One of several interesting ideas I gained from reading your letter was that of letter writing being a project; something which I would welcome in the right place and certainly support, hut which is not what I tend to do. If it were possible to convince more younger people of the benefits of letter writing, I would do it at once; I would be there with placards and giveaways and all sorts of incentives to get people sitting down, pen and paper in hand, communicating with one another. I think, though, that many would be adverse to such an idea as being a waste of their time: writing a letter can take an hour or two, when properly done, and that is valuable time taken away from the pleasures of intensive social media scrolling, checking out Facebook and Twitter. The fact that people spend more time finding nothing new on the timeline or their profile page than they would spend writing to one person who would love to be in contact with them, is lost.
I regret not having had a letter writing project at school, it would have brought me to this wonderful pastime considerably earlier than Fate did. Rather, we had letter writing lessons, when we were expect to sit for forty minutes and write home to our parents. I cannot say that these were successful: who writes an open and honest letter to anyone when they know it is going to be vetted and marked first? But I have seen that quite a few elementary and primary schools in the United States do have a penfriend programme, which I consider to be a wonderful idea; I’m just a little too old for all that now. If I wrote to anyone in one of these projects I’d probably receive a strict and unfriendly reply back from the teacher, along with a few promises about what would happen if I wrote to children fifty years younger than me again. Age is a drawback in some respects: we have gained all these experiences, all these insights into life and would love to be able to share them, but the actions of some and the fears of others make it impossible.
No, letter writing is, for me, one of the few pleasures in life which can be followed in relative peace and quiet and which, usually, brings a wonderful return. There are letdowns occasionally, as with all things, but generally the replies I receive make the effort involved, and the expense, more than worthwhile. It is not so much a project as a way of life, the keeping alive, in a very small way, of a tradition which stretches back many hundreds of years, and which has given countless people succour and pleasure over time. And which, I might add, brings the past to life through the open and honest, private letters of many in a way that no other means of historical study can. The idea of being able to set yourself back into the Victorian era, or the time of Cicero and Julius Caesar in Rome, to experience the destruction of Pompeii through the eyes of Pliny the Younger, or life in Chelsea and other parts of London through the writings of Jane Welsh Carlyle is inspiring. I doubt my letters will be of any use to future generations, but I am sure many of those who wrote before us thought so too, even if their style of letter writing, their expectations from such correspondence, were completely different to those we harbour today. For Carlyle, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, letters were not just a means of staying in touch, but a supplement to local newspapers, bringing closer information home, as well as personal, and designed in many cases to be passed on to other people, to be shared and copied and read by many one after another or in groups.
I recently listened to a college lecture on letter writing, where the bulk of the lecture was historical and about education more than anything else. The lecturer, when he finally got to the point, showed some surprise that Hermann Melville had written letters as if he were writing a book, and clearly hadn’t caught on to the fact that Melville expected his private – as we would see them – letters to be shared and passed on to others. He was writing for an audience, something that we do not do today, unless planning on having our works collected in however many decades time and published for the general good and the enrichment of social historians. And the idea of making collections of people’s private or official letters is hardly a new one, otherwise we wouldn’t have those from Cicero and Pliny and countless others who have gone before and left next to nothing else to show they were here for a while; even if some of them were written specifically for publication or, in the case of Pliny, corrected and edited before being gathered together and given to the public.
I am, sadly, of the opinion that letter writing has evolved and then suffered a sudden decline in quality as people forget how to put their thoughts and emotions down into words. This is hardly a new thing, not something we can blame on social media and the expansion of electronic means of communication. It has been going on for many years and there are many reasons for the decline, from changing educational standards through to the advent of the telephone and many other communicative improvements. But it is still possible to find suitable correspondents out in the wild world, if you’re prepared to look, and often not exactly where you’d expect to find them. I must admit to having several people I write to, and these several people come from different walks of life. One asked me recently how I picked out people to write to when I cannot see and judge them, have nothing to go on but what they write in a profile – which is often far from ideal, as I am sure you appreciate – and, in some cases, come from what he called the dregs of society. That final part I can never agree with: he was of the opinion that the bulk of those inside, as he put it, must be of lower education, and most certainly of lower intellect. I was more than happy to point out to him that both Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill had less than satisfactory school reports, and were not destined for fame if their teachers were to be believed. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers, as he should know, come from the working classes, or from those who have had a lesser standard of education. Why? Because these people have been out in the world and taught themselves, and not been bound by the necessity of passing an examination, of being shackled to one or another opinion without the possibility of thinking for themselves.
Those who have given up on themselves, as you point out in your letter, are not the best ones to be surrounded by, but they are also manly the ones who have been given up on by everyone else too. Once we get this idea in our heads, we’re useless, we have no place in society, we’re doomed to failure, there are few with the inner strength to push back and prove society, their family, their teachers, their employers wrong. And then there are those who have enjoyed success and are considered the cream of society, enjoy all the benefits of their intellect and position, their wealth and connections, and have precious little by way of personality and inner character to offer someone like me. I would not be able to get into a long and deep conversation with a college professor, a debate or a discussion, because they would automatically write me off and not consider it worth their time and effort to reply. I have had this experience, I know exactly how it works and what some of them think and feel. A person has to be on the same educational or social level to excite their interest.
To put it in modern social media terms: people follow my Twitter account not because of what I write, not because of what I pass on from other people, but because I have followed them back. At least, that would be the case if I did follow back, which I do not. I have a strict policy which works for me: I follow those I know personally in real life, and everyone else goes into a Followed list where I can see what they’ve posted just as easily and enjoy the experience more by subdividing according to interests. There are few who are interested in the content, only the conceived prestige a large number of followers brings. Someone who is following tens of thousands of Twitter accounts is not going to be able to keep up with the content, and probably doesn’t bother anyway.
With letter writing, there are those who look at the position of a person – does he have any letters after his name, is she in a high managerial position, have they an aristocratic title – and then make their decision. They do not write to the likes of you and me. There are many profiles I see where it is explicitly stated: no inmates – also no males, but that is something completely different – and I always shake my head and sigh when I see that line. What better way to broaden your horizons than to write to a person who has experienced or is experiencing something you will probably never get to do? There are ninety year old women who write on their bucket list that they want to be arrested or incarcerated in a cell – for a very limited period of time – just to say they have done it. I see other people who will only write to someone from their own country – this applies, believe it or not, only to the United States, I have never seen it with another country – or who fulfil a very tight and disappointing list of conditions. I think I have written to about fifty new people this year, not expecting too many replies for obvious reasons, and it is the inmates, those who are incarcerated who prove not only to be more willing to reply, which I can understand, but also far more interesting. As an aside, I write to men too, and that brings in some very interesting replies!
So all these people around you have given up and succumbed to the general opinion that they are worthless, that no one has any interest in them. To a certain extent their lack of belief in themselves is confirmed by family and friends who turn their backs and disappear from their lives: everything that was there is gone, and there is no comparable replacement. The chances for improvement – personal, educational, environmental – are extremely limited, and not everyone can afford to buy profile space; and when they do, what are the chances of being found for your annual forty dollars, when the profile disappears into the mass of ten thousand others? I’m not saying that everyone should gather their pennies together and advertise, that would be a waste, but there are so many other things which can be done to boost the personal esteem, to remain in touch with the outside world and hold on to a small piece of personal pride. Imagine how much more thrilling the conversations would be, if the subject matter was changed from the immediate surroundings, to that which is going on elsewhere, even in other countries, and news, opinion and experiences brought in through letters were shared? But then, I remember that people on the outside are often more interested in what a reality show ‘star’ is doing than anything relating to actual reality.
No, there is no sense in romanticising the past whatsoever, but also none on writing it off as being nothing more than the past. This is what formed us, where we have our whole backgrounds, our culture, our traditions. Our countries were built on the good and the bad of the past, as were we. But there are things from the past which we can hold on to, which we can keep alive because it makes sense to do so, or because – simply put – we enjoy them. The biggest obstacles placed in our paths are often placed there by ourselves, and are the hardest ones to get over, to beat, since we are all, in one way or another, inside a prison which is partially of our own building and, to a lesser extent, fortified by other people on the outside. I am as much inside a set of walls as someone who is physically inside, through my beliefs, through my resources, through my willingness to take a chance and step outside the box, my comfort zone or whatever it might be called. In fact, unlike many other people I know, I step outside – in ten gallon boots – every single day, and love the experience. It is not a project, but a way of life, and one which can only bring mutual benefits.
The pleasures of writing, and being written to, by people in Texas, Australia, California, Indonesia, Illinois, Russia, Arkansas, China, Virginia, Brazil. The pleasure of coming to my post box in the morning and having letters from around the world waiting for me, and the ultimate pleasure of writing back to each of these individuals. And still having enough time to get out into the real world and gather those experiences which come, later, into one letter or another and are then sent to all four corners of the globe.
I live in a small town in northern Germany, and have done so for a little over twenty years. My life has taken me across the world, and will continue to do so, physically and through letters. There are some in this town, and the outlying villages, who have never left their immediate area, never left the village they were born in except, perhaps, to visit the market with their farm goods, or shop for their Sunday best. Their walls are those they have built for themselves. I don’t want to end up being like them so, no, this is not a project, it is a way of life.