Sad Men

What Writers Can Learn from the Great Depression

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Why I Write Letters

Way back in December 2000, Peace Corps stationed me on top of a cold mountain in Guatemala. During my first night in the village of Miramundo, I stared into the foggy darkness outside the wood shack where I would live for two years, feeling like I had stumbled upon the edge of the world.

My old girlfriend had mailed me a letter with a photograph and a copy of Radiohead’s Kid A CD. I switched on my battered Discman and savored that new album for a week. At night, I would swaddle myself in a blanket with her letter, letting those spooky synthesizers and Thom Yorke’s voice whoosh through my head.

That memory contains so many obsolete technologies: a compact disc, a portable CD player, printed photograph and a handwritten letter. One decade later, I can stream Kid A through my laptop, transcribe my writing notebook entries into my iPad and post the essay on my Tumblr blog. As I wrote about authors in the 1930s, I found myself writing letters again—getting back into the old habit that they took for granted.

Until this year, pens, stationery and printed photographs were no longer part of my life. I stopped writing letters in 2004, the same time I wrote my first blog posts. As I joined a generation of bloggers, my writing life focused on word-count, links and speed. My brain shifted from uneven scribbles on a sheet of paper to a machine with automatic spell check and the power to publish online instantly.

But what did I lose? I haven’t huddled under the blankets with a letter in so many years and I can’t remember the last time I listened to an album all the way through. Your brain changes when you stop scribbling your thoughts to another person with pen and paper. I lost touch with the messy joy of those Peace Corps letters, replacing it with spare and straight-to-business email prose. If I discovered something wonderful before blogs and social networks, I would write a sprawling letter intended for a single reader.

After a few years of blogging at GalleyCat, the entire dynamic shifted. I stripped the “I” out of my prose, quickly describing the world in snatches of blog-friendly prose. Twitter condensed my style even more, trimming my thoughts to 140-character bursts. Instead of writing for a single reader, I’m floating miniature sentences into the digital sea. How do you write letters?

I write them on blank white sheets of Mead Plain Writing Tablet paper (the perfect balance between onion-skin stationery and hardier regular paper stock) and mail my letters in vintage airmail envelopes with red white and blue checkered corners. These barber-pole striped envelopes jump out of a handful of junk mail.

I like to write each letter in a ballpoint sprint, keeping my pen on the paper until I’ve filled up both sides of the 6x9 inch paper with my careening handwriting. I generally avoid paragraph breaks, letting the stories and news blend together into a single dizzying thought. It is messy and takes a little bit of effort to read, but the experience of writing one of those letters feels like a spring cleaning inside my head, sharing everything I wanted to share with that particular friend in a twenty-minute writing marathon.

Unbuckled from the focus of a tweet on Twitter or the direct simplicity of a blog post, I write like that lonesome 23-year-old kid on top of a mountain in Guatemala. Don’t get me wrong. I wrote this essay to publish on the Internet and I my writing life will always be centered online. I’ve been posting to GalleyCat by day and writing letters by night.

In college, I made the jaw-dropping discovery that one of my middle school pen pals had sublet an apartment with my best friend. I would visit their house every day and never made the connection until I spotted my old pen pal’s last name printed on the mailbox. Back when I wrote letters, I would tell that story with the reverent tone of an evangelist talking about the miracle that changed his life. It was the kind of beautiful coincidence that reminds you why letters matter.

This letter-writing evangelist has seen the light again.

My message is simple: Stop reading this essay and write a letter. Instead of clicking
through to the next link or opening up another window on your browser, grab a sheet of paper. Write a letter.