Filling the Space
I don’t have stationery. This is a problem. It’s Sunday, so I can’t even be a good citizen and go to a local shop to get it. I have to use Amazon, and based on the look of things, I’m not even getting the price relief I usually expect from the company that’s aiming to be the place where you buy, well, everything.
Why is not having stationery a problem?, you ask. That’s a fair question. I have to write a letter.
Well, I guess I maybe don’t explicitly have to, but at the same time, it’s not always about me. It’s one of those situations where suspending my self-interest is important, and besides, I want to write the letter. So, for all intents and purposes, I "have to" write a letter.
Historically, letter-writing is not exactly news. I’m sure when we take a broader look at history, letters are still way, way ahead on the “top means of communication” leaderboard. But I don’t even remember the last time I made an important phone call (i.e. not just letting someone know I’m outside [Editor’s note: Used to be you couldn’t even do that--you had to get out and knock on someone’s door]), much less put a non-shitty pen to cardstock. So it’s kind of a nerve-racking experience.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that letter-writing is truly an art...but I’m far from an artist.
Think of how your communication is done on a day-to-day basis: there’s a lot of text messages/GroupMe/WhatsApp/Slack/[your office’s preferred IM client], with some emails and the occasional phone call mixed in. There’s nothing particularly artistic about any of those. Sure, you came up with a witty quip in your group text, or had the perfect image macro to send in response to a work email (I specified, because do people even send emails to their friends anymore?). But there’s no need to be truly artistic or memorable, because these are limitless forms of communication.
Texting is the perfect example, both because it makes up the majority of millennial communications and because it’s probably the biggest departure from writing letters. Far too often, my text messages run wild as I self-servingly crank out a stream of pretentious consciousness on subjects ranging from how to cook a steak to what music I’m listening to this evening…but I neither answered your question nor was thoughtful enough to see how your new job is going. The text message welcomes that problem, especially as it has moved from a limited, charge-per-missive model to “free” (you know, after you pay your expensive smartphone bill) instant messaging. Your only limits are thumb dexterity and shame.
With a letter, though, your limits are apparent. The stationery box says I have two 4-3/8” by 6-9/16” sides in which to fit my note, and from the little experience I do have, I am fully aware that I actually have even less space because of a well-crafted border. Furthermore, I don’t know about you, but my not-even-that-good-at-typing paws have to successfully hold a pen and scribble out something legible enough for another human to understand? This was a tall enough task before I sustained a concussion playing basketball.
But when it comes down to it, that “another human” part is the important factor. As I mentioned above, this is a time where I really have to suspend my self-interest. When I send long emails, they’re usually opportunities for me to vent and whine for 1,000 words [Editor’s note: You mean like when you write these things?]. My rare phone calls are mostly to fill “dead” time, like being in the car or slogging through a slow workday. At least 70% of my text messages involve me notifying others of something I did and simply awaiting a reaction. A letter is supposed to be a medium in which you express some sort of real thought or emotion, and your recipient feels comfortable enough to emote back to you.
Shit. This might be trouble for me.
What are the guiding principles here? Considering the physical space available to me and my intent (namely, “being a friend”), it seems like a brevity-and-humility combo is a good way to go. You write letters in large part to update people on your life (though you also want to move quickly to their life, or at least leave them in a position where they can reciprocate), but you can’t just gargle out an empty recounting of events -- it has to be significant. I have this index card-sized space to say “This thing made me pause and reminded me of you; I wanted to share it because I think you’ll appreciate it too,” but what the fuck is the thing?
In the words of Archibald Whitman (apologies to the editor [Editor’s note: Apology. Not. Accepted.]), “What do you do? What do you make?” What have I done that’s lasting or significant? In the end, that’s the most troubling part. We spend so much time instantly communicating -- do we pause enough to ensure that we’re heeding Ferris Bueller’s advice?
This letter is going to take three days to get to its destination. I’ll have sent dozens, maybe even hundreds, of messages between now and then...but what will I have made?
Of course, despite all these concerns, I knew immediately what to write. It’s significant and personal, and the recipient will hopefully see it as an invitation to open up. That’s probably the most beautiful thing about a letter: It’s a tangible expression of intimacy sent out into the ether, but it’s physically protected the whole journey. There’s a reason for that: As I mentioned before, this is the way (modern) humans have always sent their most important thoughts. A letter has a life of its own in a way that more current forms of communications might not.
I’m not going to stop sending texts -- they fill an important purpose all their own -- but I am going to pause and figure out what’s lasting, of me and of others. Because, as I glance at my bookshelf, I remember that I’m not putting emails or texts on there. I’m saving letters, and recognizing my fortune in having people who send them.