You may find this paradoxical, but I’ve never been a good letter-writer. I just didn’t like the medium, which was in vogue when I was a child and teenager; once I sat down with pen and paper, my mind invariably went blank.
In those days, there didn’t seem to be much in my life that was interesting enough to put into a letter. On the phone with someone, you could riff off each other’s tidbits of information, and in my email correspondence with my brother there’s always something to chat about. There’s a give-and-take with both of those methods of communication that feels a lot more natural to me.
I even loved the process of writing by hand, in a nice cursive script that I developed from first grade onward. In Grade One I was the first student allowed to write in ink rather than pencil-lead because of my careful penmanship (that’s what teachers did in those days, as odd as that likely seems today). But as a way of sharing emotions with someone, or the trivia of day-to-day life, letters didn’t do it for me.
My mother was a long-time letter writer. She emigrated to Canada not long after the Second World War, and most of her family and friends were still in Europe, so she didn’t have a lot of choice if she wanted to keep in touch. Her oldest friend, a fellow nurse during the war, kept up a faithful correspondence with her for fifty years! After my dad passed away, my mom decided she wanted to take my hubby and me to Europe to show us places she’d lived, and we made a point of finding her friend’s home in a small village about half an hour outside Vienna, Austria so that they could see each other in person one more time. It was a remarkable journey.
What brought all this to mind was an article called Friday essay: a lament for the lost art of letter-writing – a radical art form reflecting ‘the full catastrophe of life’ in Conversation online magazine. The author lists very good reasons for why she loves the art of letter-writing, including the historical value of extant letters from history, although some of those missives are intimately personal, like those of James Joyce describing (for some reason) his wife’s farting.
He would have fit right into today’s era of far Too Much Information. Apparently the publication of Joyce’s letters were upsetting for his grandson, and I would have felt the same under the circumstances. And maybe that was the heart of why I never took to writing letters, apart from a handful my hubby and I. when we were still just dating, poured out to each other when he was out of town working for several months and we missed each other intensely. But I wouldn’t want to share them with anyone – they were something only for the eyes of the two of us.
I can’t imagine what inspired Joyce to wax explicit about how his wife passed gas – that’s not something that would ever occur to me for the subject of a letter. Perhaps with 10 siblings he became used to knowing the most intimate daily details of his large family. I’ve never read any of his writings and don’t have a good sense of his personality. But I assume that if one’s willing to commit something to paper (or email/text message), one’s comfortable with putting it out into the world.
On the other hand, people have gotten themselves into a great deal of trouble for just that, such as King Charles’ infamous letters to Camilla when he was still Prince of Wales and still married to Diana.
But I enjoyed reading the article and thought I’d pass it along. If you’re interested, you can read more about historically-famous letters here.
Were or are you a letter-writer? If so, what have you loved about it?