I have a pen-pal.
This may seem like simplicity itself. No convoluted words or phrases, no grammar tricks, no linguistic flourishes, no double-edged sword of meaning to watch the sharp edges of. In a way, that’s really the heart of what this entire experience means to me.
I have a friend who is near and dear and lives far enough away that I don’t see her nearly as much as I would like to. Due to my recent bout of running around like a beheaded chicken, I haven’t been as available to chat online as I used to be. As a result, we started writing each other e-mails. Since we are both educated grammar snobs (and had a lot of catching up to do), these e-mails were rather lengthy. It took a few e-mail swaps for me to venture a suggestion.
Why not move this discussion to pen and paper? It’d be fun; like summer camp. It would give us something to look forward to, and a reason to get our mail that wasn’t bills or netflix.
This suggestion was readily taken up and we have been corresponding in the good old-fashioned snail mail way for a few weeks now.
Sitting down to actually write a letter was a new and different experience. How long has it been since you actually sat down to write a piece of prose? The first thing that struck me was the sensuality of it. The feel of the table under my arm, the sound of the pen scratching the page, the long luxurious pen-strokes which committed ink to paper. Besides taking notes for class (which now I do on my handy dandy little netbook), I haven’t written this way in some time. And even when I do write this way, it is very frequently short bursts of texts. Nothing long. And certainly nothing of consequence. Checks and shopping lists are a far cry from letters.
The next thing that happened was I realized how much slower the process is. I am a fast typist. It is one of my graduate-school-survival-skills. I can type nearly as fast as I can think. Typing allows me also to think in short, controllable, bursts. I have a notion and it is almost instantly translated to the pixels in front of me. Writing is a much slower process, and one that is more permanent. Once the words are committed to the page, there is no taking them back. My thoughts come faster, but I must slow them down out of necessity. As a result, they emerge more realized, more simmered, more luscious on the first round. I find that when I hand-write, I make fewer grammar errors. The process of marinating my thoughts eliminates the small glitches so common to writing that bursts forth at the speed of thought.
And, of course, the romantic in me continually reminds myself that this was how it was done for so many hundreds of years. This, the writer, a pen, the page, and the writer’s thoughts. This was the act of creation. There were no wires, no screens, no little keys, for thousands of years. This was Dante, this was Shakespeare, this was Austen. And somehow, me, here, now, in 2010, sitting at my little desk with my fountain pen and found paper (I haven’t quite invested in stationary yet- anybody know of a good stationer?), is like a link back through my literary forefathers. It is an act that connects me through the long line of genius to the origin of what I do best. Every time I sit down to write, it is a historical act. Like John and Abigail Adams, I am creating a record which will find someone somewhere in the world and speak to her of my own times. In that way, it is almost a method of time travel. By the time she reads my writing and it becomes real to her, the things I have written about will be past. However, as I am writing them, they are present. Noodle-cooking if I do say so myself.
In addition, the actuality of hand-writing creates, to me, some inherent value to the writing itself. The things I write are real, tangible, and that reality creates intrinsic worth unable to be found within a typed document. Maybe the computer was the teleological result of cuneiform, and I’m not discounting its value in that, but hand-writing just seems more special to me. Like a hand-knit sweater over a store-bought one. There is more thought, more personality, more feeling to these letters when written than when typed.
There is no small amount of irony that I am rambling on about the worth and value of hand-written things while typing on a computer. Even more so when one considers that the document I am currently engaged in typing will be posted to a place that doesn’t physically exist anywhere. For the sake of crediting my argument, let’s pointedly ignore this recursive anomaly. It’s a little too existential for me to defend or talk about right now.
In short: try writing someone a letter. Especially if you have any interest in prose. Have a good long mull, sit down with your implements, and let the words flow forth. Extra points if you do it by candle light.