When I was starting out as a writer, my mother took me to talk with a journalist-friend-of-the-family: this visit had a practical purpose, as we wanted to find out if there was any chance of my fulfilling my “work experience” week at the newspaper she worked for. More importantly, though, it was a chance for me to talk more generally with someone who made their living from words. I think I already knew that journalism wasn’t where I was heading—I dally too long over sentences. Anyway, I’d already published a small handful of poems (establishing an embarrassingly traceable juvenilia…) so when she let us know that the work experience slots were already filled, we talked instead about the dailiness of writing. In the context of this conversation, the subjects of both diary-keeping and letter-writing arose.
Letter-writing in particular: because for a long time I’ve been a letter writer. Though my letter writing goes through its fits and starts (sometimes I’ll maintain a steady stream of handwritten chatter with a dozen correspondents; other times I’ll straggle behind, taking a month or two to answer a single letter) letters are part of who I am.
Of course, the old “snail mail”—which I still think is a remarkably speedy service in most instances—is constantly being threatened with obsolescence. I read recently that the United States Postal Service has decided it can’t go on guaranteeing next-day delivery for first class letters. O! To wait two or three days! Well, it just increases the anticipation. The USPS is also considering once again abandoning its Saturday delivery service; that same service was the source of astonishment to me when I lived in America. Every time a letter arrived on a Saturday it seemed a particular blessing. Yes, the post service doesn’t have quite the same reliable income it used to as we jump into our inboxes online. I do it too.
Still, I write letters. The charm of the handwritten remains. With apologies to those penetrating the mysteries of my “style” for the first time.
Until recently I had been in one of my slow letter-writing phases. A few notes here and there last year upon my return to Australia. But then this year I made my usual list of things I want to do during this year: in lieu of resolutions, I make a list of intellectual and physical adventures I’d like to have. Alongside items such as “see 50 films in the cinema,” “try 3 news cuisines,” and “go hiking overnight” was my desire to “write 50 letters.” I’ve started on this with a vengeance. January is not yet done, and already I have popped ten epistles in the mail. (Incidentally, I was delighted when as a twelve-year-old I began to study Latin and three lessons in, when we started on nouns—feminine; first declension—one of our first vocabulary words was epistola; letter. Perhaps needless to add, I’ve been terribly fond of the Latinate, slightly grandiose “epistle” ever since.) Many of these letters already sent this year are the newsy pieces that flutter to Melbourne, the USA, Poland, Bulgaria—but some, too, are fan letters. Because I love to write the poets, novelists, artists, critics whose work means so much to me. I believe in giving praise to people who have made the things which have enriched my life so much.
The slowness of the handwritten (ah! Again the praise of slow!) and the lack of other things blinking on a screen in front of me really gives me a chance to focus my attention on the act of correspondence. Unlike the typical diary, a letter has a (particular) recipient—and a correspondence unfolds haltingly. The gaps during which a piece of paper travels between. A haltingness that allows distillation.
My journalist friend told my fourteen-year-old self to beware of letter-writing: that letters could be a writerly trap, take away from “real” writing time. And yet, she agreed, they are important too: correspondence creates an arena in which we can try out our preoccupations. More than once I have written a letter in the form of a poem, which has in turn spawned a “real” poem. And the epistolary poem is hardly new: the epistolary form in literature is lasting. Besides the receipt of letters which advance the plot of a story (ah, Mr Darcy’s confession of love to Miss Bennett) there are, of course, entire epistolary novels, from the mammoth Clarissa to the deliciously gossipy Les Liaisons Dangereuse. And then there’s the wealth of material added to our lives from the actual letters of authors: we think differently in conversation than just to ourselves. Without the letters, we would have no notion of Keats’s conception of negative capability. The letters of folk such as Coleridge, Flaubert, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, Virginia Woolf… from their thoughtful reflections on work and ideas to the more banal details of day-to-day life, they are treasures.
Which is not to say I believe my own letters are going to excite a myriad of readers—some of them might barely excite their intended recipients! So it could be that Janet Malcolm is right when she says, “A correspondence is a king of love affair… It is with our own epistolary personal that we fall in love, rather than with that of our pen pal.” I write letters because the act of communication, vital to us all, helps me gather my thoughts, gather my self, and carry them towards those other types of writing that I do.
Yes, the letters fall away at times. Especially when I find myself falling, absorbed, into a bout of “the work”—at those moments, sometimes I’ve already used all the words I have. But the letters bounce back, and with them I make webs that stretch all over the world. Then once more, tugging on those threads, I make poems.