Looking back over the last few months, I could almost gain the impression I have done nothing else than write letters to people, naturally hoping that one or two would write back to me. My time has been filled with words, with ideas, with seeking out suitable themes to discuss which could, hopefully, be of interest to a stranger. I would be fooling myself if I said that this has been an easy task, that the words I’ve put down on paper, many tens of thousands, have flowed quickly and without pause. Much the same with picking out people to write to, it has certainly not been an easy task; enjoyable, most certainly, but not as simple as it might seem. A letter writer – and I dare call myself such – cannot conjure a name out of some imaginary top hat, like a magician with a bunny on the stage to great applause, there has to be something there, there has to be some form of attraction, some form of incentive. And by attraction I am thinking in the intellectual sense, because anyone who writes to someone else purely because of a perceived physical attraction has lost the fight before it even began, before the teams were picked, before anyone knew that there would be sport and fun today.
The thing about attraction is that what we see with our eyes, what we sense through or own prejudices, through our own emotions and desires is not the person who is standing there. We see a physical form, but we do not see the person themselves; that is well hidden behind the normal barriers of the facade each raises to protect themselves against predators and fools. We see an image that we wish to see which might be based on the colour of a person’s eyes, on their hair length, on other physical attributes – we all know what men are like when it comes to the physical, but I am sure women do much the same if not quite so openly – and through the belief that this is what we are seeking, each one of us makes the mistake of believing we have found our ideal. But a person is far more than just appearance, far more than hair colour, manicured nails and fashion choice. A person has depth, emotions, intelligence, interests, education and experience. A person has their own ideal, which we may very well not meet, and, of course, their own character. We are all individuals, and not a grouping according to appearance; each and every one of us is unique.
In theory, that makes life for a letter writer much easier: we sit down and compose a letter to someone we do not know and try to find a way behind the general standards of appearance. We try to awaken interests we can only guess at, mainly by highlighting our own or, for those who are younger and have, perhaps, less experience, by describing all of our good points – those pints we care to admit to – as well as what we look like. I’m not going to denigrate this method of letter writing, I’ve done it often enough myself and wondered, as I’ve finished writing to a new person with exactly the same details as countless times before, what the point is. Repetition aids with learning, but it becomes boring when we have to constantly repeat ourselves, often without any feedback. And when we begin to feel that what we’re doing is boring, inconsequential, needless, then we’ve lost the battle and might just as well pack paper and pencil away again, seek ourselves a new hobby, and forget the whole thing. And then, those of us who gain enjoyment from this wonderful hobby, who have been letter writing for many years, come across a small piece of text which emboldens us, which brings out something we have known for years and justifies all of what we have done, as well as bolstering us to try harder and to follow the path we’ve chosen. For me that text was in a crime novel, published last year, where one of the characters gave a synopsis of a children’s book, lauding it for not beginning at the beginning because, as he said, our lives together don’t start at that first point, they start right now, when we are in the middle of life and should be looking forward. There is plenty of time to learn all about the characters in a story as the tale unfolds, so why shouldn’t letter writing be like that, and why shouldn’t we let our story unfold over time?
Added to which, if you’re going to spend all your time describing yourself, you’re not listening to the other person, and that is a conversation killer. That’s like the man who invites you out to dinner, compliments you on appearance, dress and punctuality and then says: well, that’s enough about you, let’s talk about me.
That, of course, in the worst possible way simply because, when we start writing, when we begin the uphill journey towards a platonic, written friendship, there is little to talk about other than that which we already know: ourselves. Unless, of course, we spend all our time asking questions. What we should be doing is challenging our prospective correspondent to think, to consider, and to delve deep inside their own mind for an answer to something much more complicated than the label of a dress, the brand of a suit, the fashionable name of a certain shade of lipstick or whiff of aftershave. To do that we can suffice with just one or two questions, and still produce a worthwhile letter which, effectively, introduces us to them without all the repetition of how Mama brought us up from nappies into short trousers and beyond.
Can you imagine what it would be like if every book, introducing new characters for our edification, began by telling us their complete backgrounds from kindergarten onwards? We’d never get to the story; so why should letter writing be any different? Admittedly, the first letter is something of a challenge and many people do fall back on the tried and trusted method of just recounting their own personal statistics, but then the reply tends to be a boilerplate template too, and the correspondence is damned to oblivion or, at the very best, to the banal.
There is another advantage to this method of writing, one which I am sure you have figured out already: you separate the thinkers from those who just want something to pass the time, or who are out to find a good thing and finance their lives. You find those with depth of character, and not simply a shallow desire to show they are popular by the quantity of mail they receive, by the constant calling of their name at mail call. Better, I think you’ll agree, to have one letter which takes you away, which inspires and interests, which challenges (something I constantly come back to) than ten letters with one side of the same-old, same-old we get to hear across the garden fence from a local gossip, or in the bar when everyone else has had one or two too many. Better, in my opinion, to have a letter which makes me spark up, which brings back long forgotten memories, which forces me to delve into my mind for answers, than a one-liner apologising for not writing more and promising better next time.
I sometimes wish that we could go back to the times when letter writing was a social necessity, and all those who could hold a pen considered it part of their duty to write to family and friends on a regular basis. Imagine the levels of conversation which would come out, and the wonderful sharing of news which, as far as I am concerned, can never be achieved by instant communication and selfies uploaded to Instagram and Facebook. People used to write when they were separated for just a few days, even to their spouses, and through their letters spend valuable time together. Letters were shared, and I don’t mean that two people might write the one letter, but shred at the other end. I’ve read so many times of letters sent in the Victorian era which were copied and passed on to other people, which were read out loud at family gatherings. I think this is a wonderful tradition which definitely should be re-introduced into family life. And just imagine how our writing styles and themes would change as a result: not just our immediate loved ones getting to see the contents of our intimate – or not quite so intimate in a modern sense – letters, but also neighbours and friends of the family. And then, perhaps, those same letters still being there in one hundred years time, social history to remind, to inspire.
I listened to a lecture on the Humane Arts by Wesley Cecil recently, covering letter writing, and was almost inclined to reach for pen and paper as he spoke about the authors Melville and Hawthorne writing letters. He seemed surprised at the high quality of Melville’s words, as if he had been writing one of his books for the general public, and it was clear to me that he had failed to take the social aspect of letter writing into account: Melville would have expected his letters to be shared with other people, not kept as personal property by Hawthorne. He would be writing for a far wider public than just the person on the address label.
Can you imagine that today? We seem to be fine with sharing anything which comes across through social networks, but personal letters? Their whole meaning has changed over the years, from being a family matter to a very personal one. Not that many people write what they would be ashamed to see in public, I think Twitter and similar sites have the upper hand when it comes to abuse and foul language. Although that hasn’t stopped people in the past: I re-introduced myself to a wonderfully intensive stream of abuse and name-calling just yesterday when writing to another friend, and from a letter written to an Italian doctor in about 1352. Of course, the language used was slightly different back then, but the writer, Francesco Petrarca, was quite happy describing other people as being:
Anxious with such cares, they are wasting away. And so great is the power of evil that they stick out their tongues like rabid dogs and whet their fangs even against their friends, wounding the ones they love.
Very mild compared to what we can expect to put up with today; I’m sure that none of the people you live with would ever consider such a mild insult of any possible use, unless referring to someone as a rabid dog as one of the lightest terms of endearment. In Renaissance Italy, though, such words would have been considered very harsh indeed, and then in a letter which became a published booklet? But, we are told, letter writing is a dead art which no one follows anymore, so the chances of there being any more collections of letters published in the future are slim. We can be grateful that the collected letters of such brilliant writers as Marcus Tullius Cicero, Pliny the Younger, Jane Welsh Carlyle, Cassandra Fedele and others have survived the passage of time and are available to us now, as inspiration, perhaps, for the few of us left who still write in one form or another.
And what do we expect from letter writing today, from this dead art which no one in their right mind follows anymore? Why do so many of us seek, so many of us select, so many of us find the best stationery and put our words down before consigning them to the good offices of the post office if there is no one out there with an interest? Why, to put it in a manner which will mean more to you than it does to me, do so many people spend good money putting out their profile in order to find a correspondent, a suitable letter writer, if there is no interest? It can’t be just an altruistic hope to keep something alive which is on its last legs, nor because we have so much money available we can simply throw it out the window for a vain and senseless piece of time-wasting. It is because we know the value of letter writing, of communicating with strangers and making them into friends, of learning something about peoples and lands far away, of traditions and customs we have never seen. It is the highest form of pleasure – perhaps I am going too far here, but it is for me on a platonic level – and so we seek it, we demand it, and we feed our pleasures with its benefits. What other reasons can there be for approaching strangers, or for hoping that strangers will write, will open their hearts and minds, will become a part of the close-knit community of friends we call our own?
Through letter writing we also discover that there are as many similarities as there are differences in our customs and traditions. If we simply rely on the news media, on stories from people who have never travelled outside their own State, on myths and legends handed down from mother to child, we will never discover the truth for ourselves, never know what we could be missing. Letter writing opens our eyes, as we are confronted with the opinions and experiences of people across the other side of the globe, and have the chance to offer our own for their contemplation.
I can promise you, as an old hand at letter writing – and being old too, but that’s not quite so important – there is a wonderful world out here, and I would love the chance to introduce you to my part of it. My small portion has classical literature, the Arts, Europe and much more awaiting your attention. And, of course, the means to assist you in your foray into this world if you need it.