I am told there are certain rules about what is correct, when writing a letter to someone, and what is unacceptable. I am told that letters should have a certain format; that they should be on a specific size of paper; that the envelope should be addressed in a certain manner, with a return address here, or there, or on the reverse. And I am told all these things by different people who, as you can imagine, all tell me different things. And then I think of what Aristotle believed:
It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.
Of course, today we would not write “man”, but he lived in times when education for women was not only unusual, but often frowned upon. And there we see an advancement for the educated person, in that we realise the nature of the subject means a woman can be just as well-educated as a man and, often, has a far better understanding of certain precise subjects than men do, and Aristotle’s premise begins to wander off course slightly. In fact, when we think through what he wrote, it is possible to come up with a different idea, as Anthony Gottlieb writes:
Life is too complicated to navigate by means of just a list of Dos and Don’ts. If you tried to write down a complete set of rules about how to live, they would have to be so complicated and hedged with qualifications as to be no practical use.
And so it is even with such an apparently simple thing as writing a letter: there are so many different possible rules, so many designs and ideas and conventions, it is almost impossible to keep up with them all, let alone employ them in your own writing. So we come down to a very simple formula: am I writing a letter to someone in my style, about my life and experiences, or plagiarizing someone else? And: will the envelope I am addressing make it through the postal system to its intended destination?
There is, of course, another thing we have to consider aside from these two semi-rigid rules: is what I am writing of interest to the person I am writing to? And here we have the crux of a real problem, because no one really knows what is of interest to a stranger, sometimes even to members of their own family and close circle of friends. Every single person has their secret interests, their desires, their – as some term it these days, without a nasty thought in their minds – fetishes. The difficult part of writing to a stranger is breaking through the unseen barrier created by a lack of knowledge, and managing not only to communicate something of yourself, but also excite enough interest that the object of your words feels not so much obliged to reply, more enticed. We cannot know the thoughts and feelings another person wishes to share, borrowing your phrase, unless we are capable of exciting that first reply, of building up enough of a rapport, a level of confidence, of trust and mutual empathy to such an extent that both feel secure enough to share, to discuss, to reveal themselves. So many have had bad experiences, have been let down in one way or another, that it is often hard to break through the protective walls erected to save their own self-esteem and preserve a certain level of secure confidentiality and privacy, no matter how much they may wish to share, to bond with another person.
No one reads Aristotle these days: it is too dry, too lecturing, too old-fashioned. We gain our insight into how life should be lived through personal experience, as much as through the moral tales hidden within Harry Potter’s adventures, or the conversations between Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. With Aristotle is it as if we are being forced to think, to consider what the strings of words mean and how we can relate to them in our modern world, while the other characters simply speak to us in our own language, and the tales they have to tell are tales we recognise. We do not have to consider their words, or hidden meanings, or look up references to other ancient philosophers and deep thinkers, as the tales are still within our own culture, and couched in terms and language we would use ourselves. Although, a small secret many do not know, the words used by Aristotle are the same as those we use today; the ideas he propounded centuries ago, are ones we still consider today; the problems he faced and discussed, are all part and parcel of our own, modern society, just as they were then.
At the same time, no one really tells us what we should write in our letters – the envelopes, yes, because of international conventions – aside from a few well-intentioned people who insist that we ought to have an entry paragraph, then a middle section covering one subject in-depth, then a closing statement. A letter, though, isn’t an essay which will be sent up for peer review and then graded, except back in the dark days of my youth when we had letter writing as a section of our English lessons at school. It is a personal communication, an intimate conversation, a monologue of our thoughts and feelings, our experiences, the ups and downs of life as we have lived it. It is a bringing together of people who are separated, for whatever reason, a means of telling others we are still there, still alive, that we should not be forgotten as we do not forget them. And it is wonderful because of the absolute individuality each letter embodies, each person puts into the words, even down to the choice of paper and ink. Letters go from the simplest scribble as a child thanks an unknown godparent for some small gift, through to the high and mighty of world literature, culture, politics, preserved in the Beinecke Library at Yale, the British Museum in London.
And, of course, they bring people together across the world who might otherwise never have been in touch with a stranger; might never otherwise learn something of a different country, social environment, lifestyle. People who might, if they had encountered one another on the street, or sat near them in a coffee-house anywhere in the world, never even have noticed despite a shared interest which, then, remains a secret within themselves.
The convention is, that when you write to a stranger for the first time, you tell them all about yourself, from that birthmark right through to your favourite pony story. I exaggerate. You will have noticed that this is not a conventional letter, that it does not list personal facts one after the other like a bullet journal of achievements. I am one of those strange people who believes that a person’s age, their place of birth, their height, weight and hair colour have little to do with their personality, character, with the interests that they follow. That is, of course, unless they are a diet fanatic addicted to hair toner who has never left their own small village. Instead I have written what could almost be an essay on the advantages, the conventions or lack of conventions, of letter writing because, when you think about it, that is what interests me. Our mutual interest is communication, the sharing of interests, and one of my major interests is writing letters to those who dare reply, who take time out of their lives to put a few well-thought words down on paper and assigned them, full of trust, to the postal service for eventual delivery. I am a traveller, not just of the written word, but through life and this world, a reader of books, a collector of antique photographs. My letters are about those things which interest me and, once a rapport has been established and a reply has been received, those things which interest my corresponding partner. We write a monologue in our letters, since there can be no quick replies as we write, nor interruption to give a another viewpoint, insert a different experience or opinion. The conversation begins when the monologue receives a reply, is expanded upon, enhanced by the thoughts and experiences of another.
And then the fun really begins, as we explore a world with otherwise have no notion of, live through the eyes – and more through the words – of someone who is seeing and feeling what we cannot. We learn about social standards and expectations, and counter with our own; we form an opinion, and allow it to be influenced; we share. Many years ago – well, more than a century ago – I could have added “and are shared”, but that is a rarity today. There was a time, as postage costs were exorbitantly high and people tended to write as much as possible of a single folded sheet of paper, when letters to family were to the whole family, and often their circle of friends too. A letter to Jane Welsh Carlyle, at her home in Chelsea, London, could have been shared with her friend Charles Dickens in the mid-nineteenth century, and that would have been perfectly normal. Letters were copied, by hand, and sent on, lent out and returned when read by others. A letter was like a newsletter, or a multi-address electronic mail. People, including Jane Welsh Carlyle, a very highly respected letter writer, kept copies of their missives, hand written in a special correspondence book. Today it is hard enough to get people to even look at a sheet of letter writing paper, let alone take a pen up and write.
I used to be sad that my brother and the others are absent. I really thought too much of the distance between places. But now a consolation by no means small softens this great sorrow. From the letters of my brother Matteo I have heard …
The words of Cassandra Fedele, written on 25 December 1497. Letter writing bringing joy and connection, hundreds of years ago, just as it does today. Of course, they also had a different style of writing back then, in the fifteenth century, one which would barely be able to understand, let alone use, today. Where we might be formal and write “Dear…” or less so and begin with a hearty “Hello ..” they extolled the virtues of correct form, and we see, now and then, wonderful beginnings, again from Fedele, such as:
To Isabella, by the grace of God, the invincible queen of Castile, Aragon, and Sicily
which I honestly cannot imagine anyone in their right mind doing today, unless really grovelling for some favour from high sources. But then, a young woman, albeit highly educated, writing to members of the nobility, to kings and queens and high-ranking members of the Church? Or Japanese gentlemen writing to the women (plural!) of their choice, their household or lovers, including a specially written poem for the occasion, and receiving a reply – often the same day – in the same style and, hopefully, tone. The times have changed.
So, as you can see, there are a few other small interests I have: history, literature and philosophy. Not things which need to hold anyone back, nor scare them off – I sincerely hope – as there are some wonderful tales to be told and, after all, when we look back over our lives, aren’t we exploring history too? Wondering over the motives of our moves, the direction we have taken, the possibilities of something new, or having achieved something else if we’d only chosen the other possible path. And, of course, for literature, the small tales we concoct for ourselves and others. Life would not be the same without them.
But above all, it is the challenges in life which interest me, those brought about by our circumstances, the possibilities we take up and make our own, our social environment and society itself. All of my interests seem to come together in this desire to communicate and to learn; communication with the living as much as a communicative attempt through the writings of those who have gone before. It can be an intriguing journey, often very exciting, even if, for some, it feels as if the way – and especially when someone first tries reading my letters! – is too complicated, too full of obstacles, too time-consuming. The human being, though, adapts as it tries to gain a hold within a new environment, in new surroundings, with new information to process. This is how we make friends, face-to-face in everyday life, or learn how to avoid those we do not need in our lives. We have the disadvantage, as well as the advantage, of not being face-to-face, of presenting ourselves without being seen. We have the chance to create an impression, to paint a picture, without interruption or distraction of that person we wish to be seen as. Such chances are rare.
It might well be that you found your soul partner, or the perfect correspondent, over the last year and have no need of a new one, or the renewal of your profile in hopes of finding someone else. Or, perhaps, it was not such a success. Perhaps the challenge wasn’t there and, maybe, you’ll see a challenge here worthy of your time and effort. I did and do, and that’s why I wrote this letter.