On writing a letter

When I was in elementary and middle school in India, our English class included a topic called ‘Letter Writing’. As the name suggests, this involved learning to write formal or friendly letters based on a prompt; such as ‘Write a letter to your local city official about a leaking pipe’, or ‘Write a letter to your cousin describing your latest vacation’.

Like most things in the Indian education system I grew up with in the early nineties, the actual teaching sucked out every aspect of letter writing that involved actual communication. We were graded on how close our letters read like a set of form letters. This meant that the formal letters had to be written in the typical stilted, flowery Indian English style: “I hereby submit my request for your humble perusal.” As if that weren’t bad enough, all I remember of the friendly form letters is that many of them were written by 19th century British noblemen to their relatives, discussing deep, meaningful experiences such as — fox hunts. Unspeakable, uneatable and entirely unrelatable.

When it comes down to writing letters of any kind, even a greeting card, this is the first association that comes to my mind. Is it any wonder that people who go through an education like this completely detest the concept of letters? What grade will my letter get? Will it ever have the savoir-faire of English noblemen writing to each other about fox hunts, or contemplating their beards after a week of sailing solo around Santorini? Colonialism still holds us Indians in its merciless grip, apparently.

All of this is one of two long-winded excuses for why I haven’t written letters to people in a while. Recently, a close friend (she’s Canadian, so I automatically assume a modicum of weirdness) decided to institute a tradition of writing letters to her friends. I highly encouraged her and was gung-ho about it, but after receiving three beautifully written missives, I still found myself unable to write back. Every time a picked up a pen with an intent to write, I saw flashes of a stern Indian schoolteacher ruthlessly wielding her red pen, and was simply too traumatized to continue.

The second excuse is probably far more common: “I don’t have anything to write!” This sounded incredulous, even to myself. After reading three letters from my friend describing her life and asking me questions about mine, did I really not have any answers for her? Aye, therein lies the rub. Answers! Must. Have. Them.

We often consider email and texts as far more efficient substitutes for paper letters, but the fact is that they are a faster, but different mode of communication. With email and text, a conversation is far more transactional: a question is asked, an immediate answer expected in response. A few such transactions later, the conversation loop is closed and we expect a new one to begin.

Not so in letters — letters are not about providing immediate answers to questions. Letters are long-term conversations — in which it’s perfectly acceptable to leave a question unanswered for weeks, months or even decades, as long as we acknowledge that the question exists — and we may or may not have an answer for it someday. In a letter, a question can be answered with another question, which can take the conversation futher in directions the correspondents may not have imagined at the outset.

This is a difficult mindset to get into. We have become quite accustomed to the idea that we must know the answer, or at least an intelligent-sounding one, to any question that’s asked of us, and we must present it promptly on asking, lest we be judged to be too slow, or inefficient or worse, uninteresting. But this new mindset, one where we’re quite ok with unknowing and communicate anyway, can be far more forgiving, relaxing and ultimately, rewarding.

Two things changed that got me to finally write a response to my friend after a delay of half a year. First, I actually did have some answers to her questions, at least better answers than “I have no f*cking clue!” That, by itself wouldn’t have been enough for me to commit those answers to paper. The second thing was that I spent a week in Hawai’i, delightfully disconnected from the internet — email, Facebook, Youtube, all of it. What an ordeal! I spent a lot of time writing in a journal, thoughts that had been buzzing in my head for the past weeks or months. And I realized, a journal is simply a letter to oneself. A letter is simply a collection of thoughts meant to be shared with another person. Why should anyone else get to decide how my letters should be written — or assign them a grade, for that matter? A letter does not need to provide coherent, complete answers to every question it’s responding to, but rather be part of a long conversation that unfolds gradually over time, an exploration of intimate, personal topics between two people, something more solid and tangible than electronic messages, something that stays with us longer.

I said there were two things that changed, but there was a third; a book (it’s always a book with us nerds, isn’t it?). This one’s called “The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse” by Louise Erdrich. The book, which I read on my Kindle, inspired me to write a letter on paper, oh the irony! Anyway, the book is about a Catholic priest at a Native American reservation in the Midwest, who writes letters to the Vatican over a period of eighty or so years. Each letter reports on incidents in his diocese, and asks for guidance on a variety of gradually escalating ecclesiastical dilemmas. He never receives a response, but he keeps sending the letters through a multitude of popes, perhaps just as a way to think through his problems. The book opens with him on his deathbed, composing his last letter containing a deep, dark secret about himself, one that is surprisingly relevant to modern readers.

I read that book about letters being an ongoing conversation (even a one-sided one) for decades, and something sparked inside me. That was the inspiration I needed to pick up a pen and start scratching paper with it — the result was that in a couple of hours, I had written a ten page letter that she will be ecstatic to read.

They say that writing letters is a lost art, one that has become extinct, rendered obsolete under the onslaught of faster electronic methods of communication. But is that really the case? Are there things that you simply want to share with someone, even if they never respond? Are there questions you want to ask them that you’re really curious about, even when the answers may never reveal themselves? Do you just want to take a few steps together on their life’s journey and see the world more through their eyes? Consider writing a letter — you might find it easier and far more valuable than you think.