Though I write with terrifying frequency, I fail at an essential type of writing; letters make me fumble. They cause me to be tongue-tied and stuttery. Cards that I give to friends and family are inevitably filled with long spaces and smudges where I have paused to think or where I have decided that a word isn’t quite right.
It is tempting to blame technological advances for these things. Crafting a pithy Facebook post or a tweet requires a different skill set than writing a letter for a friend. There are differences in length, in intimacy, in vulnerability. With the increasing connectivity of the world and existence of things like video chats, we can talk to loved ones no matter how far away they are. People no longer need to know how to write letters in order to maintain relationships.
I regret that loss of knowledge. Part of that may be the historian in me. I have read correspondence that people wrote to one another centuries ago, and those missives do not much resemble the emails that I send to colleagues or friends. Of course I may simply be looking at the past through a rosy tint. I doubt that the contemporaries of those writers would have found the letters so extraordinary. They were simply the only way people could communicate.
Perhaps then my renewed interest in letters is more personal. I’ve seen letters that my parents wrote to one another when they were courting. I’ve read notes that my great-grandmother sent. Whatever romance I put in my fiction escapes my more private writing, yet other people capture the emotion with apparent ease.
Or perhaps my longing for letters is simply the result of too much reading. I recently stumbled across a letter from Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf and have become enamored with its beauty.
Milan [posted in Trieste]
Thursday, January 21, 1926
I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this—But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defences. And I don’t really resent it …
Please forgive me for writing such a miserable letter.
I feel such a strange yearning to write letters like that (though perhaps ones filled with less misery and more joy). So I am promising myself that this year I will write more letters to people I have known. They don’t have to read them – in fact, I may never send them – but I want to have written them.
If nothing else, I think that writing in such a way is a skill worth having.
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Bibliography: Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Wolf, “A Thing That Wants Virginia”, The Paris Review, Accessed 13 February 2017, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/03/09/a-thing-that-wants-virginia/