Saturday, July 31, 2021

Remember Writing Letters?

I didn't keep a quarantine diary, but I wrote letters. 

During the pandemic my husband and I went on a nostalgia kick. We watched movies from the 70s and 80s, delighting in a time before cell phones and computers were widely used. In our isolation, we already cringed at crowd scenes, but we loved how personal and intimate the characters' worlds felt. People met in person rather than communicated on a phone, they wrote letters and missed important phone calls because they weren't home. It lasted for months, this yearning for a time before plague, a time that seemed more innocent, for a thriller that relied on human ingenuity rather than technology.

I began dreaming of letters I'd received and sent. Letters that changed lives, perfumed letters, witty letters I wished I'd kept, love letters that bared souls. I wrote new letters I didn't mail: to people I 'd lost touch with, people I'd never met but who intrigued me, those I'd met only once but who left an impact, historical figures, characters in my stories who puzzled or infuriated me, and old lovers.

Remember writing and receiving love letters? It was so much more than the words on the page. First, the scribbled rough drafts. The careful selection of pen and paper-- oh God, remember stationery? The torment of writing the letter-- finding the exact words that conveyed the message you wanted to communicate, stopping before you said too much.... If you were a girl, adding the faint trace of perfume before you sealed the envelope. Then the anxious wait for a response. Checking the mailbox, hourly sometimes. 

It wasn't just love letters, it was letters themselves-- those mysterious missives from somewhere else, exotic stamps from different countries, the suspense of opening the envelope. Handwriting that revealed so much: impatient scrawl, precise printed letters, words that crawled uphill or diagonally across a page, back-tilted timid letters, misspellings before the days of auto-correct. A non-business typed letter brought its own set of questions: why so impersonal? is their handwriting that bad? what's the underlying message here? Then there were aerogrammes-- those wonderful thin blue sheets sent home from travels. You had to squeeze everything onto the side of one page. Unfolding them without tearing away part of the writing presented its own delicate challenge.  

At the height of the pandemic I taught a creative writing class on Zoom and described letters to my university students, all born in the 21st century. They sat in their little Hollywood Squares and stared, baffled, while I explained the art, passion, and power of writing and receiving letters. Replacing the shortcut of emojis with the search for the exact words to convey mood and intention. The built-in delay before pressing, "Send." The fact that you can keep them, concrete and solid memories. Once they figured out that letters went way beyond text messages and emails, I sensed a shift in mood. One young woman said with a sigh, "I wish I could get a love letter." Another said, "I want to write one, but I don't know who to send it to."

I decided to give them an assignment: write a letter to someone far away and tell them something you can't tell them in person. You can make it up or make it real. You can send it or keep it. But write a letter with a pen on paper (on paper? with a pen?!). Bring it to class. You can share the letter or not.

They shared them. Amazing to listen to 19 - 21 year-olds read letters they'd written by hand... on Zoom. 
The letters were moving, funny, heartwarming, and tender, and often illustrated with drawings. I thought, plague or not, we're still here, still the same yearning hearts and souls straining to connect. 

Afterwards a few students thanked me for the introduction to letter writing. 

I feel like a visitor from another planet. What can I show them next? Ah! I know. That inscrutable monolith of power that sat grimly silent for hours while you watched and waited... and waited... for it to shrill to life.