John Donne: “ . . . more than kisses, letters mingle souls.”
D.J. Taylor: “It’s is difficult not to feel that when writers stopped sending old-fashioned, hand-written letters to each other, literary life lost a dimension.”
A quote from “Along Publisher’s Row” by Campbell Geeslin: “Does anyone think an exchange of a lot of e-mails deserves to be printed and bound into a book?”
Even as a young girl, I had letter-writing companions, a favorite cousin, a fellow counselor from camp, a friend who had moved away. I poured out my heart to these special people, and they responded. Letters kept distant friends close, and they helped me hone my writing skills, too.
The letter writing started for me at the typewriter, however, not with the hand-written missives Taylor commends. Writing by hand is arduous for me, always has been, and others find reading my handwriting arduous, too. Just about the only things I do with pen in hand are autographs and grocery lists. (A teenage foster daughter once said to me, “You know, Mom, it’s a good thing I’m a good kid or no one would accept these typed absence excuses at school.”)
All of which leaves me asking a very basic question: Why this romantic culture that suggests that letters from a typewriter are less than those produced by a quill pen? And why are e-mails any less than letters? Why not gather a book of thoughtfully conceived, heartfelt e-mails? Does the medium really diminish the message?
It is a bad habit of our kind—by which I mean writers and other such literary folk—to denigrate technology any place it touches the words we love. Most of us are willing to climb onto a jet plane or carry a smartphone, and yet too many make a point of eschewing e-books and other such readerly technology. I suspect, though, that nothing has made more of a difference to the quality of our work than being able to put our words on a screen where we can then revise as often as like. How clumsy and difficult revising used to be! Back in my typewriter days when I used a different color of paper for each draft, I used to maintain that I revised about as much as anyone could. Once I began writing on a computer, I discovered I had barely begun to rethink and rework. Even my e-mails are better than my letters ever were. How I used to long to be able to make changes in a letter without retyping it!
Yes, I suppose e-mails often come out of a culture of hurry, a culture of get it down and move on. But all e-mails aren’t created equal any more than all letters ever were. During the years my son, Peter, was terminally ill, I spent time with a therapist who encouraged me to journal. I understood what she wanted and why. But I couldn’t do it. I spent all day at the keyboard, and I couldn’t return to that keyboard to create for only my own eyes. And yet, I knew that writing would help as much as anything could.
And so one day I came up with a solution. I began to send long, carefully worded, deeply felt e-mails to my dear friend Norma Fox Mazer. And she read the e-mails and responded. The conversation was intense, thoughtful, loving and made even more impactful by being swift. The same process with ink and paper couldn’t have come close.
I have a love-hate relationship with technology, as I presume most old ladies do. Technology makes my work easier, more fluid. It also too often confounds me. (Fortunately, I have a son-in-law who bails me out again and again.) But I grow weary of the assumptions too many writer types make about this changing world. Is an e-book really a book? Of course, it is, and now that I find small print more of a challenge, a book that provides its own light and permits me to choose the size of the type—I read on my iPad—is more than a book. It’s a blessing.
What is the point I’m wandering around here? Only this. Let’s resist using our energy to try to hold off a changing world and concentrate instead on using that world to enhance our work. Whatever shape the bucket that carries our words, our words will still be needed. One form of technology will keep supplanting another, but we writers will remain. As will our stories, our essays, our letters.
“More than kisses, letters mingle souls,” and that’s no less true when the letters wing their way to their destinations through cyber space.