I started writing letters this month. Handwritten, enveloped, stamped-and-mailed letters. I sent them to friends I’ve known for years, people I keep up with regularly online. It gave me butterflies. I knew that many of my recent exchanges had been filled with platitudes, but I didn’t understand just how hard it would be to open up a real dialogue until I sat down at my desk to a stack of printer paper and a list of addresses. I was burdened and excited, knowing I was doing more than connecting with friends. I was starting literary relationships. I was taking part in the tradition of letter writing, out of style but timelessly powerful.
As a writer I’m interested in—okay, obsessed with— how words and sentences govern our experiences. I concede to notions that many of us write more than ever in casual communication these days, but I know that texts, DMs, posts, and tweets function differently than their more planned and poured-over relatives: blogs, journals, essays, and yes, old-timey snail mail. There’s a romance to signing your name on a piece of paper, folding it, and sending it off into the world to be kept and read by someone else. You may never see your letter again. You have to yield. The epistolary novel grew out of the potency in this form, and though authors have had some success adapting this genre to new media, the flavor of the writing is not the same. Late-night AIM sessions with my high school crushes were no doubt exciting and deep, but they worked different magic. There’s a special current running through handwritten notes that makes them special.
When I finally slipped my freshly signed and sealed letters into the blue USPS box, I felt elated. The dopamine hits from “likes” could not compete. When I got my first letter back, I felt like a girl meeting her new pony on Christmas Eve. Being home, being busy, being up-to-date, it’s easy to forget what it feels like to be intimate with others. I speculate that we live in a culture that is suspicious of intimacy. Friendships are meant to be casual and transactional, based on shared hobbies or, dare I say, networking. In writing these letters, I realized I hadn’t had a long personal conversation with anyone lately (except my partner and my mom). I know I’m not alone in this.
As the end of this harrowing year approaches, I think about something my friend wrote to me in a letter. He had just finished an incredible book and he wondered what it would be like, as an author, to wield that sort of power. I think we, as writers and lay people, have a place in literary traditions. We can wield literary power.
Every Thanksgiving another friend’s mother goes around the table and asks us what we are thankful for. Then she writes it down. We compose our Thankfuls carefully, injecting humor and heart. Then we spend the latter part of the meal rereading records of the past, noting who was at the table and where we were in our ever-changing lives. In doing this, we make a common American tradition literary. We transform our shared experience into a radiant homemade archive.
World literacy rates are at record highs. I am grateful that I can take part in traditions that deepen my connection with friends and family. We don’t need Hallmark or publishers to make it happen. Each day of 2020 has taught me to be more urgent in accepting my vulnerability. What literary tradition will you begin this year? How will you write for your life?