Writing – and getting – letters is still something to treasure
by Ana Avia-O’Connor
Sometimes when I was very young, my Nana used to write me letters. She wrote in a script much like the both of us, small and round. When I broke my arm the first time, Nana wrote me pages about all the things I would be able to do when it healed, even sketching me swinging on monkey bars. I write my letters in the same way as her, detailing everything in copious amounts of words where a few would be better. Neither of us possess an economy for words, which can be a gift.
I started writing letters late 2014, while I was getting together a care package for my friend. His grandmother had just passed away only a few months after my own Nana, so I suggested writing as a way of keeping each other sane over the summer. Exchanging letters seemed a fitting commemoration to the woman in each of our lives who had instilled the magic of words in us. I latched onto an outrageously extended metaphor about Scrabble, to scrabble to find how to remember, without being inert in our recollection.
The most beautiful feeling of writing letters over that summer was that I had someone who I could tell my thoughts of whatever I was going through, someone who would appreciate the effort of me putting pen to paper to tell them. Usually people look at me strangely when I go on about my obsessions with Palestine or Terry Pratchett, and quite fair enough. But here was a captive audience, someone who I cared about and who cared for me, and who would respond, too. On reflection, I can’t say that anything I wrote was fresh under the sun or world changing, but it felt fresh to me. Nothing changed in any great way, just incrementally.
Our summer letter writing was a disruptive experience, as I would find myself noting down quotes or thoughts to write to him. Sometimes, I would even withhold thoughts from our Facebook chats to avoid repetition in my letter. I could dwell on them, come back to them later and often change my mind in the intervening hours. At times, I did things with the express purpose of writing about them afterwards.
Even after all my planning and writing, my letters would turn into a different beast when my friend read them. My diatribe about “White Feminism” would be re-interpreted and turned into a questioning of the implications of Iggy Azalea’s problematic attitude towards black rappers. My pal’s thoughts on the risks of his recklessness would be countered by my in-depth disavowal of my habit of thinking things through too much. Yes, I do understand the irony of that now. I relished the uncertainty about how he would interpret what I had to say. We had a number of misunderstandings, with one particularly choice and overwrought argument over the “death of the novel”. If anything, these misunderstandings spurred us to articulate ourselves more clearly each time, or just keep scrabbling towards articulation.
Often our letters would get caught up in a discussion about our interminable struggles with language, especially its limits. Other minds greater than mine have struggled to make a case for making the attempt. From decades ago, this complaint by Virginia Woolf still feels valid to me : “News and gossip, the sticks and straws out of which the old letter writer made his nest, have been snatched away. The wireless and the telephone [or Internet] have intervened. The letter writer has nothing now to build with except what is most private; and how monotonous after a page or two the intensity of the very private becomes!”
Almost as if she were talking about Facebook, sixty years before it was invented, Woolf added : “Instead of letters, posterity will have confessions, diaries, notebooks… hybrid books in which the writer talks in the dark to himself about himself, for a generation yet to be born.” Well, my thoughts about Chelsea Manning and some people’s self-serving letters to her in prison did induce my friend to read those letters, and then respond to my critiques. We were proof that the medium is the message, as we could not escape the form we had chosen. Then again, my words had spurred a positive action on his part to find the letters, read them and respond to them, just as his constant discussion of hip hop led me to search out the rapper Nas, and then onto a newfound love of Aaliyah (R.I.P).
Without that feedback loop I would have found it much harder to live through that first Christmas without Nana. Our letters travelled the range of our emotions and everyday routines, but generally they orbited around the traditions of family, hip hop, and storytelling. Without realising, we made our own traditions. We sat down to write to each other, furtively passed the letters to each other when we met, and each time laughed off,the inevitable jokes about whether we were exchanging love letters. Over and over we promised to go together to Midnight Mass at Christmas, tiredly laughed over our words while biking there, and wrote in depth about it afterwards.
Through these traditions I found a purpose otherwise missing in my jobless summer, and devoting time to letters meant that at other times I was more inclined to search out my friends. The letters fostered in me an appreciation of seeking out human connections as gratifying as the ones I felt binding my friend’s words.
As the more pretentious of us, I’d write upwards of ten pages of scrawled writing about my messy thoughts. He would generally keep it succinct, although with generous postscripts. I admired how my friend wrote the way that he talks. My artificial turn of phrase made my partner-in-crime’s authenticity all the more noticeable. though. All the spelling mistakes, crossing out, and combined Maori/New York patois only made me appreciate the warmth, honesty and rawness of such writing more.
While we were writing, life went on around us. I lived through my first birthday without Nana. Second year law is a bitch, so unfortunately, my friend and I exchanged letters far less often. Distractingly, during final exam time I re-discovered a letter I had written in April. Like our letter writing, it had been quickly lost in the depths of my mass of law notes. I had written about the grief about Nana’s passing I couldn’t help returning to. Half a year later, those words still racked me with sobs…Words make me hold my breath, like Philip Marlowe in “The Singing Detective”.
I’d like to say that this letter writing forged a great change in my life and that I now communicate well with everyone in my life, but that’s not so. Reading those letters from the last year or so again, I can still feel the crushed midnight crisps in the hot summer sheets scratching my legs as I snuggled down to read the new missive, accompanied by a growing grin at the start of yet another impassioned love letter to New York and hip hop. Each time I read my pal’s raw birthday letter, I still feel the great, gasping sobs making my lumpy pillow damp under my cheek. Words keep making me hold my breath.
Most of all, I found someone who loves me enough to read my many messy words. We write so many odes to romantic love that it is easy to forget the flawed beauty of platonic love, and how fulfilling it can be for someone to consistently be present. Once, he wrote (eventually) and told me – as William Pitt the Younger said to William Wilberforce – “What I ask of you, as a mark both of your friendship and of the candour which belongs to your mind, is to open yourself fully and without reserve to one, who believe me, does not know how to separate your happiness from his own.” Without such candour I would perhaps not have found myself holding his hands and crying in a café during exams, but we keep fumbling forwards nevertheless.
When the words come tumbling out and I get that nebulous feeling of having nearly articulated how I feel, I can only thank my dear friend for lasting this long with me. I’m not convinced that letter writing is “the only device combining solitude with good company,” as Byron said, but this enterprise has made me hungry for the world in a way I haven’t felt in a while. And that hunger continues, sated only temporarily when I get to write and read our letters. On that note, I am still waiting for my letter…