Mingling Souls

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?”

4_22Even 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.

18 thoughts on “Mingling Souls

  1. ellalee

    Lovely post, though methinks there’s more than a bit of defensiveness that shines through. 😉 I grew up with computers and while I love the ease and convenience of automatic word processing, I also think there’s something beautiful about the labor, the time consumption, the personality, and the physicality of written letters. Sometimes, I even compose letters on my computer and then write them out by hand to mail, just to let the receiver know (implicitly), “You were worth this extra effort!”

    And other times, I like the uncensored, unedited, rambling effect I get from not being able to revisit what I’ve written every couple lines and revising. I’ve noticed that the pressure of perfection doesn’t alight on me as often when I give myself some limitations

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      I’m not sure it’s defensiveness so much as a different kind of experience. Writing by hand is no pleasure for me and never has been, even when it was my only choice. Learning to type was, for me, like a gift of wings to someone who can’t walk without stumbling. Yes, handwritten missives are lovely and do communicate, implicitly, extra and very personal effort. But that’s only if the letter writer can form letters that others can read. My handwritten notes are no gift to anyone.

      Reply
    2. writersideup

      Hi, ellalee 🙂 I didn’t take Marion’s words as defensive, but as for everything else you so eloquently stated—yep, totally with you 🙂 I do the same thing on rare occasion, too—type it out first on the computer so I get it exactly the way I want it (usually it has to be something of importance), then hand write it 🙂

      Reply
  2. Maureen

    Amen sister! That’s all I can say! And thank you for saying this, I agree wholeheartedly. There are many more benefits than negatives when it comes to technology, and I like to think positive anyway. I’m in my 50s, and my mom is in her 90s and we both adore our MacBooks.
    Thanks Marion, I truly enjoy your thoughts.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thanks, Maureen. I think change is the issue for all of us. Sometimes it’s hard not to resist, just because something is different. And on how I have hated plodding through the learning curve of each new type of technology. But the reward is so worth it. And the reward of staying alive and connected with this changed world even more so!

      Reply
  3. writersideup

    My love/hate relationship is based, not on the hatred of technology itself (though there are things about it I do hate), but partially on our reliance on it and things that require machinery and electricity, without which we cannot access our work and everything else locked up in it UNLESS it’s printed out, and partially on the unhealthy amount of time we spend glued to an EMF-emitting, bad-for-the-eyes, etc., time-sucking way of life. And I’m speaking for technology-using civilization, as a whole. I’m not against e-books so much as the “ONLY e-books” mentality and the increased usage by children. There are many detriments to the over-use and reliance on it, and though it’s easier for teachers, I don’t believe it lends itself to ease of learning or a better way. Some things are simply better unplugged.

    I most definitely love the EASE of revision, etc., storage of information, and research at one’s fingertips, but it is not always better, and I prefer tangible paper, pens, books, etc. and face-to-face encounters many times. It’s definitely a love/hate relationship for me.

    I see the point of the statements made about the hand-written letter vs. email, but I agree with you—it’s wrong to generalize. When something is hand-written or even typed on paper, it’s a slower process—generally speaking—and allows for more thought and thoughtfulness which is often not the case through emails and on computers. Just like a gun, it is not bad in and of itself—it’s the person holding/using it.

    Great post, as always, Marion 🙂

    Reply
      1. writersideup

        Ah, I just noticed I didn’t explain properly…I was mentioning the bad thing about our work, etc. being locked up in a machine which uses electricity that if we LOSE electricity,etc. or the machine dies, if our work,etc. isn’t printed out—it’s gone 🙁 Also, if your Nook or Kindle battery dies and you can’t recharge it…there goes your library.

        Reply
        1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

          I understand that concern entirely. We live on a grid of services that are so tenuous and yet our lives and, for us writers, our work are completely dependent on their continuing. It’s one of those realities I set aside in my mind because I can’t imagine any resolution . . . not a personal one I would be in charge of, anyway.

          Reply
  4. Carleen M. Tjader

    “Whatever shape the bucket that carries the words…..” Love that line.
    With each new technology challenge for me, I will remember these words of yours. Much as I loved my mother’s beautifully Palmer script letters, I like my phone and my computer!

    Reply
  5. Karen Henry Clark

    Marion, I remember those tedious early days of typing manuscripts, armed with carbon paper and liquid paper and white-out tape. Even though I understand almost nothing about technology, I’d never want to return to those labor intensive writing times. (Although I do miss that rhythmic carriage-return motion. It offered such a steady sense of progress.)

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      I, too, loved the carriage return. My career has moved through a manual portable typewriter, my high school graduation gift in 1956–to an electric (the damn thing sat there and hummed at me, “Say something! Say something!”) to electronic to a word processor to computers. I wouldn’t trade the computers for any of it!

      Reply
  6. JoAnn Early Macken

    I’m another one of those “old ladies” with a love-hate relationship with technology–and our sons keep bailing me out! I love the thought of you and Norma sending heartfelt letters back and forth.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      My first response to your message landed elsewhere, JoAnn,, so I’ll try again and see if it stays were it belongs. So many of us miss Norma, but I miss her profoundly. She was such a dear friend available to me in so many ways!

      Reply

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