Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

I'm going to sit right down and write myself a letter

I have not written a letter in about twelve years and I can't remember the last time I wrote one by hand. Oh, I've rattled off notes to the electricity board and the local council but you could hardly call them letters. They're letters in the same way a limerick is an epic poem.

A while ago I read a blog about the poet Ted Hughes. The author was reviewing the recently published Letters of Ted Hughes. She writes:

Ted Hughes was an old-fashioned letter writer, perhaps one of the last of the breed, but he considered a hand-written letter as worthy of literary excellence as any poetry or prose for publication…

I have to say I feel a strong affinity with that statement. It is one of the things my wife has commented on, the fact that she gets to read my blogs before anyone else. She remembers the letters we used to exchange when we were first getting to know each other and misses them. We talk, of course but talking is not writing. It is an interactive experience. You're too busy working out what you're going to say next that, even with the best of intentions, you can't possibly give the speaker your full attention.

Now, of course, the world has e-mail and texting. Lucky world aren't you? Never has it been possible to transmit the written word to others with such ease, speed and immediacy and what do we do with it?


A letter is a considered thing, at least mine were, an opportunity to have my say and say it right, to choose my words carefully. Blogging is like that but I'm writing to a mostly anonymous audience. It's an open letter to the world. Hello, world, how's it hanging?

Now a letter on the other hand is a custom built communication with all the trimmings. It says more than words could say. Well, actually it says exactly what words can say but it's not (at least it shouldn’t be) any ol' words. The nice thing about words, the really, really nice thing, is that their meanings aren’t fixed, we can redefine them, we can imbue them with our own personalities, we can make them our own.

The problem with writing for you lot – yes, you world, sit up when I'm talking to you – is that for you to understand me I have to use universal metaphors. My wife and I have one: she's a Tracy. Okay, you're a bright bunch. Most of you will have worked out that one or other of us knew or knows someone called Tracy who has or had certain personality traits peculiar to herself but can you imagine the rigmarole we would have to go through for you to get exactly what that metaphor means to my wife and me? And if I use a Scotticism or a bit of Glaswegian slang I have to explain it most of the time. I can’t trust the context to help me out there.

I can be me in a letter. I don’t get to be me nearly enough these days.


Dave King said...

I absolutely go along with all that. We don't get to write letters as often as we should - any of us. At least, I don't know of anyone who does. I am old-fashioned enough to prefer to write letters with a fountain pen! I like the feel of it, it seems the right tool for the job. As for talking and thinking what to say next when you should be listening - a common fault of T.V. interviewers, I think.
Dave King

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, I have quite a collection of fountain pens myself which never get used. My daughter bought me a lovely Cross pen for some birthday which I used for a while but it takes special cartridges and I never think to buy more when I'm down the town.

barbara jane said...

Hi Jim, thanks for this post. I am also a fan of the letter. My husband and I used to handwrite letters to each other regularly before we were married, and when we lived on opposite ends of the country. Definitely something happens there that's markedly different from typing on the blog, and in emails and text.

I think it was Alice Walker who said that handwriting connects the writer's body to his/her writing.

I like what you say about using "universal" metaphors in order for larger, anonymous readerships to access what you mean. I'll also add that because the blog readership is relatively impersonal, there is no sense of accountability on readers' parts to respond substantially. That I think is a large part of the difficulty I have with blog and dialoguing via blog: that distance, which is so much more vast than the distance between the (two) parties engaged in the letter writing and reading.

Now, on the proper letter writing pen. And on selecting paper. I love that part; it makes me feel nostalgic.

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