“You write the loveliest letters!” That’s one of the most heartfelt compliments I ever received from an older woman in my life. Her son and I were planning to get married, he was in boot camp and I was hundreds of miles away working two jobs to save up for the wedding. I figured she was as freaked as I was about the first significant separation from the boy, not to mention the huge life choices underway.
This all occurred in the 90s when long-distance calling cost a fortune and email wasn’t even a glimmer in our eyes, so I wrote her three or four page letters every week detailing what the boy had written to me and everything else happening in our tiny little tumultuous world. She adored my letters so much that she read them to family and neighbors then sent along their addresses so that I would write to them as well.
Of course I had been a reading & writing nerd my entire life so sitting down to pen a half-dozen letters each week was all pure joy. Her compliment gave me the warm fuzzies so I continued writing to her until the boy and I moved within walking distance several years later. By then I was gleefully messaging strangers around the globe, collaborating in writing communities, doing online classes, and texting closer acquaintances rather than calling them.
The lengthiest letters I wrote in those days included the occasional email or discussion posts for classes. Having pretty stationary and postage stamps on hand was no longer a thing. Once in a while the mother-in-law would voice just how much she missed receiving letters.
It took me a bit longer, I guess, but lately I’ve been thinking about what it was like to read letters from people I hadn’t seen in person for a while. It’s very similar to all those delicious tactile sensations of picking up a novel. The touch followed by scents, the visual pleasure of ink dancing over the page. Mmhm. Then there’s the moment when physical, emotional, and intellectual stimuli mix and meld. You’re in there, in the moment, living the story, visualizing the people, the action, the hopes, anticipating a happy ending that hints at more coming soon.
We read books because the entire process creates a very human connection. If done well, we won’t visualize the author sitting at their desk penning thoughtful scenes, but we do get lost in the idea that this is happening just for us. In that moment, just for us. The whole experience is simultaneously necessary escape and intimacy. Letters served so many purposes beyond communication back in the day. Letters made new connections, kept existing connections strong. They were escapes into another’s life, an intimate experience. Letters gave readers and writers the continuing hope that more news, more love and light, laughter, tension or tears would keep coming on ink & paper.
For those who might be too young to have had the experience, I would fail miserably in describing the joy of finding envelopes in the mailbox bearing a familiar scrawl on the face, a certain color ink, a certain weight. The series of acts—walking to the mailbox, gathering the letters, opening them, reading—culminated into deeply memorable, meaningful connections. Can that be recaptured somehow?
I’d like to try. But this is a different time. People don’t go around giving out their home addresses anymore and that’s fine. I don’t really want to give mine out either. I have become accustomed to the virtual mailbox, though it’s been years since I attempted dressing it all up with personalized stationary-like backgrounds. I still get a certain joy from opening a personal message and anticipating that moment when voice takes over to deliver me into the time and place that miniature glimpse of my friend’s life was recorded. I used to get a similar jolt of pleasure when scrolling through social media to find a friend had posted something sweet or funny. But that happens less and less nowadays.
In my opinion social media has strayed from its purpose. We’ve strayed, busy as we are in keeping up. It was all about connection, you know, in the beginning. We were given the opportunity to grow personal relationships with global strangers, build friendships that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. But the result has become quite the opposite. The connection is waning.
In my recent experience of scouring the internet for literary agent details, editors, various forms of publishing, pitching, and researching how to put together a platform while trying to send out queries that are personal, brief, optimistic, informative, and persuasive, this lack of connection has become forefront and increasingly unsettling. I’m left with a feeling of inadequacy that I don’t know how to deal with. An inadequacy that I don’t feel when speaking with a friend or relative on the phone about the process, the novel, my aspirations and plans as they solidify.
The point in querying is to make a connection, meet a professional who can potentially become a friend collaborating on my future career. I expected the process to be similar to job interviews—exciting, all smiling and best dressed and friendly. Instead I feel like I’ve barely survived showing up to a gunfight with a butter knife. And I lost my knife. It’s clattering around in some dark alleyway, useless and dull, and I’m here licking my wounds feeling … haggard.
At first, memories of reading & writing letters seemed a bit random. Maybe my weary mind was trying to soothe itself. But an odd little trail of breadcrumbs emerged. While I was thinking about connection, really craving one on one conversations (virtual or otherwise) with friendly professionals about what I want for my novel, and while those thoughts trickled over to the memory of my mother-in-law gushing over my letter writing, I found The Beautiful Writers Podcast . Human connection is a recurring theme among the beautiful writers featured in interviews and lengthy talks. Meaningful connections between novices and experts, strangers cultivating long-distance friendships, edifying one another, helping creatives who go on to help other creatives. Wow.
This podcast makes me want to be better, to put in more effort, to reach out to people who like me crave something more. Listening to all these people talk through their histories and growing aspirations inspires me to start writing letters again—personal, interactive, lovely emails. I plan to spend what’s left of the weekend deciding how to make this happen. Let me know if you would like to receive letters that explore writing and learning, personal failures and triumphs, maybe the occasional photograph or link to other wonderful finds like Beautiful Writers, links to artists, craftspeople, or musicians. I’ve got a feeling that searching the old gmail address book is in my immediate future.