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Slow Writing: A Ceremonial Practice

After long silence, I begin again.
—William Cowper to William Unwin, 3 July 1786

A student this term is reading history—Erik Larson, David McCullough—and is struck by the eloquence of the primary source material that has informed their work—letters and diaries. But, alas, her admiration segues into a lament as, feeling intimidated rather than inspired, she reflects, dear reader, on her own attenuated correspondence.

What has changed since Abigail and Henry Adams wrote to one another during their long periods of separation?

It’s an interesting question and a big one. The answer, in part, is embedded in the question: In the digital age, when do we ever suffer long periods of separation from anyone? We may be physically separated, of course, but we remain—always and constantly—virtually connected. And rather than settling by the fireplace late at night to record our thoughts in a journal or to write a letter to a dear friend in ceremonial reply to one that has been received—the ceremony being a promise of reply—we flag an email and reply quickly when we have time.

So that’s one answer—a predictable one—given the imperatives of our digital age. More importantly for a writer, however, is the ease with which we have given up long form formal letter writing and the challenge of retrieving the practice of it. But first, questions: Is it necessary? Is it possible? And, if it is necessary, is it possible?

When I left England some years ago to live in the U.S. again, I promised more than one person that I would correspond regularly, that each letter would be answered in kind. We could talk on the phone but, as writers, a continuing dialogue in writing seemed important. And I was active: I wrote a lot, I went to the post office a lot. Until email. Once that was installed it didn’t take long for the ink to dry out in my italic-nibbed pens.

And I miss the languor of those days. Even as I write rapidly on this computer, I long for them. An opportunity to discourse in words with friends, to catch up on their lives and my own in a slow way, and then to save the correspondence, to return to it, or to bequeath it to an historian as many writers have done. Indeed, high profile contemporary writers donate their papers to libraries or sell their letters and journals to libraries. The fact that they have written these letters and diaries, and saved them, is of great importance. And I know one or two who still cherish their fountain pens, and use them. I wonder what I’ve done with mine?

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