Friends who write letters

In early May, at the end-of-the-year potluck supper of the MIT figure skating club, of which I am a new member, I sat next to Florence. She is a student from Belgium who, in addition to getting a graduate degree in media studies this year, learned to skate and performed a solo in our March show.

Before the potluck supper, we had never talked. Over salad and lasagna and quiche and meatballs, I told her about my goals as a writer and she told me hers as a photojournalist. We were mutually engaged, and the conversation with her made the awkwardness of a social event totally worth it.

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mail from Florence and James

At the end of the night, she handed me a tiny pad of notepaper and pen and asked me to write down my mailing address. She had a book for me, something about narrative journalism, that she planned to send me as a form of inspiration. A few days later, the book The Literary Journalists arrived in a package along with The Midnight Disease. In the accompanying note, she referred to our potluck conversation and wished for “all the best in your writing enterprises!”

I felt as though my ambition, which had been feeling to me like an old dress that had fallen off its hanger and crumpled on the floor among the shoes, was freshened, ironed, and made wearable again by her interest and words. A person cannot always plug along alone without such collegial encouragement and enthusiasm. (There were two exclamation points in her note.)

Meanwhile, that same week, I got a hand-written letter also from James, whose presence in my life as a fellow writer and a real friend keeps me company even though we live far apart. Words — by email or the post — keep the embers of friendship glowing.

And over the past year, I’ve also gotten real letters from Ulrike, Susan, Rosemary, and even one of Rosemary’s friends, who passed along a used book she’d finished with. Marcia sent me a vacation postcard. Leslie, even though we share an office at work, sent me by mail an article she thought I’d enjoy; I know for a fact she also enjoyed creating something mail-able that may have grown out of her nostalgia for a pen-pal-rich childhood. My mother sent me a well received Mother’s Day card, which boosted my parenting self-esteem in one sentence, which, by the way, the children agreed with when I read it to them.

Are you wondering how to get someone’s attention — how to really reach them — at a time when email and status messages and even, gulp, blog posts seem to add to more and more clutter?

In your own hand, write some words. Put them in an envelope; add a stamp. Send.

A postcard or letter is personal and private and therefore more treasured. When I receive one, I think: this is for me, only.

13 thoughts on “Friends who write letters

  1. What a great entry, thanks. Decades ago, I travelled a lot for business and would sit in my hotel rooms at night and hand write letters to a bunch of people I had on a list. Now, I have a thing for fountain pens and am trying to improve my handwriting… then start up the letter-writing thing again.

    Again, thanks for sharing.

    • That’s a great way to use your travel time: writing letters. I’ll let this be an inspiration to me and try the same when I’m at a conference in a couple of weeks. It’ll be a better use of time than channel surfing.

  2. Well, you have inspired me, at least for the next few minutes. When I first moved to Madison – before I knew many people there – I would spend Sunday afternoons sitting in one of the city’s ubiquitous coffee shops writing letters while John was off studying. I still miss those afternoons – a way of being with a friend without the person actually being present. I’ve tried to set up the ritual again, but I need to be alone for it to really work, and I’m rarely alone these days.

    Nowadays I only write a few letters a year, but people DO love receiving them. Probably more so now that they are so rare. Sometimes I even get a phone call from someone exclaiming about how excited they were to get a letter.

    You often mention the awkwardness of social situations, but it is so hard for me to see you being awkward in these scenes. You have so much to discuss and know so many people!

    • I call social situations “awkward” because big ones, with lots of people, do not feel natural to me. Yes, I have strategies for navigating them, and probably to an observer they would think I am managing quite well. Inside, though, I am constantly giving myself directions: do this, do that. There is no “in the moment,” which I do feel when hanging out with just two or three close friends.
      The summers I was in college, I had a job at a law firm that was isolating. I worked in the file room and mail room with just one other person. I wrote a lot of letters at that time; I had the space — physical, mental, and temporal — to do it in.
      Maybe the sending of letters springs from both leisure and loneliness?
      Well, there is always existential loneliness, but not much leisure today.

  3. “I call social situations ‘awkward’ because big ones, with lots of people, do not feel natural to me. Yes, I have strategies for navigating them, and probably to an observer they would think I am managing quite well. Inside, though, I am constantly giving myself directions: do this, do that. There is no ‘in the moment,’ which I do feel when hanging out with just two or three close friends.”

    Precisely. Well said.

    • I am gladdened to read that I’m not the only one who has a constant director in her head during those large (and sometimes agonizing) social events!

      • I’ve heard it (or something related to it) called the “internal monitor,” but I like constant director better and will use that from now on. I once heard a teacher/writing friend called it the “internal editor,” and that voice too is occasionally helpful.

  4. Now I want to write you a letter even though I only know you through your blog and tangentially a mutual friend. Is that weird or too stalker-y? I love getting greeting cards from my mom. Even though the cards don’t have a lot written in them, they are from her, which says volumes to me.

    • I would take a letter.
      Yesterday at the conference I’m at in Savannah, one of my far flung colleagues, whom I know most well via Facebook, greeted me by calling me something like “one of my favorite virtual friends.” I have some of those too.

  5. Jane, I’m sad to say that the letter to you was probably one of the few I’ve written this year (though I was also a recipient of one of Susan’s lovely surprise letters). And Bill’s comment makes me realize I could have made much better use of my evenings here in the UK over the last couple of weeks. Sigh…

    • I am honored to have gotten that letter. And it’s in view in my house, to remind me to return the favor! I’m about as fast as the Pony Express, obviously, in the day of digital immediacy.

      Someday your Jane letter will come…

  6. Oh: and I, too, have a dread of social events like that…so much so that I often skip them altogether, and probably deprive myself of the chance to meet people like Florence. It’s definitely something I need to work at.

    • It takes some forcing to get one’s self to go — activation energy — but then such events can be fruitful.

      Yesterday at the conference I’m at I prodded myself to meet strangers, exchange a business card or two — but I really had to make it a task. It doesn’t just happen for me.

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