Out for a walk with the memsahib yesterday and chatting about this and that, as one does, I mentioned how much I appreciated her suggestion of a few years ago that when we go on vacation I should ‘unplug’ from my electronic connectedness and liberate myself.
“It was very freeing,” I said. “The only problem for me is that I’m compulsive about writing and the act of uplugging induces a certain ‘withdrawal’ in me.
“So, write with pen and paper,” she suggested.
A point, no doubt, but since virtually all my writing has involved a keyboard, either typewriter of computer, it would be a difficult transformation for me.
Yet, I thought, maybe if I got myself a good fountain pen like a Parker or Waterman’s (love fountain pens) I might be willing to give an age old practice a try. I assume they still make fountain pens, and ink. Actually, in university I would find it kind of a turn-on to see ink stains on the pretty fingers of a classy coed. OK, I was pretty suggestible.
And that thought moved me into the realm of snail-mail. The actual penned letter by that Parker or Waterman’s.
You see, a long time ago, before the earth warmed up sufficiently to give doomsayers orgasms about being able to say “Told you so!” there were postmen. In all but the most rural backwaters of the land, these postmen would trudge to the front doorstep or curbside mailbox not once, but twice each day, five days a week and once on Saturdays.
In those days postmen traveled by foot to their destinations, and there was sufficient demand for his services that the twice-daily trip was often needed. The reason for this was because, tiny tots must realize, that everything in those days was sent by mail. Bills, business materials, appointment notices and especially personal letters all travelled via the postal routes. People wrote letters back then. They wrote letters for a number of reasons. They wrote because they were grandchildren who had received a birthday gift, and the parent of yore stood over the squirming child until the scrawly, scratchy missive was completed and expedited.
People wrote letters because they were in love and needed that pink-paper, perfumed epistle to reassure and to share the tenderest of feelings that would, at destination, be read, interpreted, reread, and reread again and again, and then the missive would be tucked under a pillow only to be read a further time upon awakening the next day, just for reassurance that the sentiment expressed indeed was true.
People wrote letters because they were friends and wanted to keep the contact lines open, and to share thoughts on life and the events of the day. They wrote letters because they were soldiers and knew that a letter from home was nearly as important as a forty-eight hour pass. In some cases, more important. In the obverse of this, people also wrote the dreaded ‘Dear John’ letter to let the faraway lover know his ministrations were no longer welcome as somebody new had entered his former turf. ‘Have a nice life.’
Finally, they wrote letters for every other human impulse that demanded communication and human touch via Parker’s ink-swirls through a golden nib.
Like gold nibs, ‘real’ letters now are archaisms. The demands on the post office and letter carriers are paltry. First the telephone, then the fax, and finally email did away with much of the volume. I am not a troglodyte. I merrily use email because that allows me to keep my letter writing skills intact. That is a good thing because I was once an inveterate letter writer. I believed a good letter should be a work of art and inspiration, and always strove to make it so. I still do. Rather than some of the sloppy shorthand and misspellings that are to be found in some emails I, as a traditionalist, try to make my electronic mailings much like my old snail-mail letters.
That is all based on the fact that I firmly believe letter writing – good letter writing – is a literary skill as legitimate as any other form of self-expression. I remember a while ago reading a book called The Groucho Letters, which was a collection of the correspondence between that particular Mr. Marx and scores of diverse people including, aside from family members, such luminaries as poet T.S. Eliot, comic Fred Allen, writer E.B. White and many more. The letters are all gems and tell a great deal about the depth of intellect ad literary skills held by a brilliant and anarchistic comic who had spent little more than a few weeks in a school classroom in his entire life.
The letters give you a glimpse inside the fertile mind of Groucho, and they communicate more about him and how he thought than any dozen Marx Brothers films, as brilliant as they might have been. This is pure Groucho, more uncensored than he ever was on You Bet Your Life.
Such is the real point of letter writing. It is communication at its finest. It is Pinteresque in the sense that you needn’t worry about your message being interrupted by comments from the other person. That person will have his or her chance later when they write back. Their letter too will be sans interruption. Can’t do that on the telephone.
By the same token, the letter writer can cut through all sorts of conventional conversational nonsense about the state of the weather, the state of the other person’s health and all the extraneous drivel that makes conventional conversation so non-communicative.
Not a few great love affairs have arose through the post. Indeed, some amazingly complex and fulfilling relationships have been established on the printed page with they couple either not actually meeting, or meeting rarely. The book 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff, beautifully captured just such a long-distance ‘relationship’, all of which was carried out by post.
So, in answer to those who regret the demise of the fine art of letter writing, I suggest the following: buy yourself some fine stationery, a gold-tipped fountain pen, a bottle of good ink, and set to work composing the sort of letter that once punctuated many aspects of our lives. You’ll be the better for it. So will the recipient.
Now, I am not going to be so blithe as to say that I’ll actually do the pen and paper routine, mainly because I’m rather married to the efficiency of electronics and emailing, but you never know. And I definitely haven’t received a perfumed billet-doux in a long time. That would be so nice.