Letters. Once upon a time my mailbox was chock-a-block with letters, not junk but letters. Envelopes with stamps, handwritten missives on all kinds of stationary, typed missives, laser printed missives, photographs. Now, every morning when I open my email I’m excited if personal messages await me. We live transnational lives, friends and relatives and colleagues everywhere. But only a few use the convenience of email to send long narrative “letters,” if we can still call them that. Certainly, writers send long narrative emails more than most. Not only does it keep our professional and personal relationships alive, it keeps our writing muscles supple.
After a decade of working in London, I’d made many friends and I was sad to leave. My friend, Norma, suggested that we correspond regularly. About once-a-month we exchanged huge envelopes filled with: news clippings, a written letter or tape, programs of plays, press releases (we are both journalists), gallery brochures and photographs. Now we do the same on email which is much cheaper, faster and environmentally correct though, somehow, not nearly as much fun. The arrival of these packages made me smile. I’d have days of browsing and reading ahead of me, the joy of hearing Norma’s voice telling stories on tape (she’s an actor as well as a journalist) and the sensation, illusory though it was, that I was still in London, if only for an hour or so a month. Skype, phone, Facetime, all wonderful and immediate, but not the same. And this is true of every technological advance: we gain and we lose.
So here’s a gain story:
My friend William moved to Singapore when he finished his PhD and couldn’t get a job in the U.S. He married and now has a baby. Settled, more or less, into a very interesting life abroad. He teaches, he writes hard-boiled novels, reviews books, travels. We had both taught ESL at a Japanese school in New York and although we are a generation apart became fast friends. Then he left. What to do? Stay in touch, of course. Recently, after he moved from Singapore to Jakarta, our email correspondence accelerated and deepened. A few days ago he attached some photos of his wife, his new baby girl, and a link to a blog post sketch of him made by a well known Indonesian graphic artist, Sheila Rooswitha. They were in a noodle cafe discussing a graphic novel adaptation of one of William’s Malaya trilogy, “Singapore Black” (Monsoon Books), when William’s phone went off. There’d just been a terror attack south of where they were sitting and he was trying to get some information. Sheila started to sketch him. The sketch was so vivid that I was right there with them.
Then there is my cousin, Cameron, a musician (French horn), who led a peripatetic life in the orchestra of “Phantom of the Opera” for many years—stayed in touch with everyone—and is now living in the woods of northern California with his husband, James. Cameron collects old typewriters and is an avid correspondent. To my shame, I discouraged him from writing me very long letters and I am sorry, truly, Cameron. Somehow the electronic revolution addled my brain. It made me impatient and dismissive of thick beautiful envelopes arriving in my snail mail box. So I’m contrite and repentant and by way of apology will post the link to your blog here so that others might enjoy it: