My letters look like a boy made them, or so my friend who I consistently write to says. I write on tiny journal paper, and my letters tend to be sent in massive envelopes. The occasional coffee stain proliferates my writing, because even if I am not drinking coffee while I am writing it, I am probably drinking coffee when I rushedly prepare it to be sent. When your life dramatically changes in a particular moment, receiving a letter, even from someone who knows about the situation can be quite a relief. The art of letter writing is in the time it takes to create it. We do not have the luxury of immediate updates. While the mark of a coffee stain to a friend is permanent, our feelings rarely are.
BrainPickings has had a great series of articles on love letter writing, my two favourite being between Sartre and Beauvoir, and then from members of the LGBTQ community, particularly Margaret Mead. I sometimes (rather pretentiously) wonder if I were to have biographers, what content would they derive the story of my life from. We can learn so much from Mead and Sartre, see their ideas grow, and that’s only because someone decided to save those intimate thoughts, the one’s that echoed the private things we might only share with someone else. Besides that, writing letters gives us space to have a dialogue with one person that is frozen in time.
Jana Styblova makes a case not just for the written word, but also for writing the letter with something that carries more permanence. The words in a handwritten letter are more poignant because of the medium allows fewer obvious revisions, unless one wants to rewrite an entire page. There is something heartfelt in having to make sure every sentence hits home. Ultimately, a letter will represent something more raw if the labour it takes to create requires a little more effort. When I receive letters written with a typewriter, I still find them enjoyable because the analog medium requires a strange form of editing.
One of the nice things about going back to these physical mediums that have been forgotten is that we are allowed to recreate the rules. Where once we might have read guides on how to write the love letter, now we stumble through the awkward phrases, there are few pre-constructed rules to abide by, allowing a lot of freedom in the medium. There is an interesting anthropological work called Invitations to Love which covers the love letter writing of those in the town of Junigau in Nepal. Love letters become a way of preparing for eloping as to avoid arranged marriages. Those who write letters do so not just do so based on their own culture, but based on American notions of love, and love letter writing. It’s a hybridity of Nepalese cultural beliefs, and American romanticism.
I say this: I was in favor of waiting about one and a half to two years to get married, but today as I read your letter about getting married I felt so…… Why, oh why, do I feel so……today after reading your letter? You and I, after courting, will certainly get married, but what will the other villagers who see it and hear about it say? Of course, there’s nothing to fear once both our hearts have agreed but what to do?
The letter fell out of style with the rise of the email. But do emails really carry the same formality that letters do? When one of my close friends left Toronto to go back to Germany in the Spring of 2009, we began a long series of letter writing, where we opened up in a way that was very different than how we had talked previously. As her letters showed such beauty and confusion, whereas mine seemed to me like a tired journey of failures. When she sent me the most beautiful letter explaining how she fell in love, our letter writing stopped. It was not because I was not happy, but rather that receiving something like that and sending back sadness was hard. When I had eventually sent her a letter she had moved and I had never even known. When she asked me to write her emails, I tried, but because of their instantaneousness they lacked the long narrative journey that I had felt before. The time and formality of sending those letters had made them harder to send, which gave every letter sent more weight. I opened myself in a way I could not have if I had done so in person or by email. The letter becomes a bridge into our internal worlds.
From Mead to Benedict:
The mail which I got just before leaving Honolulu and in my steamer mail could not have been better chosen. Five letters from you — and, oh, I hope you may often feel me near you as you did — resting so softly and sweetly in your arms. Whenever I am weary and sick with longing for you I can always go back and recapture that afternoon out at Bedford Hills this spring, when your kisses were rained down on my face, and that memory ends always in peace, beloved.
Next week, I will be starting a new project on top of getting back into weekly writing. There will now be a new post on Thursdays, at least once every two weeks.