John Steinbeck’s Letters
I have been recently reading A Life in Letters, an anthology of letters written by Nobel laureate John Steinbeck. Honestly, I had no idea who he was before I picked up his book, though his name was familiar. This was a man who hated to use the telephone, as I do too (you can’t think properly on the phone).
I never knew reading other people’s letters could be this enjoyable, but it has been. You know authors by the books they write, but through the letters you get to see another aspect of them that you would never get to see otherwise. I thought his letters regarding his divorces the best. In a letter he wrote to a friend called Pascal Covici, regarding his ex-wife, Gwyn, he wrote:
Gwyn once told me she could do anything and I would come crawling back. At the time I was very much in love with her but even then I told her not to depend on it. A woman holds dreadful power over a man who is in love with her but she should realize that the quality and force of his love is the index of his potential contempt and hatred. And nearly no women or men realize that.
Reading his letters reminded me of how I love writing letters. It reminded me of how I can bombard my poor friends with philosophies they don’t understand but which they pretend to; with stories nobody else wants to hear; with words nobody else wants to read.
I wish I had more people willing to write to me. I wish I had more people willing to be written to.
Pen-pals and Letter Writing
I’ve long aspired to be a frequent letter writer. In my younger days (I think I was about 13 or 14 at that time), I subscribed to a pen-pal organisation — quite famous at that time (or at least I thought it was) — which provided names and addresses of people from other parts of the world (you could go local, but where’s the fun in that?)
I received the name and address of one person, while another person received my name and address. All in all, I made two pen-pals through this organisation. The particulars of the person I received was a guy from Italy (Gianluigi Pino), and the person who received my particulars was a girl from Australia (Katrina Bahn).
I enjoyed writing to both, but more so Katrina, as Gianluigi’s english wasn’t quite that good (no offence, but I’m a whore for good language skills in writing!) Katrina, on the other hand wrote well (though her handwriting was bad), and she was, after all, a girl.
But these pen-pals did not last long. To me, the quick demise of these pen-pal relationships died was largely due to the internet. The moment they sent me their e-mail addresses, and I sent them an e-mail, the magic of having a pen-pal disintegrated into bits and bytes; no more touchingly personal but something quite trite.
Besides these two, and one more local pen-pal largely forgotten, I’ve never had another relationship based solely on letter-writing. It is unfortunate, for I really enjoy reading hand-written letters.
On Hating Writing (with a pen)
Now, allow me to digress here for a moment. You noticed that I wrote “I really enjoy reading hand-written letters”? Well, how about writing hand-written letters?
“You don’t??” I hear you scream.
“Shh…” I say, pointing to the cat sleeping beside me. (if this was a hand-written article, I’d have sketched a sleeping cat beside this sentence.)
I do actually like writing. But I deplore my handwriting. It is ugly, without character, and horribly inconsistent. I’ve been training myself to write better (aesthetically), but try as I might, good handwriting feels forced and coerced; it does actually feel quite perverse, as if I was trying to be someone I was not. Every time I try out my “good” handwriting, I imagine myself as Shakespeare or some other acclaimed writer, writing by the light of a candle, in some dark cottage in the woods, up in the mountains, in some obscure country; or Norway (where I’ve never been; why I imagine myself here has me stumped too).
Besides being ugly, there’s another problem with writing, and that is its speed. Writing feels too slow. Comparing writing to typing is like comparing swimming to running. Swimming allows you to be more creative: upside down, sideways, on your hands, but getting to the otherside is a horrible chore, especially when you’re used to the speed running allows you.
When writing, I think of all the things I want to say, but by the time I pen it down, I’m thinking way ahead of my busy little fingers, who are by this time aching and screaming (“shh…” I say), telling me to pause for a while. (But “No!” my brain tells them, “we have got to write on!”)
But my fingers, like workers on strike, decide to stop, whether my brain agrees or not (“ten to one, the union wins!”) So my brain decides to see what has been written already (“okay”, says my brain, “we have to do something, have to keep moving, strike or no strike”. I have no choice but to agree. It is my brain.)
My brain upon seeing the work that has been done, realises that paragraph 4 and 5 really belong before paragraph 3. “Cut and paste, cut and paste!” I tell myself, “I wish there was cut and paste!” My brain then tells me, “told you we should have drafted out the letter first”.
I tell it to shut up, and my heart decides to chip in to, and tells my brain, “spontaineity, Brain, spontaenieity. How can there be spontaineity where there is hindsight? Write from the heart, not the brain! And give those poor fingers a rest. Poor fools.”
And that is why I hate writing.
I enjoy reading hand-written letters much more than e-mails because of the personal touch, as well as the deliberation and care it takes to write. You have seen why I hate writing with pen-in-hand. You realise how much effort it takes, how much more one has to deliberate over what one writes.
When someone sends you a hand-written letter, it normally isn’t as spontaneous as it is in e-mails, which really aren’t as spontaneous as they are sloppy (few if any actually proof-read personal e-mails). But they are written more carefully, that is, with care. And who writes to anyone with care but to someone they love, someone they appreciate?
And letter-writers sometimes go even further, by adding a drop of perfume or using scented paper. Numerous pens can be chosen for this task of crafting the perfect letter; glitter might be added, as might decorations like lace or magazine cut-outs. The possibilities are endless.
Tactile tactile tactile. Touching a letter is like touching the hands that touched the letter.
Feel the smoothness, the roughness,
the curves and the straights.
Feel the joy when it’s early,
the apprehension when it’s late.
When as the last time you saw a creative-looking e-mail? Or one that was deliberated over and carefully written (with love)? Never? Me too.
I love to read and write. Professionally, data science, technology, and sales ops are my thing. In my non-professional life, I aspire quite simply to be a good person, and encourage others to do the same. For those who care, I test as INFJ in the MBTI.