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Friday essay: a lament for the lost art of letter-writing – a radical art form reflecting 'the full catastrophe of life'

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Letters did not count [as writing]. A woman might write letters while sitting by her father’s sick-bed. She could write them by the fire while the men talked without disturbing them. The strange thing is, I thought, turning over the pages of Dorothy’s letters, what a gift that untaught and solitary girl had for the framing of a sentence, for the fashioning of a scene.

— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Last year I went to the funeral of a friend with whom I shared a house in Melbourne in the early 1990s. While I and my other housemates went on to the full array of box-ticking life experiences – children, careers, relationships, houses – our friend was diagnosed with an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis in her early twenties. When she died, we had not heard her voice for many years.

Of all the eulogies at her funeral, the most arresting was a letter she’d written at 23, read aloud by a former housemate, Delia. Our friend had been travelling at the time; negotiating a fledgling relationship, digesting the reality of her diagnosis, preparing for the suddenly precarious unfolding of her life.

She hadn’t spoken for so long but here in this letter, this imprint of her voice on paper, she sprang suddenly into life. Funny, irreverent, honest, scared: we could hear her. The occasion was sad; but the letter was joyful.

I had forgotten what a powerful time capsule a letter could be.

Read more: Post apocalypse: the end of daily letter deliveries is in sight

Gen X-ers occupy a distinctly precious cultural position – straddling the analogue past of letter writing and the hyper-digital present of TikTok and Instagram. One of my earliest school memories is of learning how to transcribe an address onto an envelope in the form required by post offices (carefully indented at every line, return address on the back). It seems almost archaic now.

We may not have been “the last generation of devoted letter writers” – that title goes to our parents’ or grandparents’ generation – but letter-writing was still a necessary, carefully taught skill when we were growing up.

It was the normal way to communicate with grandparents, international pen-pals, and school friends who had moved to the country. We all sat down at school camp on the first night and wrote our parents a letter, Camp Granada style, supervised by prowling teachers who made sure we gave our parents a worthy account.

I remember too how important it was, as a young adult in the world of pre-internet travel, to land in a far-flung place, track down the Poste Restante and find miraculously waiting for you – as though your arrival was predestined – a handful of pale blue aerograms, enscripted with miniscule, space-saving writing. Letters from home.

In momentary deferral to the anti-hoarding gods, I recently threw out a tranche of these aerograms, sent to me when I travelled India as a 19-year-old. I not only curse myself when I think of this now, but I feel an actual pain in my chest. What insights have I lost into my former self, my family and my friends as a result?

The author in India, aged 19 – when letters from home were miraculous and important arrivals. Author provided
The author in India, aged 19 – when letters from home were miraculous and important arrivals. Author provided

The human condition

The disappearance of letter-writing from Western cultural life is such a recent phenomenon that I don’t dare proclaim its death. From Abelard and Heloise’s 12th-century love missives, dense with biblical references but no less dense with longing, to the letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo, it’s hard to imagine how we might have made sense of the human condition without the insights gleaned from letters.

Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. Wikimedia Commons/Van Gogh Museum
Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. Wikimedia Commons/Van Gogh Museum

What would we know of the interior worlds of artists and writers, scientists and politicians, sisters and friends and lovers? What would we know about life itself? Or, as importantly, about how to live? In the first century AD, Seneca articulated his philosophy of stoicism via a series of 124 “moral letters” to his young friend Lucilius.

These letters are only nominally a private correspondence between two men; in fact, they were written for a much larger readership that might benefit from Seneca’s solutions to the moral dilemmas of living in the world.

Even if one side of the conversation (Lucilius’s) remained unheard, the letter, as a form, lent a sense of reciprocity and intimacy to Seneca’s words – it enabled him to speak to many as though he were speaking to one. With titles such as “On saving time”, “On old age and death”, “On the relativity of fame”, “On care of health and peace of mind”, Seneca’s letters continue to resonate 2,000 years later.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s ten Letters to a Young Poet, written in 1903-08 and published posthumously in 1929, provided creative guidance to his young recipient, a Czech poet and military student. These letters are famous for Rilke’s inordinately gentle manner, his tenderness and warmth.

Yet it seems that, in breathing a philosophy of art and life into the ear of his young admirer, Rilke also breathes it affirmingly into himself, and into the generations privy to the correspondence since. I noticed traces of his philosophy of creativity – which emphasises patience and attentiveness to the small things of life – in a 1961 letter from Patrick White to Thea Astley I recently read:

Read, think & listen to silence, & shell the peas … concentrating on the work in hand until you know what it is to be a pea — and drudge at the school, & sleep with your husband & bring up your child. That is what I mean when I say “living” …

Unlike the essay or the novel, letters facilitate a kind of collapsing of low and high, profound and profane, the life of domesticity and the life of the spirit. They are not master accounts of ourselves, with all the incidentals written out.

Writer Maria Popova, commenting on the mid-century correspondence of illustrator Edward Gorey and author Peter F. Neumeyer, says the two men wrote to each other of everything “from metaphysics to pancake recipes”.

This democratic levelling of subject matter is perhaps nowhere more evident than in letters, where hierarchies of value don’t prevail as they do in more authoritatively literary forms: the traditional novel, for instance, in which everything must gear toward thematic and narrative resolution.

Edward Gorey and collaborator Peter F. Nuemeyer wrote to each other of ‘everything from metaphysics to pancake recipes’. Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer
Edward Gorey and collaborator Peter F. Nuemeyer wrote to each other of ‘everything from metaphysics to pancake recipes’. Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer

Letting the real world in

Megan O’Grady, in the New York Times, has described letters as “leaky” in the way they allow a seepage of the real world to occur: “the baby wakes from the nap and cries; the air-raid siren sounds; the social mores and psychodynamics of other eras filter in”. In correspondence, even the rhetorical devices of transition, the elegant segues that smooth a jagged change of subject, are largely dispensed with.

No one, writing a letter, agonises over the wording of a sentence that links two paragraphs. A trail of unexplained ellipses has a particular function in a letter – to break a chain of thought, to attest to bodily movement in temporal space: a kettle being put on, a doorbell answered, a nappy changed.

My friend Delia, reading over letters from her friends in the early 1990s when she was a student in America, said:

It was funny reading these letters back. Sometimes they would be written over days, or even weeks, they’d stop and start and stop again: “Sorry, got distracted with something. Anyway …” Or be continually updated: “Well, I finally got a phone call from X, you won’t believe what happened …”

They were provisional, real-time, patched-together accounts of life as we lived it, as it occurred, on the spot. An unspooling of self onto the page in real time.

Or selves perhaps; each letter, each recipient, facilitating an adjustment of the self, a tweak: there’s the correspondent we make laugh, the correspondent we confide in, the correspondent to whom we offer advice and comfort. Like a diary, a letter can function as a “chronicle of [one’s] hours and days”, but because it is, in essence, a two-way communication – an ongoing, unfinished conversation – a letter invokes a relationship so it needs to be sensitive to the reader in ways a diary need not.

It needs to configure itself for entertainment value. It’s one of the few writing forms that allows the mind of the writer to roam freely, independently, and yet actively connect with an attentive, and presumably sympathetic, reader: a known reader.

The materiality of letters sets them apart from today’s electronic equivalents. Letters are disarmingly tangible when we chance upon them in a forgotten box or tin or bundle: we might have forgotten them, but they didn’t cease to exist. They offer curious subtexts too, not least to do with the presence of the human hand on paper.

A different kind of utterance

I have in my possession pages of my late grandmother’s “scribble” – a self-deprecating term she used (for her handwriting or for the thoughts her letters contained? I was never sure which).

Her backwards-scooping scrawl carries with it her personality somehow – occasionally, I see an echo of it in my own handwriting, a certain soft flourish in an “h” or an “n”. I remember the pale blue pages on which her letters were written, and my habit of placing a heavy-ruled piece of paper beneath my own when I wrote back to her, to ensure my lines were straight.

Particularly precious in my family is a letter written to my father as a little boy by his own father, stationed on an air base in New Guinea in 1943. The letter, on tiny yellow paper, is written in flawless copperplate – a skill my grandfather was particularly proud of, having left school at 12 – and the front of the envelope is illustrated with an image of Ginger Meggs, hand-drawn in coloured ink.

Returning after the war, my grandfather was a difficult, traumatised man, but in his letter there’s a glimpse of the loving young father and husband he was before:

Dear Barry

Just a few lines from your Daddy hoping it finds you well; and I also trust that your little yacht arrived alright; and I do hope it sails well for it has really big sails though I think you shall be able to manage it alright after Mum has fixed it all up for you […] Now Barry I guess you are wondering when I shall be home, well I really thought that I would be home for Xmas but now it looks like it shall be early in the new year so I am hoping I get back in time for your birthday for if I do, we shall sure have a birthday party, won’t we, with just you and Leslie and Mumie and me …“

In the last years of my own father’s life, this tiny hand-inked letter had pride of place in a glass display case in his residential care unit: a beautiful relic, the ephemeral trapped on paper.

This letter, sent to the author’s father by his father, from a New Guinea air base, is ‘particularly precious’ in her family. Author provided
This letter, sent to the author’s father by his father, from a New Guinea air base, is ‘particularly precious’ in her family. Author provided

It reminds me of a similarly gentle, loving letter written by John Steinbeck to his son in 1958, upon his son’s announcement that he had fallen in love:

Dear Thom:

First – if you are in love – that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second – There are several kinds of love […] The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

Did Steinbeck speak as honestly and tenderly to his son in person? Perhaps, I don’t know. But it’s possible that letters allowed a different kind of utterance for "strong, silent” men of past generations: a benevolent “father-tongue” (lower case) which enabled them to shed, if momentarily, the practised hardness of masculinity.

I know that my grandfather’s letter contains a grace and sweetness that was not present in person. In person, his expression of love was to teach my father how to box.

The author’s grandfather’s letter contains ‘a grace and sweetness that was not present in person’. Author provided
The author’s grandfather’s letter contains ‘a grace and sweetness that was not present in person’. Author provided

Read more: Hold the post: there's no such thing as a dead letter

Famous love letters

Love letters, of course, occupy a place of their own within the “genre”, if it can be called a genre. The 5,000 or so letters between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Steiglitz, penned across 30 years, provide a window onto the mutual creative inspiration that existed between the two artists, but also include searing love letters that testify to an enduring sensuality.

“Dearest,” writes Georgia:

— my body is simply crazy with wanting you – If you don’t come tomorrow – I don’t see how I can wait for you – I wonder if your body wants mine the way mine wants yours – the kisses – the hotness – the wetness – all melting together – the being held so tight that it hurts – the strangle and the struggle.

Georgia O'Keeffe photographed by Alfred Stieglitz in 1918. Wikimedia Commons
Georgia O'Keeffe photographed by Alfred Stieglitz in 1918. Wikimedia Commons

On a voyeuristic level, the love letters of the famous gratify our curiosity – what went on between these two giants of the screen/literary world/art scene? Were they (are they?) like us in their lusts and their pettinesses? Often, yes, they are like us – we’re reassured by their broken promises and bickerings and insecurities.

They say things they shouldn’t, embarrassing things, things they later regret. T.S. Eliot later disavowed his fervent love letters to American speech and drama teacher Emily Hale – they “were the letters of an hallucinated man,” he said. Nevertheless, these letters have an ardour, a heart-on-the-sleeve earnestness, that reveals a different side to the cool modernist poet, a side that was warm-blooded, ruled by the heart, even, possibly, vulnerable.

Letters are immediate; we write them from inside the moment, and so the immediate, the moment, becomes the truth. Their vigour, and their value, lies in this unedited, uneditable quality: they document us, trap fleeting moments in glass. We might even say things that bare our souls. “I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia,” wrote Vita Sackville-West famously to Virginia Woolf in one such moment in 1926.

Poet T.S. Eliot later disavowed his love letters to Emily Hale as the work ‘of an hallucinated man’. Ashley Gamarello, Princeton University Library
Poet T.S. Eliot later disavowed his love letters to Emily Hale as the work ‘of an hallucinated man’. Ashley Gamarello, Princeton University Library

Some of the funniest/“dirtiest” letters on the public record are James Joyce’s letters to his wife Nora Barnacle, in which he joyously catalogues her repertoire of farts:

big fat fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny little naughty farties ending in a long gush from your hole … I think I would know Nora’s fart anywhere. I think I could pick hers out in a roomful of farting women.

The publication of the letters in 1975 upset Joyce’s grandson, but the correspondence reveals a healthy mutual sexual relationship, free of any false social pieties and, certainly, of embarrassment.

The love letters of famous writers have a pith and poetry the rest of us might not be equal to, but even the simplest love letters, if they’re heartfelt, speak of who we are, or once were, and how we affected other people. They are testament to the risks we take to express deep and difficult feelings; the things we might not have been able to say in the flesh.

My first boyfriend says he wrote me a love letter when we were 16 and I sent it back to him with the spelling corrected in red pen. I can’t remember the spirit with which I embarked on this particular revision, but it’s retrospectively both very funny and an insight into my own priggishness. Nor can I imagine making such amendments now using tracked changes – somehow I think it would be less funny and more tragic.

I have in my possession other love letters from the pre-internet age – not many, a few. They embarrassed me, mainly, at the time, but I’m glad I’ve kept them – they are charged with a force that cuts through time, and connects me with myself as a younger, if more callous, person.

Read more: 'Weaponised irony': after fictionalising Elizabeth Macarthur's life, Kate Grenville edits her letters

Email and autocorrect

And while famous love letters of the past are collected, collated and curated for public consumption, I’m not sure a 21st-century romantic email correspondence will have the same longevity. For one thing, emails are less spontaneous: if only because they are infinitely revisable, deletable – as well as easily forwardable (accidentally or otherwise).

They don’t contain the mark of the person, the pecularities of handwriting or, yes, spelling mistakes – autocorrect puts out these interesting little fires. Writes O’Grady: “It’s hard to imagine that in 50 years we’ll be picking up The Collected Emails of Zadie Smith.”

Email won’t ever be a replacement for the unfolding, from a wadded envelope, of several pages of lovingly tended text. For me, at least. I use email for collegiate communications, friendly transactions, social to-ings and fro-ings. While it might provide the last vestige of formality in an increasingly informal communications world, email remains an inadequate substitute for letters.

Delayed gratification – part of the frisson of a traditional correspondence – is a bad portent when it comes to emails. It’s easy to interpret even the briefest email silence as unwillingness or neglect on the part of the recipient. O’Grady writes:

Email – already an old-fashioned form – isn’t really the electronic replacement of the letter but a different mode of communication entirely: fleeter, tactical, somehow both more and less disposable. It is unwise to commit too much of oneself to electronic code, which lives on in some ether or another, unflung into the fireplace.

Text messages are semiotically interesting in the way they codify language and narrative, but their idiom is brevity. You can flirt in a series of text messages, you can also argue, but you can’t reflect the way you might in a letter; it’s easy to send a platitude or establish a rapport in a text, not so easy to tease out a philosophy.

Letter-writing is a commitment of time and an offering of trust, both an indulgence and an act of generosity. It must trust that what is being related will be accepted. It must assume that its confidences will be honoured.

‘The stuff of life’

As a writer looking for a literary device with which to capture the voice of a troubled female poet in 1960s Melbourne, first-person narrative didn’t work. I tried and got nowhere. It couldn’t satisfactorily make visible the ruptures and randomness of my character’s life, its trivial details and entertaining side-notes: the nappies she had to run off and attend to; the soggy egg cartons glimpsed dishearteningly through a window; the clothesline she feared being garrotted by.

If it’s not doing something to further the narrative, goes the traditional novel-writing wisdom, cut it out. But I wanted to put in the things that didn’t further the narrative: the ephemeral things, apparently unimportant, that are actually the stuff of life.

Letter-writing allows this stuff to be present. Perhaps it’s the only traditional writing form that does, and it gave me a credible reason for putting the trivial, the small, the fleeting into my story. And when I did, to my surprise, my character came to life: she became spontaneous and real and began to speak in a language and voice that seemed authentic.

In her wonderful 1988 essay about writing and motherhood, The Fisherwoman’s Daughter, Ursula Le Guin used the term “mother tongue” to describe an “authentic” women’s language. The mother tongue, she says, speaks with intimacy, proximity, connectivity; it’s the voice with which we talk to a neighbour over the fence, or to our children when they come home late, or to our partners when it’s their turn to take out the bins, or our friends when we’re trying to make them laugh over a drink.

Its power is not in dividing but in binding … We all know it by heart. John have you got your umbrella I think it’s going to rain. Can you come play with me? If I told you once I told you a hundred times … O what am I going to do? … Pass the soy sauce please. Oh, shit … You look like what the cat dragged in …

Ursula Le Guin in 2001. Benjamin Brink/AAP
Ursula Le Guin in 2001. Benjamin Brink/AAP

In its use of the mother tongue, correspondence actually corresponds with the ways we interact with people in our lives, as well as with the spontaneities of speech itself. It doesn’t pretend the writer is not a real person, speaking in an authoritative void, like an oracle, to untethered, disembodied others. It allows the full catastrophe of life to be present and visible.

Researching the letters of women poets in preparation for working on my novel, I realised letter-writing has always been socially acceptable for women in ways the “master” forms of literary production – the novel, the poem – haven’t been. So long as they were literate, women have always written letters – as an essential form of communication and self-expression, but also because writing letters didn’t disturb the status quo or conflict with domestic or mothering responsibilities.

A woman didn’t need to consciously conceive of herself as a “writer” in order to be an avid letter-writer. And a woman didn’t need a “room of her own” in order to write her letters; she could write them among the potato peels and bills and children’s laundry. Quietly, (apparently) benignly, women have for centuries been able to refine and experiment with their writing practice under the guise of merely “writing a letter”.

A woman didn’t need to think of herself as ‘a writer’ to write letters. Cottonbro Studio/Pexels, <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:CC BY;elm:context_link;itc:0" class="link ">CC BY</a>
A woman didn’t need to think of herself as ‘a writer’ to write letters. Cottonbro Studio/Pexels, CC BY

So perhaps letter-writing has functioned as a kind of ruse or subterfuge for women: a way of writing without seeming to have “unseemly” writerly ambitions. I think of my grandmother’s characterisation of her letters as “scribble”.

It was not the done thing for a woman of her generation to publicise her accomplishments, but I knew she knew she was a good writer, with lovely handwriting, and a gentle and responsive style. Calling her writing “scribble”, I realised, was a way of repudiating the criticism of thinking she had something to say, but getting on with the job of saying it nevertheless.

As I wrote my character’s letters to her sister, I became more and more convinced that letter-writing has functioned as a radical, maybe even revolutionary, writing form for women. This is because, on the one hand, it was considered so socially unthreatening that it went under the radar, and, on the other, because it allowed the small daily realities of women’s lives to be made visible.

It could be written from within the midst of their lives – not separate, not in a garret room or writer’s hut — but right there, on the kitchen table amongst the scraps and the bills and the children’s toys.

Gregory Kratzmann, editor of Australian poet Gwen Harwood’s voluminous correspondence, says Harwood wrote her correspondence in precisely this way:

She wrote letters quickly and with great facility, often when she was surrounded by domestic activity […] sometimes three or more long letters in the same day […] the activity of writing was an essential part of living […]

The prolific 19th-century novelist Margaret Oliphant used this same “kitchen-table” approach to write her novels – and there were nearly one hundred of them. Far from imperilling her progress, she felt that

her writing profited, from the difficult, obscure, chancy connection between the art work and emotional/manual/managerial complex of skills and tasks called “housework,” and that to sever that connection would put the writing itself at risk, would make it, in her word, unnatural.

If letter-writing can tolerate interruption, distraction, diversion, it stands to reason that novel writing can too. And poetry writing. And even philosophical treatise writing. Perhaps being interrupted is not so terrible nor so damaging to artistic creation as we have always thought. Who says that the uninterrupted thought is better than the interrupted one?

Read more: Gwen Harwood was one of Australia's finest poets – she was also one of the most subversive

‘The framing of a sentence’

I have never had an inviolate writing space of my own. Everything I have written has been interrupted constantly by children and domestic demands. I stop to remedy problems; attend to outbursts of screaming; acquire and prepare drawing materials; find lost books; answer spelling enquiries; listen to an imaginative narrative just written; lace on rollerblades; deal with insistent lamentations that “There’s nothing to eat”.

My writing space has been fundamentally accessible to my children: they remove pens and papers and post-it notes, use my desk as a place to apply nail-polish, leave tell-tale trails of crumbs and rings from glasses. Yes, it’s annoying. Does it make my writing worse? No. Sometimes it makes it better.

Writing my character, contemplating all this, I thought – dare I say it? – that perhaps Virginia Woolf was wrong. Perhaps “a room of one’s own” has never been necessary to the writing of prose. Perhaps the seeds of a different kind of writing practice, one that served women’s realities and responsibilities better, can be glimpsed in the practice of letter writing.

Correspondence has always enabled women to become caught up, immersed, in the moment of the work, yet remain equally available and connected to life around them.

Thus it deserves our attention, even as it fades from view as a writing practice. To return to Virginia Woolf’s silently observed letter-writing girl at the beginning of this essay: “[W]hat a gift that untaught and solitary girl had for the framing of a sentence, for the fashioning of a scene.”

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Edwina Preston, The University of Melbourne.

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Edwina Preston received funding from the Australia Council for her latest published novel.