time for writing.
Let’s take the meditation on what social media can and cannot do and expand it outward. I have a long history of letter-writing. I mean the writing of actual letters, on paper, and then sent to people through the mail. Sometimes they were plain old letters. More often they also had some aspect of an art project to them, photocopies of images or drawings placed just so, or individual characters emphasized to make the overall message also a puzzle. Always they were about what was happening to me, heavy or light, what mattered, wondering about the lives of others, asking for details, craving connectedness.
I started corresponding with people fairly young. I had an older cousin in Finland who taught English. I corresponded with her and with her students starting, I think, when I was 7 or 8. I’ve corresponded with my cousin Adam, as he and I lived in lots of different places in the US and elsewhere, since we were teenagers. I’ve corresponded with people I’ve met working on archaeological digs, with people I met (some of them in person, some of them only in letters) during the years I published h2so4, or worked for music magazines. One of my favorites of these correspondents was Nicholas Johnson, whose friendship I talk about here, someone I met only once in person but then corresponded with for 20 years.
I’ve got lots of letters in my paper archives at home — very, very many letters from Heidi, and my cousin Adam, from Halliday (these three are all fabulous letter writers), from various old friends and exes (“ex,” here, stands for people who were once in my life but are not now, in various ways and for various reasons). In those files I’ve also kept notes — funny or important or mundane — left for me by various people I’ve lived with or who have stayed in my houses. These things all tell stories that are different from the stories memory tells me. Every time I go through those archives (this usually only happens when I’m moving) I’m surprised to re-discover that some past relationships were much more writing-heavy than I remember. Also, I get reminded that some past relationships or friendships really were sustained and important and not just the fleeting things they now seem to have been, after the intervening years dulls out the memory of them.
Sometimes it is impossible to look. Nicholas Johnson killed himself in 2012 and I have not been able to go back and look at our correspondence yet. Some day I will. I am glad the letters will be there when I am ready to read them. I know this because I have lost other people and have known when it was the right time to return to their letters.
What brings all this to mind today is an article I read recently about how we’ll manage to tell holocaust stories without the survivors here to tell them. This is a big-historical version of a problem that all of us face, of how (or whether) we retain things that matter to us. And also: of how and what those who follow after we’re gone will learn about us, should they wish to. The author of the article discusses how so many third generation people (whether the grandchildren of survivors or perpetrators) have been drawn to try to fill in gaps in their family history, and so often the most rich and informative links have been provided by old letters. People keep letters because they are meaningful and easy to carry. Whenever I look at my own old letters it strikes me how small and large they are all at once. It fits in your pocket and yet having someone’s letter is like having a trace of their person on you — the handwriting, the fold of the paper, the choice of the paper and envelope, what they included in the letter and what they left out, and how you alone know about the context more than anyone else would — it all carries reminders of the embodied presence of the person who wrote. And sometimes, old letters teach you about aspects of your own life that you have not recently remembered or emphasized (for better or worse).
It made me wonder: what happens now that we all write emails instead? Not only do we not leave physical traces of our thoughts on paper, but what we write in an email is often not the same as what we would write in a handwritten letter. While I do sometimes write actual longish thoughtful emails to people I care about, mostly what email is for is establishing a plan or communicating a piece of information. So email tends to lack both the physical presence and the meaningful content of a letter.
Email and other digital forms of communication can carry quite a bit of significance and sometimes do. There are artful ways to use it and various forms of social media. But very few people in my life, including me, take the time to do so. Nor do most of them (including me) write letters anymore. What traces will there be of our relationships, what mattered to us, and the choices we made, if we leave no paper and the servers get wiped? Or if we never take the time to look?
I don’t want you to get the idea that I am obsessed with the past or time’s passing. I’m pretty happily anchored in the present and, like I said, as much as it’s true that I keep archives of letters, I also don’t tend to look at them. But this month of writing every day, combined with the project I’m involved in about how time passes in law, has got me thinking about what it means, on the small scale of me and on the larger scale of what evidence people and cultures leave behind, that we live as we do right now with regard to writing.
I just remembered that I have written about this before and was able to find that moment here. I learned there that the last time I had this thought I went to a bar, ordered a beer, and sat down and wrote 4 letters on paper to various correspondents: Adam, Nicholas, Ian and Lou. That was June of 2005. I think the only handwritten letter I’ve sent since then was to Halliday, some time in the last two years. This is something I’ve lost, it strikes me. There is a real joy in sending and receiving letters through the post, and of having a tangible reminder of the time it takes to keep someone in your life.
I went looking for the earlier blog post about the loss of letter writing because I wanted to get the wording right on this gem. My grandma (my father’s mother, Marta) wrote this to me on May 14, 2003 (in a letter, not over email): “Dear Jill: I have decided that the art of letter-writing is dead. Email has taken away this lovely custom, and soon there will be no need for adjectives and adverbs. Eventually commas and semi-colons will go, but the period will survive to write .com. Daily I receive nothing but silly forwards that seem to come from illiterate ghosts who never include a personal message.” My grandmother was a really good writer of letters, and a good writer in general.
I like my grandma’s letter and the image at the top of this post because both communicate something about the passing of time and the transmission of things that matter that not everyone can see — seeing it requires knowledge and a context, and so corresponds in some way to how meaningful relationships get built. They get built, in part, when you give time to someone and remember why it matters.
As I mentioned when I wrote about time and social media a couple of days ago, I am going to try to be more mindful of all of that.