Letters as ‘fossils of feeling’.

‘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.’
Last week I went to a class about
letter writing.  Although we talked
briefly about the sorts of letters that people write in the privacy of their
rooms, we focussed on those letters written for the purpose of performance.
a person might write to some imaginary friend, or even to a state of mind.  For instance, one of our exercises
involved writing a letter to ‘my wake up call’. 
Another to myself in three hours when the class would be over.
Michaela Maguire, who took the class
was clear and focussed.  We
read letters; we wrote our own, with plenty of discussion in between, a group
of about ten woman – always women – it was to do with women writing letters after all, and
there was a sprit of thoughtfulness throughout the room.  All in three short hours. 
But I worried that I spoke up too
much in the class; that I was a show off. 
That I wanted too often to share too much, especially as there was one or
two women who were quiet. 
I have often wondered what it might
be like to be one of those quiet participants in a group.  What it might be like to be shy or reserved,
to keep my thoughts to myself. 
I often keep my thoughts to myself
but I have this instinctive urge when I enter the space of a workshop where a
few of us have gathered to start the
conversation rolling, if it hasn’t already started. 
I’ll introduce myself and some people will
introduce themselves back and we might talk about the space, or the weather or
the fact that so far it looks as though we’ll only be women attending, as
happened yesterday. 
I do this to measure the
temperature of the room, the nature of the people present.  
Who’s here and what they’re like. 
Will I enjoy myself? 
Will I get something out of our
time together?
I divide my experience into two,
the audience and the teacher.  In this
case, the teacher was fine, friendly, though with a reasonable degree of
reserve.  Teachers need this I reckon if
they are to hold the group.  The other women were also friendly. 
If we could go on meeting for week
after week after week or even month after month we would no doubt become better
friends.  We would come to like one
another as a group. 
We would form bonds, but a once
only meeting is never easy.  There is the
quality of what-does-it-matter-I’m-only-here-once-to-get-as-much-as-I-can-out-of-this
time but there is also the sense, for me at least, of wanting to make the most
of it. 
And the business of reading our
writing out to the class is fraught. People hesitate at first and then towards
the end there’s an avalanche. 
I was among the first to read, and
then kicked myself for my solipsistic reading. 
But isn’t that the way of it?  And
the final worry I have in such groups is the fear that I will be judged harshly
for my age. 
Oh her, she’s just an old
Why would they think that?  
Why do I think this?  
Is this how I judged folks older than me when
I was younger? 
I fear it might have been so, until
of course I came to know those older people. 
Even writing about this makes me feel slightly queasy.  Too self referential, too much of what goes
on in my mind.  No story line.  
But that’s the way it goes sometimes.  You get the inside story, or at least some of
it and the rest I leave to your imagination.  
And then I found a copy of the 2013
edition of Women of Letters in my daughter’s bookshelf and read Amanda Palmer’s letter to someone called Anthony.  I imagine he was a friend.  Someone who was dying of cancer and in it Palmer talks about her almost adolescent need to offer people the truth about
themselves, however brutal, and about the time she had surgery on her throat
and couldn’t speak for two weeks.  How
she came to relish silence.
In a much clearer way than I write here, she
seems to confirm something I’ve been wondering about above. 
Why not try being quiet for a while?
Write letters instead. 

3 thoughts on “Letters as ‘fossils of feeling’.”

  1. Is ‘unmediated’ different from ‘unedited’? The implication here is that letters are more honest than other forms of writing. I suppose they can be but I still suspect people hold more back than they imagine when they write to their nearest and dearest. They choose their words so as not to offend or reveal too much; there’s much I don’t discuss with my friends. Part of my problem is I regard a letter as a serious piece of writing. I treat a comment like this as seriously. I doubt I spend any less than an hour on any comment. (I started this at 12:30 and we’ll see when I’m satisfied with its content and wording.) Were we to meet for a coffee—wouldn’t that be pleasant?—we’d prattle on about all sorts of stuff we never get to talk about normally, films and TV shows we’ve seen, new music we’ve discovered, and, as happens with my daughter, we’d find a moment or two for any serious stuff that requires attention. Completely different ballgame. I know I’ve 4096 characters with which to respond to you today and I’ve already used over a thousand in what still feels like my opening preamble; I’ll have to cut this down once I’m done. I like the constraints. It means I have to choose my words carefully. I generally have to cram a lot into these… I’ll be honest I do think of them as letters. This is where we have our weekly chat but because time and space are against us we omit asking after our families, complaining about the weather and sharing anecdotes from our busy weeks. No, we cut to the chase. So, Jim, tell me about you and letter writing.

    Well, Lis, for starters I can’t imagine ever going to a class to learn how to write a letter. I marvel that such a thing exists but trust you to find it. I’m not sure I’d be any more comfortable attending a class like that than I would a creative writing class. I suspect though I’d be much like you and have too much to say. I’m not a natural leader and yet so often I end up as the guy in charge or the spokesman for the group. I’m articulate and intelligent and so I swallow my natural inclination to fade into the background, roll my sleeves up and do the necessary. I talk too much. (I’m sure it’s nerves.) I share too much. (Always intend to hold back but never do.) I inevitably go home feeling I’ve embarrassed myself and don’t want ever to go back or attend another. But duty wins out in the end.

    I say I’m an introvert and certainly every time I sit any psychometric test designed to measure psychological preferences that’s what I get told I am and it’s true I’m not naturally outgoing but that doesn’t mean I can’t fake it for an afternoon. Once I get into my stride, I can actually enjoy it. I start off with good intentions, to hold back, to be reserved but as soon as I get asked a question the babble burbles forth.

    Did you take examples of your letters to read aloud? I’d dislike that somewhat less than having to cobble together something in the space of a few minutes. I’ll probably post this comment in a few minutes (I’ve been writing for 45 minutes so far) but in the past I’ve let comments lie for a day so I can reread them with a fresh head and a few times I’ve decided not to post my initial response and I prepare a more considered comment. Or decide to stay schtum. I do that more and more realising that over time I’ve already said all I have to say and I’d simply be repeating myself. (3500 characters. Need to think about summing up.)

    I sent an e-mail to a friend a while back. I know I’ve mentioned this before but maybe not to you. It took me three hours to write and the subject line read ‘9 words per minute’ because after all the editing and rereading that’s how little I’d said but every word was carefully weighed and was, I hope, the right word. So I don’t think I’d have done too well in any class that only lasted three hours. The pressure would upset me.

    Beckett used to destroy all letters sent to him once replied to. I can’t imagine doing that which makes me wonder why I own so few letters. Where did they go? (2:15. Need to stop. 8½ wpm for the record. Feels rushed. Much unsaid.)

  2. So enjoyed your introspective wondering here. I remember when, as a true introvert, I dreaded as much as wanted to become part of the conversation. When older I think even true introverts are less quiet, less concerned with appearances maybe, maybe more impatient too.

  3. Yes, I enjoyed reading this. Yes, I still read your blog. Yes, fewer and fewer people are blogging or commenting or responding to comments.

    I do the same as you in groups like this and I wonder the same things. I tell myself I must not be a total narcissist if I question my intentions.

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