I agree with your thoughts: developing a penfriend relationship, or any written friendship, is considerably harder than creating and maintaining a friendship where two people can meet, talk, and see one another face-to-face. It requires considerably more dedication, and patience, to keep a conversation alive, not just because of the unusual form it takes, but also because of the long time span between letters and, naturally, the fact that all letter writing, initially, is very one-sided. We sit down to spend time with another person who is not there, whom we might never have even met in real life, and construct a letter of ideas alone. There is no input from outside, no replies or conversational pieces to inspire us further, there are no interruptions in our string of ideas – unless the doorbell rings, or the telephone and so on. It is a situation, since we no longer learn letter writing in schools and are more in tune with the instant satisfaction of social media, completely outside of our normal routine.
Another problem for some is the putting off of a reply: a letter sits there, on the desk or a side-table, and waits until the person who should reply picks it up again. It does nothing to remind anyone that it is there, nothing which smacks of urgency, or reminds us that someone else could be sitting at home, many miles away, just waiting for a word, a little bit of news. It is one of the few things in life, when it comes to social matters, where we have to react, we have to take action, without anyone else pushing us to do anything. If we do not, if that letter sits there for a week or two, nothing is going to change, we will just get the feeling, eventually, that it is too late to reply, and the conversation dies.
So, yes, there is a great deal of dedication involved when two people wish to try and form such a union, but it can be one of the most rewarding experiences available. There is, on the plus side as much as the minus side, the fact that you can write uninterrupted. You hold effectively a monologue on those things which are of interest to you, and no one speaks over you, no one stops you from talking, no one tries to change the subject. It is possible to start with a very small idea and work it into something big, in your own mind, through being able to put it down on paper. And then, perhaps a fortnight or more later, you receive the first reply to your ideas, when it has had time to mature further in your mind, and can leisurely re-think the whole idea again, with new input from the other side.
The hardest thing of all, though, as far as I am concerned, is the fact that you do not know the person you are writing to, not in the conventional sense. Letter writers, in this form, have often never met and, also quite likely, may well never meet at all, especially if they live in different countries, on different continents. It is impossible to quickly learn what the other person’s interest are, what hobbies they follow, what they do for fun, unless they sit down and put those words on paper. The chances of meeting up with someone who has the same interests as yourself is much smaller, unless you meet – virtually – through a forum for a specific hobby, a certain type of person who could only be found in such an area. It takes a good deal of time and patience to find areas of mutual interest, because anyone can list an interest in reading, or cinema, or any number of other areas, and not be interested in the same literature, the same form or genre of film, as the person who replies. It takes a good deal of patience to find mutually interesting points for conversation but, at the same time, by corresponding with someone who has different interests, our world is expanded in new directions.
So I would not think that because a person writes about what interests them, no matter how disinterested the other party might be, that this is an imposition in any way. Our first initiative is to write about what we enjoy, to discuss the subjects that we know something about, and hope that it sparks an interest, or that there is some form of connection. If such an action were to be considered an imposition, how would we be able to accept any form of information, right down to literature and television, which impose themselves upon us, and bring new ideas, new information, possibly even a new purpose in life? We rapidly discover that when the other person has no real interest in what we are writing, that they will either stop replying, or will avoid the subject and stick to those areas which are of interest to them. Letter writing, as I said, is a monologue, until someone replies.
Letter writing is also a window into the self, in a manner of speaking. In the first instance we are writing about ourselves – as selfish and egoistical as that might sound – and at our own level. Not everyone can simply pick up a pen, turn on a computer, and write an essay, a letter, a book. It takes time, and each person needs to understand and accept the other for what they have to offer, and not for any failings raised on a faulty scale of one-sided and personal expectations. I, for example, cannot expect that everyone I write to has read the same authors, is interested in philosophy, has covered the same historical periods in their reading. What I should expect, and certainly hope for, is an insight into what interests them which, perhaps, would widen my horizons further. But also on a more social level: I write to many people outside of Europe whose social customs and traditions are completely different to those I have known in my lifetime. Their daily routine is also unlike mine, perhaps not quite to free with available leisure time, with possibilities for travel or nearby facilities such as libraries and museums. It would be very foolish of me, if not downright arrogant, to expect everything to be on exactly the same level as I enjoy. This is not to play anyone else down, or to bolster my position in any form; we all have different lifestyles and expectations, diverse possibilities and plans. For those of us who enjoy letter writing, there can be no disappointment in a letter received.
Although, that isn’t quite right, but for other reasons. Many years ago I had the experience of receiving two letters, three days apart, from one person apologising for not writing in reply to my letter sooner. Both letters were identical, and told me a different story to that which a single apology – and a later fuller letter – would have done. There was no further letter, when my correspondent could have found the time to write, and the conversation died. A second one was the first reply I received from a prisoner, an inmate, in the United States. I have written to many inmates over the years, and had some most enjoyable exchanges as a result. This one, however, replied with a list of demands which had to be met before she would even consider writing; one of those demands was a television set. Needless to say, the conversation went no further.
And then I have also had letters which have been very short – and by short I mean perhaps three or four lines, or a single side on a smaller sheet of paper – but the idea contained within that small text was enough to inspire me to write a full letter. It is possible, I have discovered, to take a single sentence, and weave it into a long tale, even into a book. Literature is, after all, the working through of a small idea into something much bigger. There is no reason why a letter to someone shouldn’t be exactly the same. We simply allow all of our thoughts to run free, and put the words formed down on paper as an expression of ourselves. It works, for me at least, far better on paper than in real life, far better for many than meeting up with people in real life and trying to build up a conversation, which is the second section of your letter to me.
Many people find it much harder to begin and continue a conversation with people they do not know in a real life situation. Standing in front of someone else and trying to think of things to say, without falling into inconsequential small talk and banalities, is very difficult for many, being also something that they have never learned. The difference here is the worry that you are going to embarrass yourself, and be seen to be embarrassed which, I think, is far worse than having a letter rejected or ignored. I, too, have had many problems, especially when it comes to talking about things of interest, mainly because they are subjects which interest me, and I can see that the other person either knows better, or is bored and just looking for a chance to get away and find someone else to talk to, or a bar with good drinks to drown their sorrows. But I do constantly put myself in this situation, partially because I enjoy the idea of being together with other people, and partially because it is a part of my life, where I have to meet up and talk to others.
What to talk about, though, is the hardest part of all. Conversation evolves; it is not just a monologue – hopefully – from one person, as others have a chance to input their opinions, their experiences. But in such a situation as you describe, it would have to start with the usual small talk, with finding out about the person opposite, with testing the waters unless, just by chance, the group where this meeting talks place is dedicated to a certain subject. I am a member of an English-speaking group in Bremen, and we tend to start off every single new conversation by asking what the other person does or, something which is much worse in my opinion, how they got to Germany and why they have remained. Very few in these meetings – which are purely social even though some seem to believe that they are dating opportunities – meet up with the same people more than once, there is a constant changeover of attendees, and so the conversation, each month, begins afresh with a new person or group of people. Fortunately we can move around – there are usually about forty people at these social events, which are held in local bars in Bremen – and change over to a new person if the conversation dies or, as so often happens for the women, it is clear that their conversation partner is only interested in one thing, and it’s not conversation.
Even in a group of people with the same interests, it is hard to tell what can be talked about, how you should – or can – begin a conversation. Aside from the English-speaking group, everyone I meet up with has similar interests – history, philosophy and literature or photography and collecting – which makes life considerably easier. I can start off, if it is my turn, with a book I’ve just read, or an opinion on one of the Nobel Prize recipient’s this year, as there has been a lot of controversy in this area. I could, at a pinch, start on football with some people, but that would bore me very quickly indeed. How I would address you – your specific question – and what I would talk about, or try to engage you in conversation about should we ever meet by chance, is impossible to say. It all depends on the situation, the meeting place, whatever is happening in the world at the time. Clearly we’d start off with an introduction and then, probably, the usual: so, what do you do for a living? And that would be the first entry level.
But I cheat, and am not ashamed to admit it. Going to meetings or social events which are new to me – even to bars and restaurants where I am on my own – I always have a book with me. You’d be surprised how often this can be a conversation starter. I have sat in outdoor cafés and read a biography of an internationally famous photographer – who most people have never heard of – and the conversation starts when people try to see what I am reading. Elsewhere I have simply had the book on the table in front of me, or on the bar next to my drink, and not even opened it, and will be asked about the author, about the title, what else I read and so on. Perfect strangers, people who are there just by chance because they want a meal or a drink, and are interested in this very unusual sight of a person with a real, live book.
Another one is when I am writing in my diary, also an unusual sight for many, and people see not just that I am writing, but also that there are photographs and other things included; glued in place with a small commentary about their meaning or relevancy. How many people keep a diary these days? So the conversation tends to wander off into the good old days, into education, into experience and memories and, of course, how I came to Germany and why I decided to stay. At my last big meeting with a group of people I purposefully wore a joint American and European Community flags’ pin, to try and steer everyone away from the United Kingdom, and the politics of the moment, but my accent gave me away and, since it was 31 January, the Big Day, discussion of British politics was unavoidable.
The good thing about letter writing, coming on to your idea of building this up from a different angle, is that each can go in whichever direction they wish. Because we are working a monologue, with no chance of the other person interrupting, of changing the subject, of injecting their own opinions into an idea still being developed, we can choose that subject, that area of our lives and interests which appeals most to us at any given moment. We can talk about whatever it is that interests us personally, and invite the opinions, the thoughts of the other person. Or, of course, take a chance that what we write is not of interest, or outside the sphere of their experiences, and that they will broach a different subject and leave our attempts on the wayside, unattended. There is also the possibility that two completely different conversations could be held at one and the same time. It would be something of a challenge, but anything is possible, for those who take the first step forward and enter new, undiscovered, territory.