in Personal

Literacy and letter-writing

A few days ago I got a letter from my friend Taryn in the mail. She’s interning at a public library, cataloguing a collection of antebellum correspondence that includes the letters of two very close female friends. In the spirit of their friendship, she wrote a post-script in their letter-writing layout—as she puts it, the “nifty nineteenth century paper saving habit of filling up a page then turning the paper ninety degrees and writing across what you already wrote.” In this case, the difficulty of deciphering her post-script added to the humor of its punch line.

Taryn’s letter

Transcribed, Taryn’s post-script reads:

P.S. Old letters look much like this…

Dearest Love,

I really miss you, but not enough to buy more paper. So instead of writing a legible letter [here rotate the paper ninety degrees and read the remaining text across what she had already written] me and my illegible fountain pen are going to write like this. Isn’t it relaxing?

Love, your devoted, affectionate, Me

Walking blindly up the stairs of my apartment building with my nose in my letter, I conspicuously cracked up when I finally figured out what on earth she had written. Reading Taryn’s letter about writing letters, and trying to come up with something interesting to write in return, has gotten me thinking about how conventions of communication between close friends have changed.

This summer I have received requests from several friends that we correspond in order to keep in touch while I’m away. (My dad thinks I’m silly. I called one day when I was walking back from the post office and he laughed at me when I told him I had dropped hand-written letters in the mail. “Letters? Who are you writing letters to?” he said.) I find that writing letters is surprisingly different from writing emails and, of course, very different from talking on the phone. In addition to the obvious differences in technology—I type much faster than I write by hand, for example—there is something fundamentally different about how I frame my thoughts when I’m writing a letter. For one thing, I assume a quicker response time with email, so I am more comfortable with relaying mundane details of my day. I am far more likely to tell the story of the girl I saw on the metro who was wearing black tights and a white spandex number that showed her underwear muffin top in an email than in a letter. I am not sure that this would have been the case in other times and places when letters were a more standard method of communication and when the post came multiple times a day, but it is certainly the case with me this summer. In letters, I try to come up with interesting character sketches or reflections on what I’ve been reading or humorous anecdotes about my work. Whatever I’m writing about in a letter, my paragraphs are developed far more completely than in email. Because the exchange of letters is going to take at least a week, I aim for my writing to transcend the everyday into some realm of semi-permanent interest.

With blogging, too, I have yet to hit my stride. We shall see. Taryn has informed me that reading cramped antebellum cursive that crosses back on itself becomes easier as the weeks go by; I can only hope for the same with the particular literacies of writing letters and blogging.

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