Friday, September 22, 2006

On Letter Writing

I was glad to see a new post by Gawain over at Heaven Tree - I was worried, although callous man that I am, I did not write to inquire as to his condition, instead content to believe he was staring at clouds somewhere far away from a computer, which it turns out, he was.

I feel that, for the most part, I could probably restrict myself to discussing the topics he raises on his blog, and be pretty happy about my small contribution to this whole blogging business. As you can see from the date of the last post, it's been a while since I've managed to stop by Le Voir Dit. For some reason, this place doesn't feel like mine quite yet. Don't know why, but here we are.

Anyway, it does feel the appropriate place to touch on a remark of his about letter writing. I know a lot about writing letters, perhaps more than anyone should know about writing letters, and so I know precisely what Gawain wants when he asks, very gently, "I wonder, would any of you would ever like to write me a long-hand letter?" But rather than bore you with all of my letter writing escapades, I'll bore you with one.


I was in long-distance relationship with a girl during the twilight of letter writing as a medium in which people commonly set down their thoughts to each other. Although many intrepid souls had e-mail accounts those days, we were still in the dark ages (as we all know technology=progress), and as the telephone companies in Canada were still, for the most part, public monopolies, lingering conversations on our days spent working dead end summer jobs and pining for each other's bodies would have quickly exhausted our "saving for visits" accounts.

So we wrote. We had met in Vienna (Think Before Sunrise - similar in some numerous aspects, although the movie came later - did we bump into Richard Linklater at the Staatsoper?), and each of us began on the plane ride home what turned out to be 6 months of wonderful correspondence between the two of us, before the relationship ran out of gas.

I happened to discover (or rediscover) those letters when I was in Calgary last week. Ignoring the often hyperomantic and fatalistic bits of prose (Was that really me?), I really enjoyed rereaded her letters to me. And I think the main reason why I enjoyed it so was due in large part to having none of my own.

Part of the fun of reading old correspondence is reaching into the memorial archive and attempting to reconstruct what it was that set her off on page 3, or what turned her on on page 7. I remember writing all sorts of passionate and very tortured things to her about myself and my life, things that I'd probably rather not read again, not because I'm afraid to reexperience them, but because I suspect they won't be very well-written or insightful.

There's a good reason why so many great men destroy their youthful works. Not that I'm in their pantheon, but who wouldn't kick a rotting fish off a dock rather than leaving it to the cats?

Most of our written conversations to each other come in strings now, long strings of fragmented conversations. E-mail is not a place for essays or erudition. Letters on the other hand, beg for turns of phrase, cadence, and structure. There is something to the unity, the wholeness of the letter that makes it a wonderfully expressive medium. This wholeness has been lost in e-mail, although perhaps has been partly recovered in blogging.


I miss writing letters. Partly because I find writing much more enjoyable than typing - I have much less trouble getting thoughts out through my wrists than than through my fingers.

I also miss the intimacy, the different kinds of paper, the changes in pen colour, the notes on the envelope. I miss all the different ways in which someone can represent themselves to you before a single word has been uttered - The letter in which she told me it was over said it all before I had even opened it.

It is perhaps strange to consider them in this way, but letters are, at their core and in the practices around them, a gift. And now, it seems, a rare gift too. Perhaps this is a good thing, an antidote to the stats-obsessing and monster feeding occupation that is blogging.

I never thought I would find myself saying this again, but I wouldn't mind writing a letter to someone...Gawain?


Gawain said...

it's beautiful. i want to run it on my blog fir my readers to see. would that be OK? ANd yes, lets write letters. Screw email.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Too true--how closed is the paper as a space--clenched fist--and how open that space, always extending, or at least extensible, of the diary--flat palm. I never wrote as many letters as I should have: they seemed the ideal medium for a poem. I, likewise, am inclined to revive them.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

It's the space we find ourselves in.

I resisted e-mail for quite some time, and have yet to practice instant messaging.

I am no Luddite, but I believe considering the implications a form of technology will have on one's life and relationship is a worthwhile pursuit.

My main problem with taking up letter writing again is that my handwriting is terrible.

Indeed, handwriting is another lost art, at least in our part of the world, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

You could try writing a letter to me for a change. Putting aside your callousness, of course.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Unfortunately, the problem with writing you a letter isn't my callousness, but your anonymity! (See how the italics point here!)

Or, do I dare write a letter to anonymity itself? And then am I included? The delights of reference - no wonder philosophers continue to talk about it 101 years after Russell...

Absurdity Miner said...

I have to admit that, as much as letter writing is interesting, I prefer to type my letters. But that's out of necessity, since my handwriting is positively atrocious.

Then again, HP Lovecraft is one of my favourite authors, and he wrote reams of fascinating letters.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

I think typing can represent a middle ground - you lose a bit, but you can still choose paper, and in these desktop publishing days, your font.

Gawain said...

it's the reading that makes all the difference to me: a letter you can read under a tree, in tub, on the bus; you can fold it in your breast pocket and take it to class and steal a peek at it half way through.

but handwriting -- yes, there is something to that as well; my grandparents all had such a beautiful hand, they were taught calligraphy; and they wrote slowly, purposefully, and with pleasure; it showed in their hand.

when it is my turn to reply, i will write in the most beautiful hand i can muster.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

I remember thinking as a child how pointless handwriting was.

I'm paying for it now - my cursive is so forced now, so unnatural, that typing would look more natural.

shilgia said...

Even handwriting that is hard to read can have its beauty.

My father's handwriting is hard to read if you're not used to it. It is irregular and a bit messy. But so expressive!

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Shilgia, thanks for stopping by!

You can read my handwriting, it's more that its expressive power has been dulled by years of neglect.

We shall all see what happens when the results of this clock-turning experiment are in (the mail)!