marginalia

Marginalia: Letter-writing Practices and Rituals

A few months ago, I wrote an essay/listicle on letter-writing as a literary art form and how there seems to be a renewed interest in them — at least, the reading of them, if not the writing of them.

Still, it seems that there are plenty of us who miss physical letters, along with all the specific rituals that the acts of both their writing and their receiving/reading involve (and that just cannot be duplicated or replaced entirely by electronic communication). One such person is writer and radio broadcaster, Hazel Kahan. Hazel reached out to me earlier this year to have a conversation on radio about our various letter-writing habits, rituals and thoughts on how it has been an integral part of our lives. Last week, an edited version of this conversation aired on her monthly radio program, Tidings, on WPKN 89.5 FM.

We discussed things like: when and how we first started letter-writing as children and what that meant to us; which particular public letters we were drawn to reading and why; the disposition or preservation of letters received; the privacy aspect of letters and how that has changed over centuries and decades; letter-writing in the era of email and text messages; and so on.

Something I didn’t get to in the conversation with Hazel is why letter-writing rituals appeal to some. Here’s my theory. Mervin Verbit, a sociologist, wrote about the 4 dimensions of rituals: content, frequency, intensity and centrality (importance within our lives). And, although he was talking more about religious rituals, you’ll agree that they apply to most other kinds of rituals in our lives too. And, I think that, if our everyday rituals for a particular activity include these 4 dimensions in the right and consistent proportions, they can allow us to pay more attention to what we’re doing and give us the space to be more creative. I’m not suggesting that rituals, in themselves, can make anyone more creative — rather that they enable some of the right conditions for creativity. This is why I see letter-writing as a more creative writing exercise than, say, email-writing, which is often more immediate and not so consistent in terms of frequency or intensity. Blog-writing can have all 4 dimensions and, therefore, be ritualistic too. But, then, it doesn’t meet the other criteria for letter-writing such as being one-on-one communication for another specific reader.

Listen to our 30-minute conversation here. And, do check in at that link for Part II, when Hazel will be talking with another writer on the same topic. I must apologize for one error. About 2/3rds of the way in, I referred to Samuel Johnson as the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Actually, what he gave us was called ‘A Dictionary of the English Language‘, the original and predecessor to, by some 150 years, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Since Hazel and I had our conversation, there’s been quite a bit of news related to letters — literary and otherwise. It seems that, as with most things in life, the less they’re written, the more they’re valued as some kind of rare treasure or oddity. So, for example, there were new reports about famous living authors leaving their personal writing, including emails and letters to academic institutions for posterity, e.g. Hanif Kureishi and Billy Collins. The movie, ‘Her‘, which won several awards in the last couple of months, has a protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), working for a company that offers a professional personal letter-writing service for people in a future world who cannot or do not want to write intimate correspondence themselves, yet, curiously, want to send it to people who, also curiously, want to receive it. Then, just last week, there was news of a previously-unknown letter from the author, Ernest Hemingway, to the actress, Marlene Dietrich, that sold for some obscene amount (only matched, some have said, by the letter’s somewhat obscene contents). To me, this last is an example of letters going beyond objectification and into fetishization.

So, clearly, our collective relationship with letters continues to evolve in interesting ways. In particular, I enjoy the longstanding tradition of epistolary fiction, going as far back as the 17th century in the British canon, at least.

As you listen to the above show, here’s a handful of quotes from or about letters to enjoy:

Mrs Millamant: “O ay, letters – I had letters – I am persecuted with letters – I hate letters – nobody knows how to write letters; and yet one has ’em, one does not know why – they serve one to pin up one’s hair.”

Mr Witwould: “Pray, madam, do you pin up your hair with all your letters? I find I must keep copies.”

Mrs Millamant: “Only with those in verse…. I never pin up my hair with prose.”

~ William Congreve, ‘The Way of the World

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Then letters came in but three times a week: indeed, in some places in Scotland where I have stayed when I was a girl, the post came in but once a month;—but letters were letters then; and we made great prizes of them, and read them and studied them like books. Now the post comes rattling in twice a day, bringing short jerky notes, some without beginning or end, but just a little sharp sentence, which well-bred folks would think too abrupt to be spoken.

~ Elizabeth Gaskell, ‘My Lady Ludlow

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Letters have to pass two tests before they can be classed as good: they must express the personality both of the writer and of the recipient.

~ E. M. Forster, ‘Commonplace Book

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Other letters simply relate the small events that punctuate the passage of time: roses picked at dusk, the laziness of a rainy Sunday, a child crying himself to sleep. Capturing the moment, these small slices of life, these small gusts of happiness, move me more deeply than all the rest. A couple of lines or eight pages, a Middle Eastern stamp or a suburban postmark . . . I hoard all these letters like treasure. One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship. It will keep the vultures at bay.

~ Jean-Dominique Bauby, ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death

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Only write to me, write to me, I love to see the hop and skip and sudden starts of your ink.

~ A.S. Byatt, ‘Possession

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2 thoughts on “Marginalia: Letter-writing Practices and Rituals

  1. Yes, the interest in reading letters is reviving even if the writing of them is a challenge in these tweeterish times. There’s also the recently unveiled collection of WWI soldiers’ letters, a lovely article about writing a condolence letter and a curious web site devoted to letters never sent. Seems we have fellow enthusiasts out there, Jenny, so let’s keep encouraging them from the sidelines.

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    1. Thanks, Hazel. It was fun chatting with you about letters. And, so much still to be said.

      I keep reading, here and there, how blogging or social media have replaced letter-writing and I really don’t agree. I think that these are 3 very different forms of communication. A letter is a one-on-one communication intended for one other specific reader. If anything, blogging and social media could be described as having replaced that other form of personal writing — the journal or diary.

      No question, though, that phones and emails have replaced letter-writing. But, as you and I discussed, neither of those allow the certain charming rituals associated with physical letter-writing.

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