I wish I wrote more letters.
The art of letter-writing is endangered these days, and when you sift through archives of letters written 25, 50, 100 years ago, it seems as though language is elevated, thoughts are better articulated, and emotions are more strongly revealed. When I was 16 years old, a friend and I walked into an abandoned one-room shack in the middle of a field (yes, these things can happen when you live out in the country), and found a stash of curse-word-laced love notes written from one high school girl to her boyfriend, with whom she clearly had a child. My friend kept the love notes, and I bet they’re still tied up with a string in her closet somewhere. For years, my mother wrote letters to a soldier abroad whom she’d never met in real life. She still remembers his name, and wonders where he might be.
I find myself, every month or so, heading over to Letters of Note, an amazing compilation of letters from all walks of life that are at times hilarious, heartbreaking, stocked with wisdom, and mystifying. “To My Old Master,” an 1865 note from an emancipated slave responding to his old owner’s request to come back and work on his farm, is a work of beauty. I can only imagine the pleasure felt by the former slave when he politely requested that to even consider the offer, he would first require compensation of back wages + interest for both his and his wife’s years of servitude, plus a guarantee of a good education for his children. Even Tarantino can’t re-create that catharsis.
There’s a letter from poet Ted Hughes to his son Nick reminding him to embrace his childish self and live with passion, a letter from John Steinbeck assuring his college-aged son that being in love is a particularly beautiful thing, a letter from the creators of South Park describing in all-too-explicit detail to the MPAA what offensive jokes they took out and left in for the South Park movie, and my personal favorite, a letter from a screenwriter to MGM studios, asking for a job by way of describing all of the types of words he likes.
“I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty.”
But maybe my favorite corner of the Internet that’s filled with letters is the one that’s filled with my own. Years ago, I stumbled across FutureMe, a site that lets you write letters to yourself and then schedule delivery for any date in the future. I’ve received probably about 10 letters from myself since I was 15 years old, some sent just three weeks after I wrote them, others sent three years. More recently, I composed a letter in October 2010, two months before I graduated college, and sent it exactly one year into the future, to October 2011. The letter ended as such:
“Congrats on graduating, Alison. I hope you stick it out with that GPA– don’t fuck it up in this last semester. Stay friends with [X], [Y], [Z], and your housemates this year. Don’t let everyone go from college the way you did from high school. Try to keep ties alive, even if you don’t believe they care as much about you as you do them. You’re going to want to have friends to invite to your wedding, after all.
But most of all, I hope you’re kicking ass right now. I hope you’re financially stable, doing something you love, and happily in a relationship or alone, whichever suits you best. See you in a year!”
Try it. See how long you can stand to wait until you read the letter again, and send one off into the Internetsphere to float around for awhile and come back to you with your own reflections. You don’t even have to pay for postage.