This post is dedicated to my new friend Tammy, whom I met through Friendster (yes, you really can meet interesting people that way) thanks to the suggestion of a mutual friend (SBJ, to be specific), who thought we'd get along. We've been corresponding for less than three months, and she has already written me several of the best letters I have ever received in my entire life.
I think one reason I like blogging so much is that it's the closest I can come to writing letters all the time. The letter is one of my favorite art forms and one I think I'm particularly good at. I have always placed a high premium on good mail, and while I've learned to appreciate the virtues of email--its immediacy, for one thing--still, in many ways it's a sorry substitute for a real, honest-to-goodness letter. Most people send such short, inconsequential notes over email, and I still miss opening my mailbox, finding an envelope bearing the return address of some cool person, and knowing that inside are a couple of pages that will entertain and delight me.
Email has also hurt another of my favorite art forms, the postcard. What a great thing to find in your mailbox: a few really witty statements on the back of an interesting photo! I love getting and sending postcards, and used to devote a lot of time and energy to building up an impressive postcard collection. But these days I have only one friend who sends me postcards: John C, who not only sends postcards, but sends them with postmarks from Thailand and South Africa and Austria and so forth. (I am chagrined to admit I send him, at best, one postcard for every four or five he sends me, and mine have BORING postmarks.)
In Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, the heroine, Catherine Morland, is teased by the hero, Henry Tilney, when she suggests that she doesn't keep a journal. "Not keep a journal!" he exclaims, adding that
it is this delightful habit of journalizing which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female. Nature may have done something, but still I am sure it must essentially be assisted by the practice of keeping a journal.
The "usual style of letter-writing among ladies is faultless, except in three particulars," he assures Catherine, those three particulars being "a general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar." Whether or not journalizing contributes to the art of writing agreeable letters, I do know that my journal and my correspondence often overlap. I'm serious about journal-keeping. I use three-ring binders, and thanks to my industrial-strength three-hole paper punch, pretty much anything can be included in my journal. I used to put the best letters I receive in my journal, and given that I wrote drafts of letters (I typed them out on a typewriter, because my handwriting is so hard to read--even I have trouble with it)--I would keep copies of the more important letters I wrote as well. These days it's even easier: I write my journal on my computer now, and I just cut and paste important letters I've written or received from my email program to my word processing program. (Though I did get a notebook to dedicate entirely to Tammy's letters, because they deserve that kind of special attention.)
Here, for instance, are the opening and closing paragraphs of a letter dated August 22, 1990, sent to my friend Hakim in Seattle:
With such pleasure did I receive your postcard! I always wanted a depiction of the burning fires of hell. But even more than that, I was glad to know that you are alive, working for an entity that values you enough to give you raises, promotions, etc, even if you hate your job....
Anyway that's my life. Thanks again for the postcard, and drop me another line some time if when you feel like entrusting your deepest thoughts and feelings to the US Postal Service. (Isn't dropping a letter into that abysmal void known as a mailbox a real act of faith? It almost feels like flinging a paper airplane off a cliff. You never really know if it will arrive, be read, understood or even appreciated.... The feeling is even worse when you submit your writing to some literary magazine, but enough musings on the mail.) Anyway, send me some details on your life!
Or a letter to my sister Kathy, who sent me a map of Utah I needed for a class, along with some other stuff, including a stupid chauvinist letter somebody sent to the editor of BYU's "alternative" student paper, prompting me to send this reply dated May 1, 1989:
I received your charming map/BYU folder/sexist letter and commentary ensemble. THANK YOU. The map is exactly what I needed, the folder fills fantasies I had never dared express, and the sexist letter and commentary confirmed my belief that BYU is the stupidest university in the western United States. Nothing else is going on here. I haven't cut my thumb on a cheese grater in three whole days.
Sometimes, in the midst of writing a letter, I'll feel an excitement, an adrenaline rush. It's two things: the joy of creation, and the pleasure of performance. A good letter is art that fits in an envelope and is certain of its audience, which is a very good kind of art--not lucrative but still rewarding to produce. I believe that a good letter--even on e-mail--is more of a performance than it is a conversation, about on an equivalent with stand-up comedy or a good lecture. In these cases, you know your audience is there and you can strike whatever tone you like: conversational, intimate, formal. But you know that while there might be some interaction, it's really just you talking; you have to come up with the energy and ideas to sustain the entire discourse. You might get a reply, but it's still not really a conversation, because of the difference in position or the lapse in time; someone's on a stage speaking to a group of people who can zone out or walk out; or someone is writing to someone else who must receive and read the letter, and you have to say something that makes him/her want to reply.
I firmly believe in the restorative power of a good letter, especially when you're away from home. But few people seem to share my passion for composing quirky letters, or else they just don't see the therapeutic value in the practice, or else they're busy and/or lazy. I hate it when people ask a lot of questions as a substitute for thinking of any real response to whatever is before them in a letter. I like people who are funny and I like people who send enclosures (something else that has fallen by the wayside, thanks to email), whether they're poems or bookmarks or refrigerator magnets. I hate writing to people who think that e-mail forwards or excuses for why I'm not getting a more substantial letter constitute a real correspondence.
Aside from the time when I was in love with and unofficially engaged to a guy who lived 6000 miles away, mail was never so important to me in my whole life as when I was a missionary. On my mission, letters from home were addressed (in English) to the mission office in Taichung; the mission secretary would then stamp a missionary's current address in Chinese on the envelope, and forward the letters on. A few times he mixed up the address stamps and we got all of someone else's mail and none of our own. Once two of my letters arrived, for some reason, stamped MISSENT TO SAKARTA SOEKARRO HATTA. As if I knew where that was.
Despite the fact that families with missionaries in the field are supposed to write letters on a regular basis, many weeks went by when I got no mail from anyone in my family, and it always upset me. Mom insists that I have misremembered, that she wrote to me regularly, but I recorded every letter from home in my journal, and I also saved all the mail I got from her, and there isn't that much. My father sent me fewer than 20 letters the entire 80 weeks I was away. I was always begging for more mail from my family, but the pleas never had much effect. Instead, my mom informed me that "We are aware of the great sacrifice and inconvenience you are going through, but you would make yourself happier if you would be happy with the things you do receive from us....and we do have to lead our regular lives." The fact that they had to lead their regular lives was one of the reasons I was so upset: I felt so disconnected. Mom usually sent brief notes and would drop, casually, the information that my youngest sister had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, that my second sister had some new boyfriend. But rarely did anyone take time to write a letter and tell me what was going on. It was a sore spot my entire mission.
I doubted very seriously that my family was aware of what I was going through. When my brother John went on his mission in 1991, my mother had learned her lesson and tried to send him two pieces of mail every single week, one a genuine letter and the other a postcard or a brief note. I wrote to him every other week, whether he had answered or not. But one week, about three months before he finished his mission, he wrote an irate letter home because he had received only two letters that week, and neither had been from anyone in his family. Even though I was 29, I couldn't help saying to my mother, "See? I told you missionaries need a lot of mail, and I wasn't just being nasty when I complained that you didn't write enough."
There are many ways in which I have shed my missionary zeal (and plenty of other ways in which I never had much to begin with) but I am still filled with evangelical enthusiasm when it comes to writing letters. I would love for any and everyone reading this blog to post a comment or write me a letter, but if you won't do that, write to someone else! Write a good, long, proper letter that will conjure delight and wonder and gratitude, and make someone feel that seeing your name in his/her inbox is one of the nicest moments a day can bring.