Sitting at my small writing desk, surrounded by a wealth of inspiration in book form, and the experience of years within my mind, my thoughts turned recently to the idea of the generation gap, and how difficult it must be for those considerably younger than ourselves to set themselves in front of a blank sheet of paper and express themselves in writing. Not just from the point of view that a sheet of paper is something unusual to them, brought up with modern technology and the immediacy of a text message packed with suitable abbreviations, but also, and perhaps more so, because the sheet of paper demands considerably more input, more work, more thought than a size-limited message. Writing a letter, an essay, a paper on anything is not the sound-bite of information quickly conveyed that they might, today, be more used to: it requires thought and patience; the ability to sit still for longer periods of time, and wield that unusual instrument, the pen; the practice of forming broken or segmented ideas into a sensible and understandable train of thoughts committed to paper. I am not sure that such expertise is addressed in our present education systems, regardless of which county, State or country you might wish to explore and assess as a prime example of good or bad.
I also get the feeling that letter writing, as a hobby, rarely comes up for the younger generations because it is conceived as being too much work. We can communicate through text, through electronic mail, and even send photographs without the need to commit them to paper: so why bother with anything as old-fashioned as putting pen to paper, and then trusting that the postal service will do their job? But, far more than this, many believe that their lives are so ordinary, so mundane, that firstly no one else could possibly be interested in what they have to say and, secondly, they have nothing to say. The same routine each morning, midday and evening with hardly a break, and that cannot be of interest to anyone in a different country. After all, they probably experience it themselves in exactly the same way, so why bother?
In a way, it was miraculous – what had just happened. Two years earlier, thick curtains had veiled blue-painted windows; he had been completely shut off from the black city, from the whole earth; his pen would pause hesitantly over the paper. Now those unformed sounds in his throat had become a living voice in the world; the secret stirrings in his heart had been transformed into truths for other hearts.
We, on the other side of this blockade against writing in longer forms, against communication that takes more than a second to be transmitted, know this feeling, and while Henri – in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins – is working as a journalist, letter writers can empathise: we all began somewhere with a blank sheet of paper and, hopefully, an idea which, much later, we would fondly look back upon as the beginning of something special. Not, of course, that it is easy to explain to a person, younger or otherwise, right at the very beginning of this wonderful life-style, that they will appreciate it all later: how many of us can remember the “you’ll understand when you’re older” our elders cast at us far too frequently? We can appreciate that time invested now pays off later, rather than believing the advertisements promising us an easy life with no drawbacks right this moment, and someone else doing all the hard work to create it for us.
The other thought I had, a few days ago, but one which has hardened this weekend, was the problem of someone from our generation telling a stranger from another generation what they are missing. With ‘generation’ I tend to think of anyone who is ten or more years younger than ourselves. I’m not sure where the border line should be drawn, but ten years strikes me as a good, round number to think about. This thought arose because I took up my implements of communication, and settled down to write to a person considerably younger than I am, not so much to begin a written friendship over the generations – because I do not expect a reply from a teenager to someone of my age – but to give her encouragement. The reason being, quite simply, that I envy her: she is at the beginning, anticipating the future, and I am at the other end of life, looking back with fond memories. Not that I would exchange positions, you understand.
“I’d like my readers to know who I am, but the trouble is I’m not quite sure myself.”
How do you write to a thirteen year old and give them encouragement? I am sure some would claim that there are far more pressing questions which need to be addressed today, but if we cannot handle the smaller matters, how can we be expected to perform with anything like optimal precision on the major events of the world? How can we make a difference when our attention seems to be diverted to something of lesser importance?
When we began writing – and I am also looking back on about fifty years of pen and paper – we began in a small way. Our ideas were limited to what we wished to write then and there, and we had no experience behind us. Letter writing was a minor undertaking, one of those small things which could have been left aside completely, or until a later date, to concentrate on the bigger problems at hand. Now, many decades later, it has grown into a worthwhile and not inconsiderable archive of memories, correspondence, friendships which belies the idea of a minor undertaking. In all the major problems of the world today, from famine through to climate change, had we concentrated our efforts on the minor signs of an impending catastrophe while they were still small, the task would have been much easier. The chances of a problem solved as a insignificant task, of a small molehill before becoming the proverbial elephant, growing out of all proportion, would have been cut back considerably; the problem itself might even have been eradicated at its roots, once and for all, before it had a chance to take hold and grow.
But, as with a minor problem growing into a major catastrophe, we do not appreciate ourselves initially. There are very few teenagers who know who they are, let alone – to follow the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir – the different characters they have: how they perceive themselves; how they project themselves; how others perceive them. Beginning a life of writing letters is as much an exploration of self as standing in front of a mirror and beginning to accept all your physical faults and blemishes, before taking a journey inside to explore those which can only be imagined rather than seen. Beginning a life of writing letters is also an acceptance that you are going to be doing considerably more thinking, on your own, than if you were involved in a face-to-face conversation. Letter writing is a monologue awaiting an answer, a chance to talk without interruption, to show your own linguistic strengths, regardless of gender, without fear that someone will jump in, and take the opportunity away from you. It is a challenge, being so different to what we, and especially the younger people today, understand about conversation, about society, and about ourselves.
“’We’re not a bunch of trained monkeys,’” […] “I’ve always considered my face my own personal property.”
I was also bearing in mind, as I wrote to this newcomer to our art, that we have many generational differences which are merely the same-old covered in new colours. We all rally against the strictness and straight-laced attitudes of those older than we are, and believe that we have far better ideas based on what we know, compared to the mass of experience those older than us have, hopefully, gathered. In many cases we, as the younger generation, have been proven right: changes to how society treats people were a major aspect of my youth, but one which is continuing today in a slightly different form. The climate was an accepted problem in my teenage years too, as it is today, but the perception of the whole has changed. Children, I am reliably informed, grow up to become their parents – a horror story for any child, I have no doubt – although this is one of those hard and fast axioms which is constantly being cut down and trampled underfoot due to its obvious argumentative and factual weaknesses. We grow up to discover we have taken on, adopted, many traits or characteristics of our parents, and possibly other people we know intimately over a long period of time, but we remain individuals.
A letter writer breaks, in this sense, from the community they are a member of, simply because they are going their own way and taking on an interest which can only be very individual. There is no group, clique or gang behind a letter written from one person to another, and often individual thoughts are allowed to creep in to our writings which belie any membership of a certain group, no matter how loud we might claim to be an ardent, steadfast member. And a letter writer is open to influences which are not judged by the group, and not given the go-ahead by consensus of the masses. A one-on-one conversation without interruption, without immediate influences from surroundings, from peers, from people in a greater, or lesser, position of influential power. This, to me, is the real meaning behind the idea of the pen being mightier than the sword. A letter writer is someone who gains experience through detailed thought as much as longwinded conversations, and changes as a result. The influences are direct, personal, and not made for the masses, as with newspapers and other forms of media, and the person being influenced can take their own good time to read, to consider, to refute.
She would never change, but one day at the touch of a fingertip she would fall to dust.
Not quite the sort of thing I could write to a thirteen year old, even when no reply is expected, but perhaps that is only because the experience is not yet there; she is, after all, right at the beginning and, I do not doubt, will change over the years, will see new worlds, will adapt and form into a person who, perhaps, does not know themselves, but knows themselves better than they did before. There is, however, another question which arises beyond those I had already addressed.
Society has changed a great deal over time, what was once common is now considered old-fashioned, or even socially unacceptable. We grew up in a society where smoking was considered quite normal, and advertised as being attractive as well as safe. We grew up in a society where many were unafraid to speak their minds, and then discuss the results caused by their words. We grew up in a society coming to terms with social inequality, and attempting to make amends, as well as a society which, as we grew up, has become even less tolerant, while claiming to be more tolerant. As social circles formed themselves anew, alliances were made, groups worked for the better good, other parts split and took on strict factional lines one against another. The lines of what is acceptable, what should be and what should not, how we react and interact, have changed as a fluid mass which, hopefully, will find a form acceptable to the majority, perhaps even in our own times. And the idea that we, the elders of this society, should be able to pass our experience, our knowledge on to the younger generations is stronger than ever, even if some within society are determined to only allow their viewpoint to be heard, and attempt to legislate against anything which veers off their straight and narrow path. At the same time, and as a direct opposite to the ideal, it is not considered a good thing that we, the older generation, pass on our knowledge and experience to those of younger years, but allow them the chance to make their own mistakes as if there was no guide book available in any form. And so the question arises of whether it is social or morally suitable, or acceptable, for an old man to write to a considerably younger woman.
There is no depth to the question, other than the use of the words social and moral. It has no detail to assist in a discussion other than a hint at the age of each person involved, no pointers to say what could be right and what could be unacceptable. Anyone being given this question to answer would be able to assume their own idea of what is meant, of what the act of writing, of communicating encompasses, whether this is mere correspondence, platonic, or something more sinister. It is, for me, the best type of question, as it reveals the underlying thoughts and bias of each who offers an answer: will the assumption be that this is platonic, a letter of advice and encouragement; will the assumption be that the old man has ulterior motives? It is the stuff not only of potentially long and complicated discussion, but of revelation.
I also wonder, from my own point of view and as a parallel to this, whether writing to a considerably younger person – regardless of gender questions – would be more acceptable to some than writing to an inmate in prison.
“Nudity begins with the face, and obscenity with the word […] They decree that we are statues or ghosts, and then when they catch us existing in the flesh they accuse us of being imposters. That’s why the slightest gesture so easily becomes scandalous. Laughing, talking, eating – just so many flagrant offences.”
The nudity of the blank page before us, innocent of all as it has not yet been formed. The obscenity of the word, which robs this page of its innocence forever. Worse still, the thoughts of those who do not see the page either blank or filled, and make their own assumptions based on information they cannot have.
You will undoubtedly find this a rather strange initial contact from someone you do not know, from across the world, which seems to jump over the lists of interests and attributes, the attempts to convince the reader that this particular writer is the person they have been searching for, as a correspondent, their whole lives and no other should now enter their heart and mind. My letters, though, tend to cut to the chase, rather than build up a storyline over a long period – after all, having noted de Beauvoir earlier, the idea of the three characters should be clear, and no matter what I have inside me, it is different to that which I allow to show, and, equally, different to that which you will see. A last word from her which, I think, shows the reasoning behind my dive straight into the deepest waters:
[…] how slowly time passed, how quickly it passed!
Perhaps, though, you see that at least one of your interests (there are several more, but still…) is met: a certain level of philosophical discussion, and perchance this will entice you towards your own writing desk, your own blank sheet of paper.