The Art of Letters

Echolocation for Human Hearts

“I should have wrote a letter
And grieve what I happen to grieve”

I’m in the middle of composing a letter to an old college friend who lives on the east coast. In the past few months, we’ve begun corresponding via handwritten letters. We haven’t seen each other for three years; we’ve neither spoken nor communicated via emails or texts. In January, I received a thick envelope out of the blue; it was packed with eight pages of yellow legal pad paper, folded over three times, bearing lines of barely legible scrawl. I sent a long letter back, and received a longer one in return. Finding myself in the middle of this unexpected exchange — consisting of 8–10 pages per turn — that has broached questions of belief, faith, and vocation, I’ve wondered how we’ve come to know each other better now than when we lived in the same city?

In fact, I am shocked by how significant this correspondence feels. More weighty than a hundred small-talks that resemble overplayed reruns on the Lifetime channel. Our medium of choice happens to be time-consuming, labor-intensive, and nearly obsolete, but it’s one of the best and most meaningful things in my life right now. This only confirms my long-held suspicion about technology: networking, speed, and frequent connection aren’t correlated with depth or intimacy.

In the book How to Write Letters: A Manual of Correspondence, which was first published in 1876, James Willis Westlake writes that in a person’s letters “we get nearer than anywhere else to man’s inner life — to his motives, principles and intentions.” “They are more natural than orations and public speeches, and more advised than conferences or private ones.” He adds, “letters are written when the mind is as it were in dressing-gown and slippers — free, natural, active, perfectly at home, and with all the fountains of fancy, wit, and sentiment in fully play.”

Westlake points out that a letter is valuable not only for the knowledge it provides but for its moral influence. This I find to be overwhelmingly true. But a letter is all the better when it’s lively and entertaining. Tell me about your existential crisis, but tell also about the mundane, like how you were amused by the snow-covered cars inscribed with caveman-like drawings of genitalia. Or that time you cried during Toy Story and were so embarrassed about it. Ideal too is the mix of studied eloquence and regional idioms. The phrase “dumb as a sack of doorknobs” is as sharp and delightful as a reference to Czeslaw Milosz. And letters don’t have to be precious: a well-placed cuss word is surprisingly satisfying.

What about the mechanics of letter-writing make it so conducive to a meaningful exchange? Unlike other mediums, it feels truly like an intimate communion of two solitudes (I think of the Rilke quote in which he writes, “love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other”). You begin by writing in complete privacy and comfort, without the awkwardness of immediacy or the self-consciousness of physical presence. This is a safe place; here your solitude excludes loneliness. Unlike crippling bouts of neuroses and paranoia, the activity of this particular solitude is somehow a leap over the wall of self. Writing as an act of deciphering thoughts and feelings is therapeutic, but in a letter, you’re not writing exclusively for yourself. Your words are in fact a quiet gift intended for a single person, without the egotism and voyeurism that infiltrates social media. After you are done, you must give this part of yourself away completely; you retain no record of what you gave (you can’t search for it, like in your email inbox). You send forth a chamber of secrets. This is at once terrifying and thrilling.

After you receive a letter, you have time to collect your thoughts, let associations arise, and stew over the ideas that have been suggested — which makes all the difference. Time is stretched: the intervals of time by which texts and emails abide are elongated into weeks. Minutes and hours are loosened from the grip of urgency that technology often imposes. Patience is a virtue again. The labor of writing by hand enforces a slow and thoughtful rhythm. That letters are a form of literature allow a lyricism and grandiloquence that would be strange in spoken conversation; that they’re personal and private means you can let your guard down and be disarmingly honest, if you choose. Letters are the perfect forum for people who are earnest to a fault. They are negotiations of time, of the past and present; they are presence amidst absence; they are more potent still because of absence, or in spite of it.

From what I’ve observed, the content of a good letter stands in opposition to all the rote and mechanistic blandness of forced interactions such as: awkward small talk, resumes, boring cover letters, gratuitous solicitations, megaphone evangelism, spam. Like captivating song lyrics, they explore what these other forms of communication leave out: matters of the soul, the thoughts in between thoughts, the feelings that lead to nowhere and everywhere, the knotty grievances that barrel through you soundlessly. You might never talk about job titles or rent costs, which league of schools you attended, or what degrees and honorary titles you each received. Scripted matters of fact seem to lose their significance in such letters. You might get the details instead, the tender moments thought to be too trivial and irrelevant for formal documents, too ethereal for texts and snap chats; you might become privy to glimpses of liminal spaces otherwise forgotten — surprisingly evocative, acutely sensed, and strangely staggering. There’s a reason why our strongest sentiments — love, grief, heartache, angst — find their clearest voice in letters, as if these feelings would be rend asunder if slipped into speech, as if the silence hovering above written word were an embalming fluid, as if the sacredness of these sentiments were unpronounceable. The letter becomes the keeper of our darkest and most glorious parts; it does not belong to us, but we belong to it.

I’m reminded of a statement David Foster Wallace made in an interview about the role of fiction. I think it also applies to a finely wrought and open-hearted letter: “We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain. We might then also conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.” If not merely to keep in touch or serve as catharsis, then maybe, at the very least, writing (and receiving) a letter helps us feel a little less alone. And I certainly won’t complain about that.

Hey, why don’t you write a letter to a friend?

Natalie So is the editor-in-chief of Edition Local and curator of New Geometries. She writes, photographs, and blogs from San Francisco, CA. If you want to follow along, you can sign up for her newsletter, a weekly compendium of knick-knacks and paddy whacks.

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