous. I was conscious the entire time that my feet hurt from walking and that my shoulder ached because I had too much crammed in my purse. And still I felt compelled to keep returning there, from whatever corner of the museum I’d been to before I could start off somewhere new and then once more before I could leave. When I did, it was raining hard, and I accidentally climbed into someone else’s Uber outside the museum.
Why am I telling you this? These are the memories and thoughts that have been rolling around my head the past month, with every friend’s Facebook status of, “Is anyone else having trouble writing right now?” Sometimes, the answer for me has been Yes yes yes yes. (“How can I possibly write when I’m so busy refreshing Twitter and feeling full of impotent rage and fury and sadness?”) But other times this summer, sometimes for weeks at a time, I’ve been able to create little pockets each day where I’m writing and moving along in my book, and those pockets of immersion have felt needful and good. During them, I’ve seen it—“it” being the act of writing, of continuing one’s weird quixotic creative pursuit, of marking down the “x” where you’ve stood—as both necessary for my own well-being as well as something that’s important to add into the world right now. Even if small, even if it feels insignificant or fragmented, even if you don’t know what’s ever going to come of it.
I love Anne Carson’s translations of the fragments of Sappho and the way the missing pieces of the poems take on all the weight of beauty as you read through them:
never more damaging O Eirana have I encountered you
]bitter ] ] and know this
]whatever you ]I shall love ]
]for ]of weapons ]
having come from heaven wrapped in a purple cloak
One last thing: I went to see the eclipse the other week. The path of totality crossed in Brevard, about forty minutes from Asheville. I wasn’t going to go at first—I could see about 99% eclipse from my own backyard so why deal with traffic to get an extra 1%, etc. etc.—but the writer Sulagna Misra was going to be in town from the Bay Area, and she got in touch, and it began to sound like fun that she join up with my husband Lowell and me and we make a day of it. (Aside: earlier in the year, I’d also edited this wonderful piece by Lucas Reilly about eclipse chasers and all the lengths they travel to catch eclipses, and it seemed increasingly lame after being in on that to not chase an eclipse that would be . . . located a short drive from my house.) So we went! Early in the morning, Lowell and I picked up Sulagna from a biscuit place in West Asheville and drove to Brevard and stationed ourselves on a bit of lawn at a college there, under the shade of a big tree and facing a stream. It was still early—there were hours to wait yet. We ate sandwiches; we drank soda. Lowell and I had brought our dog, Carmella, and Lowell walked around with her while Sulagna and I talked. Carmella did a lot of dipping in and out of the stream as the day went on, so that every time she returned to where we were sitting she was dirtier and wetter and grinning more and more. Different people came and went around us, including one man who looked uncannily around the eyes like Simon Callow circa Reverend Beebe in A Room with a View, except he was in overalls (which was an enjoyable outfit to picture the Rev. Beebe as wearing). Sulagna, who was wearing an iris-y dress with stars and moons and gold sneakers—like “fancy French teens” wear—brought out a bag of pens to draw in a little sketchbook she had, getting down all the different scenes of what was happening.
Finally, it drew time.
It got dark, and then darker still. Lights went on in the dorm across from us. A wind seemed to stir up. All along the banks of the stream, people began whooping and calling. We all stood staring up as the sun disappeared. It was eerie and beautiful, that inky darkness with the blaze of light around it, and later, as we were gathering up our things from under the tree, Sulagna said, “I feel as if my heart is giving off sparks.”
So sending this letter off this afternoon, hoping if these days feel dark to you (as they often do to me), there are also sparks and blazes and fragments of light to stay with you.
Until next time, please know ] whatever you ] I shall love,
A conversation with Carrie Frye:
When and why did you start writing Black Cardigan? And how long do you spend on a typical issue?
I started it in March 2016. I’d just launched my business, Black Cardigan Edit, and realized I’d need a steady way to remind people I was around if they needed editing help. My joke is that it seemed easier than walking around in a sandwich board. It morphed into something much more meaningful to me than that, but that’s how it started.
Right now the schedule’s every other weekend, although I’m just getting back to that after a bumpy, busy summer. Sometimes the letter comes together quickly, in just a couple hours, especially if it’s one where I’m mostly sharing links. Other times I’ll spend some loose after-dinner time throughout the week researching and reading for whatever the topic is, and then an embarrassing amount of time on either Saturday or Sunday in thwarted composition.
Do you know ahead of time what you're going to write about, or it more like free-writing a letter to a friend? How much do you revise before sending?
I do know ahead of time! I pick themes for the newsletter—currently the theme is Beginnings, as I thought it’d be interesting to look at some established writers’ early work—and I like to have at least three or four places in mind of where a theme could go before I act on it. It’s like some sort of mental guard against “TinyLetter block.” Still, I let myself veer away from the theme or schedule if the topic goes sad-balloon or there’s something bubbling up that feels more urgent (the letter you share here was one of those).
About revising, you know how it is. The letter’s got a pretty chatty tone, and if I’m writing well, that’ll just come burbling out. Other weeks, it’s like I can’t get to the end of “hello, how are you?” without deleting it five times, and those weeks the letter requires a lot of mopping. This particular one was funny in that I had written most of it the day before the eclipse but I knew the draft was too unwieldy and so I didn’t end up sending it as I’d planned. I wasn’t able to look at it again for a couple weeks and, when I did, I could see exactly what had to be whacked—and I was so grateful that I’d held on to it as Sulagna had given me, without prompting, the right line for the close (“I feel as if my heart is giving off sparks.”).
Side note: I wish to formally acknowledge here that if you’ve ever hankered after the opportunity to see your own typos come leaping out at you like salmon from a river, just start a TinyLetter, reread your draft carefully a few times, send it to yourself in Preview to check it one more time, then send it out to your list. You will see your typos very clearly in the minutes immediately after!
You are writing a novel; you also own and run a freelance editing company focused on helping authors write their books. As a fellow editor, I'm curious how and when you decide to tackle your editing and writing work, and if you ever find it challenging to toggle back and forth? (I do.)
Ooh, I look forward to the day we get to discuss this in person! So I’ve found the only thing that works for me is to get novel work done first thing in the morning, before I do anything else. I try to start by 7 a.m. and finish by 9:30 or so, and then go to Black Cardigan work. (Here the luxury of my not having kids to get out the door is in play.) This is my best self’s version of my routine. Worst self is in evidence at least a couple times a week—most often seen in her pjs, crouched over her phone en route to the coffee maker.
You know, I don’t find the toggling between editing and writing as difficult as the toggling between the administrative part of running Black Cardigan and writing. I’d be curious if that’s in play for you too; I know we have a good amount of soul-overlap in our love of organization and keeping-all-the-plates- spinning-ness. But that part of me—the part that’s good at lists and calendars, etc.—is the part that I most have to keep in check to get good writing done. When I’m writing well, there’s this real feeling of sinking like a stone into the book; and the list-loving part of my personality sometimes refuses to sink! I’ll just keep bobbing willfully back to the surface like “Don’t forget to email [X]” and “send [Y] the schedule for her book.” (I’ve thought about this great Melissa Febos piece a lot since it was published.)
Have you made any great new friends or connections because of your TinyLetter?
New friends, yes, and I like how it’s deepened some friendships from my past (high school, college), too. Last year, around the holidays, I asked people to send their favorite words from 2016 and what that collection ended up being—a mix of words from people I didn’t know, and people I sort of did, and old-old friends, and moms of old-old friends, and mymom—was exactly why I love doing the letter.
Please recommend some of your favorite TinyLetters!
I oversubscribe to TinyLetters—I like them for the same reason I like novels, it’s a form that you can stretch a lot of different ways. A smattering of favorites: Maud Newton’s , which you Ideas & Intimacies featured last month. Maud’s my writing partner, and her letters are everything I love about her: unexpected, unflinching, radically smart. Two newsletters that I’m going to yoke together here as they’re both a. ridiculously charming to read and b. written by people who have books coming out early next year: Jasmine Guillory’s newsletter Lipstick and other stories and Katie Heaney’s . Two by Emily Books proprietors: Emily Gould’s Do not buy and Ruth Curry’s Can’t complain Coffee & TV (I’m so glad when either of these arrives in my inbox). Two others: Monet Thomas’s , currently being sent from Beijing, and Justin Wolfe’s daily While You Were Sleeping . And I’m really glad Anne Helen Petersen has thank you notes : it comes out Sundays and is reliably great. started one
You can read more about Carrie, her editorial philosophy, and her various and stellar freelance services here .
Previously in this series: , Maud Newton Jamila Osman , Rohin Guha , Laura Goode , Teri Vlassopoulos , Brandon Taylor , Sarah Mirk , Alvin Park . Know of a TinyLetter author we should feature? Please let us know in the comments.