LIFE Coach: A Literary Exchange Between NICK CARBÓ and RICK MOODY

LIFE Coach: A Literary Exchange Between NICK CARBÓ and RICK MOODY

This stirring exchange between two gifted wordsmiths, one a poet and the other a novelist, shows how the power of language can easily usher a centuries-old epistolary style into the digital age with intimacy and grace. 

Rick Moody to his FaceBook friends — June 9, 2019: 

As some of you know, I operate occasionally as Rick Moody, Life Coach. My theory is that those who have sometimes botched life are in the best position to celebrate those who are doing a better job. As it happens, I need some new letters to answer. I have run out of letters. So if you’re in need, send me a letter here. My only caveat is that I REALLY think long and hard about this stuff, so sometimes it takes me a while to reply. But I attempt to answer every single request, in some fashion. 

Hey Rick, 

Here’s my letter to life coach: 

Three straight months earlier this year in the hospital, along the way a five-day coma because of renal failure, also amputation of remaining leg, then MRSA infection. Back home now and doing four-hour dialysis three times a week (Tue-Thu-Sat). Occasional incontinence, fatigue most of the day. Diabetic neuropathy–a constant pain in hands. 

So when do you say it’s time to stop all this? As a writer I’ve flirted with all that Thanatos crap and find that writers are so self-centered that they can’t see what’s just about to hit them. 

So, life coach, is life worth it at this stage?


June 9, 2019 

Hey Nick,

I’m putting you in front of the line. Count on an answer. I want you to know herewith, in public, how much love and respect I have for you and your work. I am so sorry for the suffering. Your note is immensely poignant and powerful, and I will answer in kind.

More soon,


July 1, 2019

First, as I have said elsewhere, I want to say how much I love your work, your moving, cranky, funny, profound, uplifting, tragicomic, hilarious, beautiful, human work.

My experience of your work, at first—which must have been around or between your books El Grupo MacDonald’s and Secret Asian Man, when I knew you and your then-wife, Denise—was that you were part of a group of poets, who, for me, revolutionized American poetry. In this group I would also put Campbell McGrath, and Cathy Bowmanand Dean Young, and Hal Sirowitz, etc. Wherein an accessible poetics was mixed with humor, and a sense of experiment; a kind of dense dissatisfaction and melancholy hovered around the edges, too, an indictment of Americana that was welcome, even as Americana was sort of the incubator of the work. 

I think you were the first person in the nineties I knew who was online as much as I was in those days, and I had a sense, through you and your cultural critique, that poetry was going to become a thing online.

Your work and Denise’s work and the work of these others made poetry an endeavor that all readers could delight in, and it was in every medium, in every container, and it didn’t require training in hazardous materials. There didn’t need to be a secret language, or an insider code that only the really academic writers were allowed to crack. 

I didn’t relate to the academic poetry, but I related to yours, I could locate the feelings, the melancholy celebration of it. And now that I am in a family of Asian American writers, it is even nearer to me, your model and its influence.

I love your work, and because of it, I have always loved you, from afar, as your fellow toiler in the depths, as a fellow writer who traffics (at least some of the time) in the comic. If there is a thing that lasts and endures beyond all the suffering you have been dealing with recently, it is the legacy of your work, which, however oblivious you were to the coming storm (and, as you note in your letter, this is the common lot of writers), the work is there, and it is rich in figures and metaphors andbeautiful turns of phrase, and wherever you are now that work is still kindling something in me, and I’m sure it will ever be thus.

This morning I just punched you up on the Poetry Foundation web site, and there are bunch of good pieces to be found there. This link is for the people who need to know: Nick Carbo. “Little Brown Brother,” with its welcome indictment of Hollywood war machinery, is especially excellent.

But I also really loved “For My Friend Who Complains He Can’t Dance and Has a Severe Case of Writer’s Block.”

The first line, Then, take this tambourine / Inside the sheep barnis electrifying, so deep, so right at the heart of what we are doing when we attempt to speak to writing, to the act of it. To me sheep barnas an image is just very unexpected and satisfying.

In a way you are making a case for the way writing is disseminatory, the sheep being an image of dissemination in, for example, the parables of Jesus of Nazareth, though the use of barnmakes of the shepherding business a more modern one, one in which ownership of property is a feature of the enterprise.  

We could also speak to the image of the tambourine” in this line as relating to Dylan’s song of the same, which some people think was about Gene Clark, the singer in the Byrds, who only played the tambourine in the band, and whose words were always so full of melancholy hues:

“Nowhere is/There warmth to be found/Among those/Afraid of losing their ground.

When Clark was asked to comment on “Eight Miles High” being banned because of drug references, he made a comment about poetry having more layers in it than that, and that is true of your poetry as well. From the sheep barn you go to the “anaconda’s intestines” (and both are incredibly interesting poetical words—I think “anaconda” is a ditrochee, and “intestine” is an amphibrach), and from there across a sprawl of great and imaginative images, including Kahlo’s hair, Garcia Lorca’s leather shoes, Chaucer’s liver, Anne Sexton’s face, etc.

The poem finishes with the lovely couplet: “Never feed your towel to the alligator, because he will eat you and eat you and eat you.” The loss of the towel, it seems to me, leaves the friend naked, where one often is after writing, and then the repetition of “eat you” burlesques the Frost of “Stopping by Woods.” Somehow the alligator also reminds me of J. M. Dent’s There’s an Alligator Under My Bed, which is itself a variant on Jung’s famous injunction about the lion in the basement, and how all of us will have to encounter the lion in the basement at some point, if we are to grow, and accordingly all the ages of humankind, of maturation, are there in the poem.

If “For My Friend” is about how to achieve an end to writer’s block (and also an injunction to dance) it is beautiful because it is a gift, and right now it is a gift for all, because anyone can read this poem online.

But it is a gift that is achieved through a pile up of highly imaginative and oblique images. How is the “river insect’s neon calligraphy” secret? What is the certified blue turtle? I could work on these images as I have worked on others above, but what I would amass is a system of allusions that say, in effect, that dance and language are one, and that writer’s block is resolved in nakedness and in facing one’s fears, and in the simple amassing of images, even images that are not rhetorical, but are automatic in the surrealist sense.

Everything about this gift of yours is wonderful, is funny, and humane, and sympathetic, and never is the advice condescending; on the contrary, one confronts the possibility that the poem is autobiographical, too, and that the gift is to Nick Carbó, or that he is a co-recipient, that the reminder is to the author of the poem about the matter of poetry, but the great force of the gift is simply in its status as gift, and as poem as simple item of exchange between friends.

A poem, in this matter, is a thing right at hand, that we might give to those we love, in times of need.

You ask me, Nick Carbó, author of these lines, if it is worth persisting, materially, when faced with the very significant amount of suffering that you are confronting, and my first response to this is simply that if I could take from you your suffering, I would. That is, the fact of your request, and the place of your request, a public setting, brings out this intense wish to want to shield you from what you are going through, the repetitions of it, and the apparent boundlessness of it.

I mean, it’s not possible to read your note and not feel tremendous sympathy and compassion, even in the obvious conundrum that your suffering is of such a cast that it’s beyond my experience, personally, and probably beyond the experience of what many people who read your note have felt. But, despite all the trouble in the world (and there sure is a lot of trouble these days), the feeling surges forth, and that is the feeling in which one cares deeply for a friend in a bad time 

A couple thousand miles are separating us right now, I think (I’m in Providence, Rhode Island, this morning, parked in front of a UPS store, and it’s raining torrents.) And our stories are pretty different, in that you were raised in the East, and in languages that I mostly don’t know, but in a moment of crisis little of that matters. Certainly it doesn’t matter to me right now, and it doesn’t matter in part because of the ache and clarity of your voice. Which means that language, and writing, can still do things. 

Here are some things I have seen this week.

I saw an extra large skunk in the backyard, over by the beech tree, and I had to run my son in the door as fast as I could get him, and told him not to look back. And I saw an oriole hightailing it over to the neighbors’ bird feeder, the next morning, so bright it was almost in neon. I watched a brass band play an “extinction protest” in Boston the other day. I picked up my son’s birthday cake at the grocery store on Sunday morning. It was one of those big flat ones, and the bakery lady was really laughing about how well the cake came out, what with its strange wish list of icons: astronauts, dogs, and vegetables (!). In this spot in Providence, where I’m parked, it used to be kind of desolate, when I lived here in the early eighties. But now it’s got a lot of Mexican food, and the UPS store, and a breakfast café joint called Olga’s. I can see the cars streaking along the overpass on I-95. Those people are on their urgent business, otherwise why drive in heavy rain.  

I offer this list, dear Nick, to tell you that there are still possible, even in your darkest hours, perceptions, of just the kind you store up in the poem I’ve quoted above, that are the signs that a person was there, an observer who saw, and felt, and believed, and made a mark. I am sure there are a lot of times now when you feel otherwise, when writing is the last thing you can do, but you wrote me your letter, and I have seen, in these last months, that even when you were in the most trouble, you still managed to get out a few lines. And in every one of these cases, Nick, I have felt the familiar warmth and wisdom of your voice, as I do here.  

“…the world should be arrayed in such a way that mercy is possible, likely…”

I would never be the one, ever, to tell a person that he has to stay here on earth, if he doesn’t want to stay. And having had the disease of depression, as I have, I know that sometimes people leave–they have to leave–because leaving is less painful than staying. I respect this decision, and I still feel grief. We probably both know any number of writers for whom this has been the case. I think the world should be arrayed in such a way that mercy is possible, likely, easy to come by—a mercy that we extend, for example, to our pets, when their suffering is great, but which we deny our human friends, or else we tie them up in unnecessary knots. I hope that when my suffering is great that a friend will say to me that it is okay to feel like going, that it is okay to relinquish this place and these associations, and this material self, and to go, and there doesn’t need to be regret about doing so. I think all these things, Nick, and I’m sure I would only feel these things more if I were in your position. 

But I can think all these things and still want the world to have Nick Carbó in it, still want his voice and world view, still want the sound of his tambourine, and his recollections and perceptions, and not just the work, but the potential for more work, and I don’t think that this is a selfish feeling, or a feeling that you are obliged to entertain, or at least I really hope that you do not feel in any way obliged, because that is not the way I am trying to formulate my line of reasoning here.  

Rather I am trying to give you a sense of what others of us may think, what our love feels like, and the untapped potential for you, and your essence, your Being, in the world, even if in pain and badly compromised, and in and out of the hospital in Corpus Christi.

Even in your incredibly difficult state, as the letter shows, there is still language, and still the framing up of some beautiful edifice of words, there are still the glassy shards of your critique of this tragicomic world, and your situation within it, and I can still feel it, even out front of the UPS store, from 2,000 miles away. And if you feel you have to go and there is no other way to deal with what you have in front of you, I will respect that decision, and still grieve, but if you want to know why bother to hang on, I can think of a hundred reasons, and then a hundred more, and each one is a poem, and it doesn’t matter if it has two words in it, or if you have to have it read back to you because you can’t read very well, or whether you have to dictate it into your phone, it doesn’t matter. 

Those one-hundred poems, which are one-hundred reasons, and the hundred more, will be glorious, and they will be even more glorious for your having hung on just a bit longer to make them, for your having written what you wrote in your letter, and then hung on a bit longer to make a few more scribbles, of whatever kind, hieroglyphs, film poems, chalk marks on paving stones, crosshatchings on the arm of a wheelchair, or whatever it has to be, from whatever state of consciousness, if you want to hang on, to see what there is to be seen from where you are, then I think that is beautiful and has a sort of electrifying power to it, like it comes from the place of urgency that isn’t known to all of us waiting in line at the UPS Store or at Starbucks, how you are in your place of reckoning. 

You are brave, and you are a good man, and your journey has been exemplary, and you have made the world better, and not just for writers from the Philippines, or for Asian writers, or for Asian American writers, though you have certainly done that in a way that should be the envy of all, but you have made American literature better, and world literature better, and I won’t ever forget that, and as your life coach, today, I say take a few notes, from wherever you are, we will all be happy to read them, ever your happy audience, and then tomorrow you can reassess again, at which point I will be delighted to repeat the above, if it helps.  

With love and respect,  

Rick Moody 

July 2, 2019 

Hey Nick,

I’m sure hoping that I didn’t send something that hurt your feelings in any way, because I was trying 100% to do the opposite. If you hate it, and want me not to publish, I can…

More soon,


July 3, 2019

Hey Rick,

I thought / felt it was awesome! You earned your “Life Coach” badge with this one, and I’m honored you put much thought into this.

Publish right away!

Had appointments all week with docs and labs so could not respond sooner. Let me insert my own reference with Kazantzakis’ last scene of the movie version of Zorba the Greek where Alan Bates turns to Anthony Quinn and says “teach me to dance.” So along the desolate seashore we hear the bouzouki strings of the Theodorakis song and they dance. Quinn responds to Bates “I have so much to tell you—I’ve never loved a man more than you.” It can happen with two straight guys and your letter shows that loving spirit which, in the end, one can only dance to.

For a guy that has had his lower legs and two feet amputated, I ask you to teach me to dance. I have a great imagination.
Thanks deeply,


Ricky Moody

Ricky Moody

Author and Life Coach, RICK MOODY, is best known for his 1994 novel The Ice Storm, which was made into an acclaimed film directed by Ang Lee. His latest book is The Long Accomplishment. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the Aga Kahn Award from the Paris Review, and many other honors. 

Riffing on How Books Save Lives

Riffing on How Books Save Lives

(This blog is an expansion of my post, Authors Riffing on Why Books Save Lives, that originally appeared on the Literacy & NCTE blog. The original post is copyright 2017 by the National Council of Teachers of English and is used with permission.)


I was on Zoom again the other night meeting with the Feminist Book Group I’ve been a member of for over 30 years.  We were discussing Megan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye, a lovely memoir of her mother’s dying.  All but one of the twelve of us present that night had lost our mothers, one as recently as this summer and many much longer ago. The only living mother is 100 years old. We began our discussion by sharing a photograph and a memory of our mother and, then, we talked about the book.

We, who have known each other for many years, learned more about each other that night and about our mothers. One member even shared a resource about dying as a natural process, a source many of us are now ready to consult for ourselves. None of us was dying that night, although several previous members have, but The Long Goodbye, like the nearly 400 books we’ve read month by month over the years, enriched our relationships with one another, the text, and, yes, even ourselves.

 Maybe it’s the COVID pandemic or the increasing numbers of shootings in my little town and across the nation, but grief was the theme of the last two books we read in a second book group, one I’ve been a member of for over 20 years and whose members were my colleagues at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

“I knew innately that books saved lives, that kids were up to reading books that adults often complained about…”
Last month we read The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri and, the month before, Afterlife by Julia Alvarez. Each of these authors painted a sweet, albeit sad, picture of the characters trudging through their own lives while living their grief for a loved one. I found myself grieving with them, of course, as they journeyed toward a different life without a son in Aleppo and a husband and sister in Afterlife. I felt that gnawing disconnectedness, the tears of sadness, the anger for the loss, and the uselessness of trying to fight against what has happened. Vicariously, I grieved not just for them but for the thousands recently lost to war, shooting, and pandemic; for their families; and for my losses.


While retired now, I spent my career reading and writing with students and teachers.  As director of NCTE’s Intellectual Freedom Center, I also spent a good deal of time defending the rights of students to choose and read various books in the classroom and of their teachers to select those texts. I knew innately that books saved lives, that kids were up to reading books that adults often complained about, and that kids benefit greatly from those books.  But I needed proof.

So in 2016, Joan Bertin, now retired executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, and I, then director of the NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center, conducted a survey of authors whose works we’d defended recently. We had a hunch about three things that the survey proved to be true: 1) what books mean to kids doesn’t figure enough in defenses of challenged to books; 2) that kids tell authors what books mean to them; and 3) that “kid testimony” could become some of the best rationales for kids to read these books.

The results of the survey confirmed our hunches. Kids told us . . .

This book saved my life. It helped me confront a serious issue and deal with it.

Crank [by Ellen Hopkins] saved my life, opened my eyes to the world I was exposing myself to and rapidly getting drowned in. And then, two years later it did the very same for my little brother…. He was doing meth the night he read it, with his at-the-time girlfriend. They quit the very next day. You’ve touched our lives forever- and I’ll always be more thankful than you’ll ever know.

Crank … helped me out by giving me a voice to tell someone what happened to me…. By the time I was 5, the only thing i knew was abuse. When I got put into foster care… I didn’t speak, i couldn’t find my voice I don’t know why I picked up your book, but it seemed to be the key to my voice…. Please stay strong and keep looking out for us, the kids without a voice.

“Please stay strong and keep looking out for us, the kids without a voice.”
Wagon of Books

This book made me realize that I’m not the only one with problems; it helped me feel more normal and less alone.

 [After reading The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth] I finally feel like it’s not some dirty secret that I’m attracted to girls. I finally feel like I don’t have to be ashamed of this secret that has been sitting on my shoulders for so many years. I can’t thank you enough, you changed my life. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

[The Miseducation of Cameron Post] helped me, the confused 15 year old I was, understand the feelings I was having. And I can’t thank you enough for that. Your book changed me.

This book made me more empathetic, tolerant, and accepting, of myself and others. It helped me relate better to others and talk to them about things we never would have discussed otherwise.

Your books [Phyllis Naylor Reynolds’ Alice series] have made me laugh, have made me think, and most importantly, have made me feel more normal. I consider your series to be some of the most pivotal books that I read as a pre-teen and teenage girl. Without the series, I would have felt a lot more lost and confused….

[An Ellen Hopkins’ book] made me realize how many more people out there go through what I have been through …. If it weren’t for reading the graphic truth about drugs, sex, and even self-mutilation who knows where I would have ended up.

The Alice books relate to all the problems girls have. I was sincerely grateful for them when I got my period at nine years old.

Wagon of Books

This book turned me on to reading. It was the first book I ever read all the way though.

[Matt de la Peña’s] We Were Here was the book that got me into reading. I mean I read books before but not as often as I do now. That book was freaking amazing!

I read it when I was 12 or 13 years old…. I became in a reader thanks to  Eleanor and Park [by Rainbow Rowell]… There are a lot of Eleanors around the world who need someone to identify with.

“….It Closed A Big Hole In My Heart…. If It Wasn’t For You I Would Still Hate The Skin That I’m In.”

This book understood me the way no one else does. “I don’t know how I’d have gotten through adolescence without it.”

I Am 15 Years Old…. I Just Read [Matt de la Peña’s] Mexican White Boy. It Was Probably The Best Book I Have EVER Read. I Had A Problem With My Skin Color As Well. So It Was Very Touching And It Closed A Big Hole In My Heart…. If It Wasn’t For You I Would Still Hate The Skin That I’m In.

Eleanor is fat, and so am I, and you never see fat girls in YA lit. Ever. Society teaches us that fat girls don’t get love, that they’re a joke, that they’ll never be the heroine – and Eleanor is a heroine…. This book has touched my life, and helped me see myself in a better light, and I don’t want that opportunity taken from anyone else. [about Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell]

This book inspired me to want to do something with my life.

After reading your book [one of Chris Crutcher’s], I have realized that Life passes too quickly to take anything for granted. So after thinking this, what did I do? I tried out for the football team. I became captain of my reading bowl book team… I participated in my school’s debate team…. I wrote stories, poems, and songs. I have been living life as I have never lived it, and am loving every second of every day.

After reading [Chris Crutcher’s] Whale Talk, I sat down with my mother to just talk.

Being the only white boy from my hood, I struggled to get into the game from a very young age… After I finished the book that night, I burst into tears. I cried for the first time in a very long time because I realized that my life had come to the most important fork I had seen yet. Either go to [college] or stay in the impoverished neighborhood that I had come from…. Your book may have saved my life.[about The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore]

In 2017 at the NCTE Annual Convention, Joan and I presented our findings during a session featuring three young adult authors: Matt de la Peña, Jason Reynolds, and Laurie Halse Anderson.

Matt de la Peña started off by reminding us that while books can save the lives of readers, they also save the lives of writers—that there’s an obvious symbiosis between writers and readers and that, for writers, respect for the reader is a big part of the equation. He told us how and why his book was removed from the Mexican-American Studies program in the Tucson, Arizona, Schools, how it was a student who came to him for help because his book really meant something to her, and how he sent contraband copies of Mexican White Boy to the students whose copies had been taken right out of their hands.

Matt de la Pena, Jason Reynolds,
Laurie Halse Anderson

“Wished I’d had a book we could cry into,” Jason Reynolds lamented, referring to the story he’d just told us about watching a friend get arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, basically for being Black. He went on to remind us of the “beauty of books to create a space for that ice to melt slowly.” He chastised people for their fear of being human, their fear of discomfort, and noted that these fears keep our kids in danger and insure that he “gets banned as a person every day.”

Laurie Halse Anderson reminded us that “The truth is that we save each other.”  Then she shared a post-it note comment from a reader who said, “Comfort is the biggest privilege of all because if you’re comfortable, you don’t have to be afraid. Until you can see yourself, you cannot be yourself.”

 It’s been a very long time since I was a maudlin 10th grader weeping my way through the thousand pages of Gone With the Wind and slogging through the “Slough of Despond” in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.  But I have never lost my way from books or from reading for myself and with others. Now I read in every genre—interspersed with my dessert of mysteries—and daily enjoy reading with my eyes and ears. Books have delivered me to myself and to the world. And what they have given me, what I’ve learned and keep learning is—well, it’s so very much of who I am.