The New York Times’s “Draft” column began about 18 months ago with an essay by the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri on the power of sentences. It’s been going strong since. Its contributions run the gamut, from well-known writers like Lahiri, Colm Tóibín, Philip Lopate, and the like to newbies who sometimes sound silly or self-indulgent but who occasionally, as in a recent contribution from Mason Currey, get a mind to thinking.
Currey’s topic was the letter. We’ve all wrung our hands to dishrags with this one, bemoaning the loss of the elegant hand-written missive, the struggles of the postal service, the desolate future for archivists with no tattered physical correspondence to archive. I agree about the sadness of it all, because I am a child of my time. I wrote letters home every week, from summer camp and college and bumming around Europe and my various jobs and heartbreaks in various cities and climes. My mother saved every one of them, so now I have at least some version of my history in a box in my basement. And yes, I think it was nice to pause in my week to write those letters, and I even saved some of the ones she and the rest of my family wrote to me. But my sons do not write me letters, nor I them. So let’s not go to that vale of nostalgia. Currey doesn’t.
Rather, he points out how letter writing was once part of a writer’s warm-up or cool-down routine. He mentions John Updike and Cynthia Ozick, who wrote letters in the morning, versus Iris Murdoch and Thomas Mann, who preferred afternoons. Novels themselves are full of letter-writing, whether it’s Richardson’s threatened Clarissa firing off epistles to her BFF or The Color of Purple’s Celie writing to God—and if we write what we know, clearly these writers knew something of the habit of letter writing.
Can email serve the same function for writers? As a plot device, it has potential; e-pistolary novels, as well as text-message novels, have already appeared under small imprints. But Currey interviewed several writers, and “nearly everyone was wary of the distractive potential of email.” We find it to be a compulsion, a bother, and an interruption—the “blip blip blip of emails arriving in your inbox,” as the novelist David Mitchell put it. The post arrived once or twice a day; you could anticipate it eagerly, like teatime. And although email’s inhabiting the same medium—the computer—as our creative work has been used to explain writers’ specific aversion to it, I don’t think that argument is quite right. Dickens wrote longhand, both novels and letters. Rather, emails exist in the same portal as the Internet, whereas our writing exists on our home screen. It’s like writing in a room with the door to the outside perpetually open, blowing in leaves and curious squirrels and the occasional magpie or annoying neighbor.
I can attest that I wrote with better concentration before Wi-Fi, when connecting to the Internet meant getting up from my laptop, leaving my home office, passing through the kitchen, and negotiating with my kids to get 10 minutes of the Internet-enabled computer in our reconfigured pantry. But it’s not just concentration Currey is talking about. He’s talking about the multiple dialogues of writing, the conversations that were had through the unfolding and absorption of letters, the sitting down to articulate to one’s sympathetic friend what travails and joys the writing life had given you that day or week or month. A few pages of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet attests to the qualitative difference of this sort of communication, not only for the recipient but for the writer himself.
Currey offers no solution to the problem he poses. His two “fixes”—setting aside a specific hour of the day to “deal” with emails or rushing through them as quickly as possible—address the interruption of the medium. They do nothing to create the kind of yoga for writers that letter-writing once was. How many times have you, like me, vowed to sit down and write your dearest friend that long letter laying out the kitchen-sink’s worth of problems you’re trying to address in your half-begotten essay, a letter that has been lurking in the back of your mind these many moons? How many of you have refrained from writing it, not just because email and Internet research have swallowed your time, but also because you suspect such a letter would float, unanswered, into the void? We detract nothing from the value of email by noting, even mourning, the loss of a particular aid to writing, and to a sense of community among writers, that we have not yet found a way to replace.Return to Top