Fair warning, if you leave anything where I can read it, I will. That goes for journals, diaries, letters, and snarky texts. I’m not insecure, I’m simply curious. That’s a nicer way of saying I’m just plain nosy, and my natural intrusiveness undoubtedly explains the last decade when I purchased a number of books containing personal letters.
I started with Letters of the Century and The World’s Greatest Letters before moving onto books filled with authors’ letters like Jessica Mitford, Truman Capote, Noël Coward, and a few other books I didn’t bother to buy. You may ask what I learned from all these books. Sadly, people didn’t put as much juicy stuff in writing as I’d hoped, or perhaps curators and biographers held back some of the better missives, but what I’ve concluded from these books is that writers write a lot of letters.
There are far more words conveyed through decades of personal correspondence than these writers published in their bodies of work. That’s probably because writing comes naturally to writers, but sticking to a plotline, supporting an essay’s thesis, or writing a clever bon mot after the perfect setup in a play’s third act requires more mental labor than shooting off a quick note. Opera singers probably take breaks by singing something lighter, painters perhaps prefer doodling on scratch pads as a diversion from the masterpiece, and writers like writing something to divert their brains as they work through whatever literary quandary challenges them at the moment.
My freshman English teacher in college said that she was instructing us in good writing, but we mustn’t for a minute think she intended to change how we communicated with friends and family in our letters. As I write that sentence, I’m reminded that it was once expected that we’d write entire letters in longhand while away at college. It seems that requiring more than a few typed sentences via text message would be an imposition on today’s college student. Of course, if parents didn’t call every day for the least little thing, students might have something to write about.
That she said she didn’t intend to change our personal communication style, Dr. Jones still influenced me. I type rather than write longhand, and spelling and fragments embarrass me if I’ve failed to edit my correspondence well. Email is my modern letter, and while each might be a diversion from something I should be doing, I can’t help myself. I’m delighted to find myself in good literary company. I love to write letters, and receiving nice long ones usually gets one in return.
Letters, I’m convinced, serve multiple purposes. The first is communication, which is important, but the second is exercising the writing muscle. Rarely do I miss a day of writing if only a few brief lines to someone. I may not be working on a story or a book, but at least I’ve written something. It’s unlikely more than one or two people in the world will ever see those personal letters.
Good lord, I hope not! If there’s ever a point to be made in favor of maintaining a small readership, it’s staying below the radar of a future biographer who might get it into his or her head that the world is interested in one’s personal letters. If anyone reading this has ever communicated with me and receives a request to hand over my half of the correspondence, ignore it! I’d be ruined!
I’ve written to so many people over the decades, I’d not know where to begin were I to attempt a collection of my paper trail. I wrote to only a few people when I was in college, and I already went through my deceased grandmother’s things to see what survived. She never received anything scandalous from me, and from her I mostly got weather reports and items that could’ve been published in a newsletter. It’s too bad she didn’t put in writing the types of thoughts she eventually expressed when she forgot I was her grandson. Talk about scathing!
My contemporary letters, I think, are filled with humor. I love words and finding the perfect combination of alliteration and observation. If I’ve been scathing, I hope to have done so while providing vivid descriptions or making the reader laugh so hard that he or she is implicated in my wickedness. Each letter is written with the recipient in mind about subjects we like to discuss, and I’m not ready for the world to know of my moments of unbridled frankness and uncharitable opinions. Perhaps in a hundred years, someone might get a kick out of what I wrote to a friend or family member, but let it be long after some reporter can confront me.
© 2016 by Patrick Brown
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