Monday, September 2, 2013

The art of letters



I'm a technological enthusiast. While not as quite as much a gadget-freak as my friend, Chris (who quickly obtains the latest phone/tablet/computer or other such enhancement to something he frequently already owns), I'm fond of moving forward, as it were. One of the ways we've all moved forward is in forms of communication, such as the one I'm using here. The US Postal Service, once the envy of the world, is now crumbling under this change. Who needs to write letters when one can email or text or blog or Skype or Vine or Tweet or whatever other method will emerge in the coming years? (Yes, olfactory communication (aka Smell-o-vision) is still on the minds of some people...)

I'm well into a novel at the moment by one of my favorite writers, Neal Stephenson. He actually published it a few years ago and I've had it sitting in my "to read" pile until last week. It's a very complex tale about communication, language, knowledge, and the roots of ideas and how they're transmitted. At one point, the lead character inquires if there will be some way to send a letter while they're traveling. His companion asks if he's writing "to a girl" and he admits that he is. When he stammers about what he should say, since their travel is taking him away from the woman in question, he's told that he shouldn't bother with the detail of what he's doing and where he's going. Instead, he should just tell her what he feels for her. Even in the fairly advanced setting of the novel, these people are in a situation where he's actually going to have to write a letter with a pen and a pad of paper. But that is, of course, the best way to pursue the advice that he's been given.

Modern communications can be dismissed easily. It takes seconds to text and, if one receives it, a response takes seconds, as well. Communication is constant and therefore ephemeral. While it's certainly more convenient and can carry its own level of intensity because it's everpresent and easily conducted, I think it tends to lose the gravitas that a handwritten letter once held because the latter could easily take hours to write and then days or weeks or even months to reach its destination. The effort in comparison to the modern 2-minute Gmail experience is different by multiple orders of magnitude. When one sat down to convey a message of importance, to let someone separated by miles or oceans know one's most heartfelt thoughts, it had to be conveyed with a certain level of ferocity and elaboration. Ideas had to be spelled out at length, both as a way to convey the feeling and to demonstrate its intensity. No emoticons or icons or hashtags could be used to elaborate upon (or cover up) the emotions involved. Only words.

Did she know that a certain scent reminded you of her and that moment put a twist into your gut until it passed? If not, you'd have to spell it out (quite literally) and she would only know weeks from now, when that moment was distant (until it happened again.) Did she know that you watched the sunset because it brought forth a memory of the sun shining through her hair as she looked back at you with an affection that you didn't know existed in the world to that point? You'd have to tell her and hope that perhaps she remembered the same moment. That world wasn't captured in rapid-fire moments of thumb-typed affirmations that soon get lost in the flurry of other signals, real and imagined. It had to be crafted over time and longed for with an energy that could either keep one moving through the days or make them agony until that separation was ended.

I'm not trying to say that the proliferation of communication and its ease have made relationships less passionate or that modern forms can't be used to convey those same ideas. But there's a difference. My friend, Leca, mentioned a text to me a few months ago that she'd gotten from her (now) husband, Kevin. It mentioned that she had looked especially beautiful that morning as she'd left for work. A mutual friend of ours had an immediate reaction: "Awwww. He's trying to get some." Maybe that's true or maybe he was being absolutely genuine with this thoughts. But if one had to set pen to paper and wait even just days for a response, would it be interpreted so casually or would it carry the weight of those supposedly more "genuine" impressions?

Of course, every time I try to think about writing something like that, my words veer into the archaic and Shakespearean, which makes it sound even less "genuine" than a simple text. The other advantage of this change in communication habits and styles is that my handwriting is god-awful, so I'm not sure anyone that I wrote to with a pen would be able to read it, outdated language or no. But I wonder if those ideas and gestures aren't being muted by the constant stream of contact we currently swim in and if it behooves us to take more time with matters that used to require strength simply to write down.

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