The life and the work are equally important

The new edition of the original Letters of Note book, featuring a facelift and some new letters, is now in shops. I’ll be giving away some signed copies next week, so subscribe to this newsletter if you haven’t already and keep your eyes peeled. In the meantime, further details about the book can be found here.


The letter below is just one of 26 that were brought to life at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday in our largest ever Letters Live show, with a cast so amazing I have no choice but to list it fully: Thom Yorke, Brian Cox (not the space guy), Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Meera Syal, Gillian Anderson, Louise Brealey, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Daisy Ridley, Cynthia Erivo, Matt Lucas, Keegan-Michael Key, Armistead Maupin, Emma Corrin, Tom Odell, and Ione Wells, along with music from Thom Yorke, Laura Mvula, Tom Odell, and The Gabriels. The show was in aid of the National Literacy Trust, who continue to do amazing work. Thank you so much to all who came.


Some years after the 2004 death of famed photographer Richard Avedon, his friend, theatre and film director André Gregory, wrote him a letter about the one thing on which they could never agree: the work/life balance.

Dear Dick:

This is the letter I had always intended to write but never did. In the months before you died, when you still seemed quite healthy, I had a strong impulse to tell you that I had begun to draw, and that I was loving it. I knew you would hate this—André at seventy, working in an art form with which he had no experience. My retreat to the Cape, too, I knew you wouldn’t approve of. Long holidays, you believed, were a waste of precious time. Time should be spent on work.

This disagreement over ways of working and creating was our one deep source of disagreement and friction. This conflict kept us apart at times. Because I loved you, I wanted to explain, but that would take courage, given how fiercely I knew you would disagree. So I put this letter off until it was too late. You died as you’d hoped to—in the saddle.

Let’s face it—artists are always working, though they may not seem as if they are. They are like plants growing in winter. You can’t see the fruit, but it is taking root below the earth.

You chose work. I have chosen the life. The work and the life.

At least I have done so in the last 30 years. Doesn’t the work on the self inform the Work? When we inch closer to ourselves, to who we originally were, who we’re meant to be, doesn’t that serve the work, doesn’t it connect us more deeply to others? Isn’t there value in spreading laughter, love, and compassion to the people around us?

I have to say it again with emphasis: The life and the work are equally important. You cannot separate one from the other. The work changes the life, and the life changes the work.

You owned that exquisite house in Montauk, one of the loveliest I have seen anywhere, on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. You designed it yourself. But you almost never went there. Did you yearn for another kind of life? Yes, you had friends—almost all driven and workaholic artists—but never a community. You saw each of us alone. In those lovely rooms of yours, over superb dinners, the talk would always be of work, work, and work.

Each time you stopped, you would descend into a depression, believing that you had hit a wall and lost the ability to work, that you would never work again.

So here’s what I was afraid to say to you: I’m drawing now, and I love it. I love doing something I don’t know how to do, returning to a “beginner’s mind.” I don’t do it for critics or posterity, which was so important to you. Drawing brings out a joyful side of me. Plays tend to be sad affairs, which I try to lighten with laughter. My drawing, though, is all laughter. It returns me to some very early state, a time before loneliness, abandonment, and fear. Happy in that state, I make others happy.

I still hope for your understanding. I still want your blessing. And I miss seeing you at my shows.

Your always friend,

André


The above letter can be found in Gregory’s 2020 book, This Is Not My Memoir. Huge thanks to André Gregory.