Friday, April 03, 2009

Belles lettres

I've mentioned before that I used to be a devoted letter-writer--not just in high school and college, but for many years afterwards. I didn't engage in paper correspondence with all my friends, but for a long while there were five or six people (not always the same people, and some cycled in and out) with whom I regularly exchanged letters.

There were many reasons for this. When I started college in 1993, email wasn't widely available outside of the universities, so not everyone we kept in touch with had access to it--and neither did most of us when we were away from campus. Growing up in a pre-internet age also meant that many of us had developed a letter-writing habit before we got to college, so it seemed natural to continue sending letters through the post, at least occasionally, even to people whom we also emailed.

Indeed, most of the letters I sent and received were probably written after email became more accessible, between the ages of about 20 and 27. That too makes sense: first there were college summers spent in our boring home towns or struggling in strange cities on minimally-paid internships; then there were new cities and new jobs or graduate or professional school. My friends and I moved a lot during those years, and our newer friends came and went and so did our romantic relationships. I remember my 20s as being a lot of fun, and they were--but in retrospect it strikes me that we spent a lot of time in our heads, trying to figure stuff out. Our letters reflect that.

Around age 28, my friends started getting married, and that ended or at least severely curtailed some of my correspondence. When my friend Dave got married, I was in grad school and, uninspired by anything I could afford on his registry, I decided to give him and his wife copies of all the letters and cards I'd received in the 10 years we'd been friends. It wound up being an insane project: I spent hours photocopying--sometimes in color, and on high-quality paper--all of Dave's letters and their envelopes and pasting them into an enormous album. I'm sure it cost more than I'd have spent on a gift, and it took ages and ages. But Dave had always written long, thoughtful letters in an elegant hand, choosing stamps and greeting cards with care, and it struck me that his wife might want to know his younger self more fully, and that Dave himself might enjoy revisting it.

Even those of us who haven't married are now in a more stable phase of life, at least emotionally and psychologically, and we have less need (or maybe it's just less time) to puzzle out our feelings in longhand. I suspect we've also finally gotten so accustomed to email that we miss having the ability to edit and rephrase and adjust our writing as we go.

And yet, after two or three years in which my correspondence was limited to Christmas cards and thank-you notes, in the past few months I've sent half a dozen actual letters. One was to an old friend with whom I've reconnected on Facebook; two were to my grandmother, who's been very ill; and the rest were to my new fella. In all cases, writing an actual letter was what I wanted to do, damn the inefficiency, crossed-out phrases, and all the rest. The letters sent to my gentleman friend were hardly love letters--I'm not sure I could write a love letter if I tried--but with him as with my long-lost friend and my grandmother, there was something I wanted to say or do not adequately served by email, IM, or the telephone.

I'm not sure what that something is. Maybe I just spend too much time, these days, in front of a computer, so emailing friends doesn't feel sufficiently distinct from emailing students and colleagues or typing up quizzes. But whatever I was missing and whatever I've found, I'm enjoying it.


David said...

As the recipient of Flavia's very thoughtful wedding gift and, earlier, her letters, I can say that I do miss writing and receiving letters. I'm heartened that there have been some newer and more recent recipients of Flavia's letters, small written gifts in beautiful script.

Flavia said...


Ha! I didn't know whether you were still reading. I was thinking about that gift in part because, quite recently, my high school friend Victoria sent me a selection of the letters & enclosures I'd sent her, from about ages 18 to 23. And although I loved seeing the letters themselves--my old stationery and handwriting and the postmarks from my former addresses--actually reading the things was somewhat cringe-inducing.

I've still got a box and almost a half of the stationery I've used for the past ten years (Crane's Bar Harbor Blue in a laid finish--it's an unusually dark color for stationery, roughly equivalent to French blue); I bought up a ton before grad school, when they were discontinuing it. Maybe I ought to resume my letter-writing on a broader scale.

YK said...

I've kept in touch with one of my friends from high school for several years now, mostly through e-mail, and it's strange how the content of our letters has remained quite constant, even though we've both changed as people. It's led to this odd situation where we can still write to each other, but whenever we meet in person, it's actually uncomfortable, because we're so different nowadays. When we write back and forth, though, we can still pretend to be our former selves.