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A Life In Letters

How writing can change the world

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

In a temper at age ten, I wrote a letter to my best friend. My family had moved to another city and we’d been pen pals for a year. All was going well until our parents decided we should meet again. The visit was a disaster, and I responded with a letter.

Dear Pat: You are a brat. You didn’t stop whining your whole time here. Why didn’t you like my bike? Or the colour of my room? You are a fat rat, Pat!

Needless to say, within a week I was missing my old correspondence but unsurprisingly Pat didn’t write back. Fifty years later I found her on Facebook. There she was, smiling from her ranch in Vermont, her ten-year-old self uncannily recognisable. I wrote, she responded, and we have not looked back.

This was not the only time I made the mistake of pouring my anger into a letter, then sending it. It took my whole adolescence to learn to throw away the letter. I couldn’t hold a grudge – it required too much memory and energy – therefore my angry letter was always quickly followed by a conciliatory one. By age twenty, I simply skipped straight to the second stage.
My sister once asked me to write to her ex-boyfriend because she missed him. I wrote a letter that was simple and short; I figured I wouldn’t have much time to convince him. My sister both knows you and loves you. This is not a combination you will find often in life. It worked, which resulted in immediate celebration but subsequent tragedy. It turned out she didn’t really know him that well after all. Later she had a restraining order against him — but that’s another story. And a warning: a letter is a powerful thing.

I have been on the receiving end of heartbreaking letters. When I was sixteen, my boyfriend wrote: I’ve thought about it, and I now think of life as a series of train rides. I am getting off our train, because I need to get on a train going the other direction now. I wish you luck in your journey. I read this in my parent’s locked bathroom, sobbing. I’d been convinced he was going to be my husband one day and the eloquence of his metaphor was further proof of our compatibility. I still have that letter. Now when I look at it, I think: Hmph! What a coward! After all, he lived twenty miles away. Probably he’d met someone else at a party and her train looked like more fun.

I had other boyfriends later. None perfect, but I had by then accepted that impossibility. One man in particular was difficult, taking huge sulks at any perceived offence. He’d moved into my house on impulse, then as impulsively moved out. Naturally I wanted him back immediately, despite the mysterious moods. I wrote him a letter. What we have is imperfect but it might be the best chance for happiness either of us will ever have. It would be a shame to waste it. I hand-delivered it to his letter box, and with dignity walked back to my car and began the thirty-minute drive home. Within two minutes my phone was buzzing with a text: I want to come back.

Sometimes letters herald the beginning of a friendship. I wrote to Anne Tyler’s publishers about five years ago, and now we send each other books and write emails regularly. Now and then we send actual letters. I’ve written to many writers I admire — in fact, I have honed the fan letter to perfection. I often get a grateful reply, which should not be surprising. Is there anything more gratifying than a letter from a stranger, telling you that your novel has brought them joy? My friends and family are obliged to at least pretend to like my work. A fan letter from a stranger is a superior compliment.

Are letters old fashioned? Yes. Are they a waste of time? Never! I’ve just read The Story-Teller, a biography of Katherine Mansfield by Kathleen Jones. Much of her resource material came from the letters Mansfield sent and received. What a treat, to have access to letters not written for our eyes but for the perusal of her husband or one of her friends (Woolf, Lawrence, Hardy) and family. It is voyeuristic, which can feel ethically dubious but is irresistible. What would we understand about Mansfield, without these letters? Not a lot. Not entirely because her letters tell us the truth about her thoughts and her feelings, but because they tell us about her relationships. Each letter, or version of her life, is edited to please a particular other. (Or to not please. Katherine had a tendency to vent on paper, as I do myself.) Her fiction was frequently drawn from her life; sometimes you can see her refining her memories in her letters, as if they were early drafts of her stories. I can imagine her writing letters about Germany (for instance) over and over, in different tones and voices, till finally she would pick up her pen and write ‘Germans at Meat’.

Imagine if Mansfield lived now. She would be emailing her Bloomsbury pals, or texting them. She would not be leaving evidence of her development as a writer. Are we all in danger of leaving no paper record of our lives? Emails are quick and easy, and while they may exist in a cyber cloud somewhere forever, we almost never archive them properly. The rare email that might reveal something significant to the patient biographer would easily be lost among the millions of others about, for instance, the corns on the author’s feet, the price of petrol in the station down the road and how to get rid of those funny wrinkles under the ear lobe.

Writing a letter slows me down. I have to find paper, pen, sit down at my desk. I have a few friends who still write letters, even though they live quite close. Sometimes they enclose an article, or a recipe. Oh, the thrill to find a letter, handwritten, among the bills, sometimes with pretty stamps! It’s inordinately more satisfying than hearing the ping indicating a message has dropped into my inbox.

But wait — is that true? Maybe I am indulging in nostalgia. I love hearing that ping. And really, aren’t emails and texts also a form of letter-writing? They are communications without our mouths opening. Yes, our writing style has changed as a result, but is that necessarily a bad thing? I write more succinctly by email. I am also more likely to go off on tangents. I rarely delete a single word, but awareness that I can is liberating, compared to the prospect of having to re-write a letter, or cross out words and scribble others up the margin.

Letters can give clues to the secret lives of loved ones. Three years ago, after my father died, I found the proverbial bundle of letters in his desk. Not from my mother, but from Claire, the woman he’d known before my mother. I was half relieved, half disappointed to find they contained nothing remotely flirtatious. The letters revealed a witty and well-read side of my father I’d never noticed. He and Claire managed to salvage a platonic friendship from a broken romance, and sustained it for decades from a distance. So, not love letters, and yet. The fact my father kept her letters, and kept them hidden in his desk, says much, even if the content was innocent. I wrote to her, of course. I introduced myself and broke the news of my father’s death. She wrote back immediately, saying she knew all about me, and was very saddened by my news, but very glad to make my acquaintance. I drove the 400 miles to meet her — how could I not? I wanted to see the woman my father thought so highly of. Since then, we’ve had adventures, got drunk, talked about my dad for hours. But we live 6000 miles apart, so mostly we write letters.

Letter writing (virtual or on paper) is a kind of vanity publishing. We can say what we want, without fear of a letter back saying: We regret to say your letter is not compatible with our house style at this time, thank you very much and good luck. Letters are endlessly satisfying to write and receive. They can start wars, end marriages, comfort the bereaved, commence courtships. Be careful what you write, for you may get a reply.

Cynthia Rogerson is the author of four novels and a collection of short stories. She is the Programme Director of Moniack Mhor Writers’ Centre.

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