Beneath my writing desk, I have a trunk full of letters, including one I wrote to myself in 1970. I had sealed the letter in an envelope addressed to me, to be read three years hence, when I would turn twenty-one.
‘Please excuse the paper and the cramped writing,’ my eighteen-year-old self wrote. ‘Did you get into university? If you didn’t I hate to rake up bad memories. Is life terribly painful? Any major disasters?’ I asked my future self, question upon question.
‘So far life seems complicated but the complications, the ups and downs and all the dreams make life interesting. Are you still a dreamer? I don’t suppose three years could change you that much.
‘There’s something I want to say,’ my eighteen-year-old year old self wrote, ‘but I’m not sure how to say it, nor what it is. I am reluctant to become ‘sloppy’, to use any clichés, or to let you laugh at me, but I suppose the very fact that I am writing to you is ludicrous. At twenty-one do you think very differently to when you were eighteen? You have to vote now. Do you know anything about politics yet?
‘Has your writing changed in any way? How about your style? Have you still an abundance of literary ambitions, or did you drop them along the way… You know you won’t be able to write back to me… in a way that’s my reason for writing. I want to remember you. Eighteen-year-old Elisabeth will never be back again when you read this. You think you’re stupid, don’t you? I think I’m stupid but somehow tonight I felt this sudden urge to write and yet I couldn’t write just any sort of letter to anyone. I’m not in that sort of mood. I suppose you could say that I’m looking too far forward into the future. I’m just curious. Are you going to show this letter to anyone?’ Who is he or she?’
So far I have kept the letter to myself. My smug goody two shoes eighteen-year-old self appals me. Letters help me to recover the past. In both writing and reading them, I try to remain faithful to my memory, but it is a fickle faithfulness. ‘Letters are the great fixative of experience,’ writes Janet Malcolm. ‘Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience.’
‘You’re going to get a pep talk from a convent-bred girl,’ I wrote towards the end of my letter. ‘I hope you’re not lazy and that your vices are few. I hope you haven’t gone all revolutionary, haven’t become a typical type of student who thinks she knows everything, haven’t forgotten the importance of others, of God and of school, too … Times up. I’ll stop now. Good luck for your future. Don’t forget your theme song, My Way. I hope you haven’t changed horribly, for the worst or anything like that. I hope you have lots of friends and are happy. Most of all I hope that you are living a good and useful, unselfish life.’
I remember the evening I wrote this letter, seated at the laminated kitchen table in the house my mother had rented in Parkdale during one of the many times she had left my father. The radio in the background played Frank Sinatra. And I remember, even as I wrote this letter that I was deluding myself. I was not doing it ‘my way’. I was eighteen years old on the brink of my career. But I was troubled and anxious, about what might happen next.
Was I defending myself against the sense of abjection born of my helplessness? My mother had decided that we should all return home, my siblings and I after a year of living separately from our father. I did not want to return home to my drunk and abusive father, no matter how many miracles my mother was convinced had occurred, but I was helpless. I had no say in the matter. When my mother left my father this time, my older brothers insisted it would give her space to sort herself out away from the pressure of his drinking. But she could not stay away from him. Late at night I heard her sneak in through the back door while we slept. By the end of the year my father had convinced her that he had stopped drinking. He would not, he promised, take up drinking again and it would be best, he told her, for all of us to return. I had no say.
This letter becomes my object of memory, a trace of my eighteen-year-old self that I remember remembering, a type of ‘conscious marking’. It is full of cliché, grandiosity and is evidence of my young self’s attempts to speak severely to some future self, almost as if in a bid to dictate the future.
I have the memory of trying to be honest with myself, trying to write my way out of the sense of abjection. And I have another memory of my disappointment in my eighteen-year-old self, when I first opened the letter as a twenty-one-year-old. How could I ever have been so prissy? Every time now when I read this letter I cringe. But the letter is an accurate memory trace, and I must honour its existence, however much I might want to re-write my own history and my experience of myself over time.
When I write autobiographically, I go back in my mind to a time in my childhood of which I still have clear images. As I detail the constituents of each memory, my mind’s eye images, I am faithful to my memory. The table, the house, the radio of my eighteen-year-old writing self are clear to me. But then I come to a block, details I cannot fill in. Everything that happened in my childhood memory happened in the summer or the winter. Of course, that could not be. Where were the springs and autumns, the in between times when life like the weather took on a balanced aspect, not too hot, not too cold? They disappear between the extremes. I begin to make things up, to make calculated guesses. To create a narrative. I condense and concertina events. I wrote the letter at Christmas time, it was summer. It was probably hot. I would have been wearing a t-shirt, but I cannot remember.
As Franz Kafka suggests letter writing is ‘an intercourse with ghosts’, not only he argues, with the recipient, but with oneself, the letter writer. I write letters to cross boundaries, to reach out and connect, to place my hand into that of my reader. I write letters to recreate reality. I write letters to write. In so doing I hope I do not lose faith with my memory. My emotional experience is faithful to memory and when memory fails, as the memoir writer, Nancy Miller, says, ‘I let language lead, the words take me where I need to go.’ It is a future reading of an act rather than simply a leap into the past.