Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company. – Lord Byron
Or don’t you like to write letters. I do because it’s such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you’ve done something. – Ernest Hemingway
Long, long ago, before cyberspace hummed incessantly with its lightening whizz of emails, images and chats, there was the humble letter, traversing – through clouds, over mountains, across seas – from one hand to another. Pen was put to paper, an envelope sealed, and off it flew like a wonky paper plane launched from a window, subject to all the hazards and delays of real time. Between Europe and Canada, it would reach its destination within eight to ten days, if it was lucky with connections, with the wind at its back. It has been years since I’ve written or received an old-fashioned letter and given the speed, facility and options of current communications, one wonders at the longing for so-called ‘snail mail’ – what did it give us that email, texting or instant messaging cannot?
ANSWER: Individuality, intimacy, the beauty of language … and the luxuriance of time, ever so savoured when shared with another. Simply put – sent or received, a letter was a gift.
In the old days, I’d light a candle or two, and on a table round or square, lay out several blank pages and a fine felt pen. To start, the act of writing meant matching pen to paper, often yellow newsprint, with its snag of surface and penchant for absorption. Wide margins to the left allowed afterthoughts or drawings and in green ink or black, words were scribbled, scratched and annotated and in the end, this messy but tangible gift replicated thoughts, abstractions, amusements and memories, as though a table were shared with laughter ‘til tears. Be they parent, sibling, friend, or lover, the recipient informed both the humour and gist, for sharing one-on-one is never generic but a fine tuning of things … a string of chords, a song for one.
Needless to say, things have changed. Current modes of exchange are instantaneous and there is great value in this, simplifying business negotiations, banking, purchases, sales, and especially, from an artist’s perspective, the sending of images – thank the cyberspace gods and the digital age for having put an end to the tedious preparation of slides!
… Yet, all this said, has personal communication become less personal as a result? Within our labyrinthine networks of friends we’ve never met – which, albeit, function beautifully to grapevine exhortations, opinions, and information – have we lost in this process, the concept of the recipient?
Those first years in Spain (before internet cafes) in finding a letter under the door, I’d make a cup of coffee, climb the stairs to my sun-filled studio and to the voices of children playing in the Plazoletta below my balcony, I’d taste the words of those dear, as though it were a meal, taking time to digest the humour, the thoughts, the imagery and the moments there described. Mar’s letters might take two or three sittings for they were like chapters of a book and were sometimes relished while soaking in a bath, Robert’s thoughtful meanderings arrived often in richly enigmatic handmade envelopes boding of mystery and the depth of his ongoing analysis of life and its experiences, Patrick’s wit and facility with putting things succinctly always brought a smile, BPZ’s warped perspective on little things – be they the Santoids of Xmas or the ironing of shirts – never failed to bring laughter, and Jim’s richly descriptive tales of countryside walks and art-making always left me inspired. And beyond what was written there was the writing itself, small or voluminous – my father’s hand shaken with age, and my mother’s flowing script – the way ink rolled across a page echoed the cadence of their voices and the paper they had touched brought me closer to their moments. Such pieces might be framed, like works of art, combining concepts, texture, colour, line and composition. As a recipient, such communications were the ultimate in correspondence – so why have we (and I, especially) abandoned the snail mail mode?
It takes time to live in the moment, to scribble words to just one when we are inundated with emails, queries, requests, and the now accepted instant responses that life demands. It takes time to write and it takes time to receive. Although I still write real letters – very occasionally – to a handful of friends, these missives are not as real as they once were. The thoughts may be the same but computers discard the mess in the margins, the scratched out words, the drawings and the scribbles, the speech bubbles and the cramped notes which twist around the lower corner of a page. That said, writing this has inspired me to take one day or one week each year, to scribble a letter to a friend or friends, on real paper with real ink, for old time’s sake and for the sake of the personal in communication, lest it be lost.