Do you remember what it was like to write a letter? Not a thank you card (not that people write those any more) or one of those all-purpose family update Christmas card enclosures, or even a postcard, but a real letter? Do you remember how excited you were once to receive letters, maybe needing to decipher handwriting, re-reading for complex meanings, stowing it carefully in the envelope for later? Did you ever write or receive a letter on onion-skin air mail stationary, the kind that folded up to make its own envelope? Did you ever re-write a letter to make it seem more spontaneously brilliant or heartfelt, to make sure the handwriting was lucid, dreaming all the while of the response you might get?
Do you remember how good it feels to have a pen in your hand? The right kind of pen, with the right kind of ink flow and point size, pressed against the right kind of paper that gives just enough but not so much that your hand slides and your ink runs? When was the last time you wrote more than just signing your name?
I have drawers full of letters in my home. Someday I will read through the inherited letters between my parents and paternal grandparents as I try to understand their relationship and my family history. For now, those stay tucked away. The trauma of loss is still too strong to pull those out and remain unscathed. I have other letters, though, that I read from time to time that make me unreasonably happy. What I like best about them, weirdly, is their lack of context. They are often responding to a letter of mine that I may never see again – a missing partner, possibly lost to time or trash. Though I like to think that the kinds of people I write to are the kind that know better than to throw away correspondence, my view of human nature isn’t quite that rosy.
Let me just say that an email is not the same as a letter. Sure, there’s some analog nostalgia at play when I make such a claim – emails, after all, can be archived and called up in a flash, sent in mere seconds, easily sorted by author and date, and don’t take up much physical space in your house. An email is easy to send – something that cuts both ways. A letter requires more thought. Not just the sitting down to write, but the addressing of an envelope, the finding of a stamp, the waiting days to know of receipt, the uncertainty (despite the miracle of the U.S. Postal Service) of receipt. And while you may be precious about the typeface of your email, the reality is that all typed correspondence is impersonal when compared to the idiosyncrasies that handwriting allows. When I get hurried (or have a glass or two of wine), my handwriting flattens like a dangerous EKG signal. Other times, when I am particularly thoughtful, the vowels are fully formed and the consonants spike appropriately. If I am confused, sometimes my writing takes on a peculiar backwards slant, mirroring the work of my mind to reach back into the morass of events and pull them gently forward. It has rarely been described as “legible.”
As a child, I refused all attempts to train me to hold my pen in a proper manner. This means that the fourth finger on my right hand has a permanent callous and a fingernail bent with a vertical crease up the middle from four decades of use. My cursive has never been up to par, but is still for my money vastly more efficient than printing – usually when I print, it’s in reaction to anger or frustration.
Last week my husband asked for a little notebook. He was embarking on a new writing project and wanted something dedicated for that purpose. When I said I didn’t know where one might be, he said: “Surely, if there’s anything this house has in surplus, it’s little useless notebooks.” This is a true observation. When you write as much as I do – pithy observations, observations that seemed pithy at the time, character studies, emblems of anger, totems of love, short story ideas already doomed to obsolescence – you need many small notebooks.
Some years ago I was invited to interview a college professor who had recently published a collection of the writings kept in the many hundreds of tiny notebooks that Robert Frost used. They’re held in the collection of Dartmouth College’s excellent library, and they were full of incomprehensible scrawls, recursive notations, grocery lists, and all the things that I, an unknown aspiring author, keeps in my notebooks. I’ll admit that I was a little ego-boosted by the whole affair. Who among us, the society of keepers of little notebooks, doesn’t secretly fantasize that our scrawlings will one day be decoded and carefully considered like the Talmud? In the meantime, we write. We write to ourselves, and occasionally (not as often as we should), we write to others.
Writing from hotels
This used to be something I did. I’d check into a hotel, find the stationary, and dash off a letter to a loved one. I enjoyed the process of mailing, of seeing if the front desk had a stamp, of watching the letter go into a pile and hoping it made the destination unscathed. This is especially fun when writing from abroad. In the first place, there are the foreign stamps – made even more foreign by the fact that you don’t know how much money actually a stamp costs. As a child, I loved foreign stamps. I imagined their far-off provenance, steamed them off envelopes and kept them for a fantastic future increase in value. When my father died, I found out that he was the same way. I inherited volumes of worthless stamps from countries I’ve never heard of, meticulously kept as a well-licked atlas of the world. I can’t bear to get rid of them, even though I’ve been told that philately’s heyday is long past.
These days I don’t do this much anymore, especially not from domestic hotels. The front desk staff seem genuinely confused at the prospect of actual mail, rarely have a stamp, and in any case there’s not stationary available in the kind of cheaper hotels I stay in these days. But the other day I found some old stationary and decided to use it.
When I first moved to Montgomery, there was a period of a few years when I was going back and forth from the Middle East pretty regularly. Usually I was spending a week or two in Doha – the capitol of Qatar. I flew over Iran! I was there when we bombed Libya, something that caused considerable anxiety among my friends and family. I learned to register with the Embassy, to pay attention to travel alerts, even as I never felt unsafe for a single minute while in-country. Except in taxis. Doha driving makes New York seem like Dothan.
When you’re so far away, your clock gets flipped. You are 12 hours apart from your loved ones, and it gets hard to stay in touch – particularly when you are working 12 hour days. Letters become your lifeline, even when you learn that usually you arrive home before the letter takes its sweet time getting to Montgomery. There’s still a feeling of connectedness that comes from setting pen to paper, addressing the person you love thousands of miles away. You can, if you do it right, come to feel like you are speaking to them directly. Skype can’t substitute for this kind of intimacy. Neither, if you really think about it, can email. You can read someone’s heart in a letter. If you know them well enough, you can decode their cursive cadences into a context for the words on paper that makes them more than the sum of their parts. Even if the letter arrives after you are safely tucked in bed and sleeping off an epic jet lag, it still speaks to the sense of distance and longing, to the particular distance that can sit between but not separate two people who love each other to distraction.
When you write from hotels, you either do it in the bar or your room. Writing from the bar will allow you to offer a series of observations; it gives a sense of local flavor and lets you riff on the circumstances and cast of characters around you. You will describe the people, their dress, the music, the menu, your feelings at being surrounded by experiences that your loved one may never share. Writing from your room draws you deeper into yourself. It makes you think of all the times before you’ve set pen to paper. If the room is quiet and sheathed against sunrise (the better to help your jet lag), you may lapse into a meditative state, feeling as if the person is right there with you, as if they could touch your neck as you hunch over the ergonomically incorrect writing desk that even the nicest hotels have on offer. I have written letters both ways and never regretted my approach.
The point is to seize the words inside of you and make them count. The point is to bring your interior conversation out into the light and set it down for someone else to examine, with only the filter of cursive and time. The point is not to show how you are in love; the point is to be in love, at that moment, and to craft the words that reflect your feelings without the interfering filters of maudlin, of precision, of preciousness, of reserve.
I found this stationary today in a forgotten drawer. It’s not a tiny notebook, but it might as well be – it’s a blank page full of promise, a love letter waiting to be written, the unfilled ledger of my heart. I am traveling this week, and have determined to resume my custom of writing from hotels. This time, I’ll bring my own stamp.