Are you old enough to remember receiving personal letters that the postman/mailman delivered to your home?
PROMPT: Jot down memories or ideas, from the time before email, Facebook, mobile phones, etc. A time when letters were the main method of communication. When letters—lost, found, received, not answered—could change a life.
In the pre-computer times, a plot for a novel or story sometimes centred around a letter. In Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the male lead, Angel, loves Tess and wants to marry her. She writes a letter to him, confessing a past affair, and slips it under his door. The next morning, when he is as affectionate as ever, she believes he’s forgiven her. She later discovers that when she shoved her letter under the door, it went under the carpet, and Angel had NOT read it. Tragedy follows.
Today, I received two Christmas cards in the mail. I have one US cousin who sends a beautiful handmade card for my birthday and anniversary. Another relative annually sends an account of her year—written in iambic couplets (!).
My elderly aunt is the only relative who still sends me handwritten letters. I briefly imagine myself doing the same, but know I never will.
A friend’s adult children complained that her emails were ‘too long to read’. So she now provides short, snappy and frequent Facebook comments. I would find that frustrating. I don’t write people often, but when I do, I engage, choosing particular experiences and ideas based on the interests of person I’m writing to.
Christmas postcard date unknown, c. 1900. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The short message is not a new development. I have my grandmother’s postcard albums from the early 1900s. In those days, people enjoyed saving postcards sent to them–often a photo of a faraway location, sometimes a joke picture.
The messages on the backs of the old postcards I have were written in pencil. I guess people didn’t take quill pen and inkwell with them when they traveled. And many senders simply signed their name, providing no message. Perhaps it was enough in those days to share a visual joke or faraway scene, rather than give a personal account of ones’ strip.
Letter-writing paraphernalia is vanishing. I still have some sets of stationery, plus beautiful cards, fountain pens, and different colours of ink, in bottles. All are untouched, as dated as the Model T Ford.
What about the demise of the aerogramme? When I moved to Australia, my mother used the one-page, lightweight aerogramme to convey news. Harper, the small Kansas town where she and Dad lived, had 1800 citizens and a two-block main street. Still, she found a surprising number of developments and dramas to write about. She advised me about the wheat harvest, church and town doings, her China painting, their backyard garden, plus square dance club, fishing trips with my dad’s sister and brother-in-law, duck hunting in fall, and sightseeing trips.
I learned how crucial letter writing was when I was in my first teen crush, with the boy living at the other end of Kansas. I spent time, too much, selecting just the right stationery and ink colour when corresponding. Sometimes I made my own envelopes, using picture pages from Life magazine. I impatiently checked our mailbox each day for a letter. When I received his letter, I took it to school and re-read it during geometry class. (Note to younger self: in terms of preparing for university, spending time learning maths is better than a short adolescent romance.)
The biggest issue was finding a safe place to hide the letters from my nosy older brother. One day he snatched the latest missive and locked himself in the bathroom, threatening to read it. I yelled back, rattled the doorknob, and started kicking the door–and my foot went through a thin panel on the door. For some reason, my parents blamed me!
A few years later, my brother was in Vietnam, where he wrote to my parents and to me. I still have his letters. Some day, I tell myself, I’ll read them. Perhaps they will be healing, helping me understand his life, how two Purple Hearts led to the PTSD that dogged his life, and his inability or lack of interest in keeping in touch.
In my loft storage, I still have a few old letters from various boyfriends dating from high school and college days. Reading them now gives me an insight into my young self, what interested me, worried me, made me happy.
In those days, I never imagined a time when getting mail would not be exciting. But now my letterbox holds mainly bills and flyers. It serves as the occasional dropoff place for a book or gift of produce from a neighbour. And because it’s mostly empty , it’s become the perfect home for a big, but harmless, huntsman spider.
Wikipedia has a long list of fake memoirs from around the world. Three major hoaxes I remember here in Australia:
MUTANT MESSAGE FROM DOWN UNDER.
In this 1990 book, American author Marlo Morgan claimed to have gone on a spiritual pilgrimage with an Aboriginal group in the Outback. After protests by Aboriginal people, and then a court case, the book was re-issued as fiction (at least in Australia).
When it became popular, I was guest-teaching in a Midwestern college in the USA. My students, who said they loved the book, were very disappointed when I told them about the court’s ruling.
THE HAND THAT SIGNED THE PAPER. In 1993, a novel by Helen Demidenko won several of Australia’s most prestigious awards. She claimed that her book was based on real events experienced by her Ukrainian relatives during the Holocaust.
Later the truth emerged. Her ‘true life’ was made up. And she was not Ukrainian. And her surname was not Demidenko, but Danville.
FORBIDDEN LOVE (AKA HONOUR LOST). This book, published in 2003, was written by Norma Khouri, a Jordanian-born American living then in Australia. Her memoir covered a period in Jordan when she helped a female friend, who fell in love with someone the family would not accept. Things went wrong, and the friend became a victim of a family honour killing.
Later, it was found that during the period covered in the memoir, Khouri was actually living in Chicago, not Jordan.
The Guardian recently ran an intervew with one of my favourite writers, Marilynne Robinson. The question and answer that I found most illuminating suggests why we write.
Q: The trilogy made up by Gilead, Home and Lila has had immense success. But what has it meant for you?
There’s a way in which, nonfiction or fiction, you learn your own mind, you find out what matters to you, what the questions are for you . . . .
And with fiction, you can put the problem out in front of yourself in a three-dimensional way, and work through it, and that’s very, very interesting.
Why do I like her response?
It’s usual for writers to focus on their readers, real or imagined. But it’s worth remembering that through our writing, we also have the opportunity to learn something about ourselves.
We generally know this when we write nonfiction, especially when our topic clearly links to our personal experiences and beliefs.
But what about fiction? Reflecting on some of my work, I realise fiction also provides a way to know and understand myself. I discover personal insights from the choices I make in telling a story—its setting, the issues that drive the story, and the characters I develop, especially in terms of how they act and why.
Does your fiction help you understand ‘what matters to you, what the questions are for you?
I had planned an industrious day working on my current writing project. The morning went well. Now the whole afternoon stretched ahead, empty of other commitments or tasks.
Then the phone rang. It was the King Poo people letting me know they would arrive later to drop off my order of worm-castings, a natural fertiliser I use to get my garden ready for summer. I stopped work to wait for them, and after they left returned to my desk. But getting back into the writing flow proved impossible.
I remembered a guest post on WritingCompanion, from Kelly, who wrote about the advantage of giving your brain time to compost ideas. Mental composting is not the same as procrastinating. The latter takes us AWAY from our writing. Composting is more like a creative, focused pause, which can lead to new ideas and enrich our writing. It reminds us that sometimes there’s an advantage in NOT writing, in holding off rather than pushing on no matter what.
I realised that I was tired, depleted of ideas. To keep on writing would be a mistake. I shut down the computer, with the plan of letting my subconscious work on my topic. When I returned to my desk, perhaps this mental composting would bring forth new ideas and insights.
Another helpful post from our local Librarians With Altitude, here in the Blue Mts.
Do writers need to blog? Or is it a big time-waster when they could be working on their writing project?
Anne Allen gives her take on this issue, with 10 reasons why blogging can help writers and their careers.
When writers tell me they want to start blogging, I usually ask, What do you want to get out of it?
Some writers think blogging provides a sure path to becoming rich and famous. They aren’t aware of how time consuming it can be to post regularly and build up a readership.
Others start a blog because they want to share information and develop a community. But it can be demoralising if only a few read their blog, fewer still sign up to get posts, and even fewer leave a comment.
So why keep blogging?
If any of my posts help other writers, that’s great. But when I set up my blog, I decided to use it to help me discover more about writing.
Developing a number of posts about writing issues has enabled me to—
- assess writing issues and ideas that catch my attention
- write more succinctly, due to my self-imposed maximum of 1,000 words
- become attuned to writing matters, given that writing one post often leads me to material I can use for a future post.
- find and read the work of others who blog about writing.
- learn what interests readers by checking which of my posts attract the most clicks.
I’m not a consistent blogger. But I don’t beat myself up about that. Blogging doesn’t need to be an iron-clad contract.
It’s like fishing. When I publish a blog post, I’m dropping the line with the bait and waiting to see what it attracts.
I enjoy reading books about usage–vocabulary, punctuation, grammar. Many delve into complex arguments about why ‘X’ is ‘X’, or why ‘X’ was once ‘X’ but is now ‘Y’. Not quite the nail-biting excitement of a mystery novel.
So I’ve come to expect books about the English language to be illuminating, but not humorous or personable. That is, until I read Between You & Me: Confessions of a comma queen, by Mary Norris.
Norris has worked for over 30 years in the copy department of the The New Yorker, grappling with usage, spelling, and punctuation choices.
If you’ve ever wondered about ‘that’ vs ‘which’, the use of past or present in travel accounts, the choices for achieving gender-neutral language, this book will help. Norris gives her opinions, without getting too technical or restrictive. I even discovered a couple of new usage issues, in terms of American vs British English.
She also lets readers know a little about her life and interests. One of her early jobs was milk delivery. Milkmen dropping off a bottle of milk at a house would alert the resident by yelling ‘milkman’. As the only female doing milk delivery, she Thought about yelling milk lady or milkmaid, but settled on milkwoman. If only she had lived in Australia, where the common term milko would have covered both sexes.
Norris covers a lot in this small book—gender issues in language, the use and misuse of hyphens and other punctuation, the rise of swearing. She corresponds with some well-known authors about their language choices, and compares the New Yorker style with that of other publications. Doing so reminds readers that language isn’t set in concrete.
A deviation from correctness is that, like me, she is not a fan of the Apostrophe Protection Society, finding some cultural variations ‘beguiling’.
She makes the case that the dash is not ‘sloppy’ informal punctuation. It provides a greater emotional force than a period or comma. (Her example is the poetry of Emily Dickinson.)
She also clarifies the copy editor’s purpose:
So much of copy editing is about not going beyond your province. . . .Writers might think we’re applying rules and sticking it to their prose in order to make it fit some standard, but just as often we’re backing off, making exceptions, or at least trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little. A lot of the decisions you have to make as a copy editor are subjective.
Reading her book, I had a sense of Norris as a thoughtful, skilled editor, someone genuinely interested in the English language in its many variations.
Her last chapter, Ballad of a Pencil Junkie, was a personal essay about her love of pencils. It took me back to the time when many people found great satisfaction in owning the ‘right’ pen or pencil. She mentions attending a party to celebrate a particular pencil. And I was impressed when she mentioned a book that I kept coming across in material about Henry David Thoreau as a pencil-maker. The book is Henry Petroski’s history of the pencil, titled–what else?–The Pencil.
Her comments about different aspects of language also reminded me of a past–not so distant–when accurate language choice was considered an essential element in serious publications. Now in online material, accuracy of spelling, punctuation, and word choice often seems be optional.
(However, like me, she’s not a fan of the Apostrophe Protection Society, on the grounds that some variations–such as the green grocers’ historical variants–can be beguiling.
Norris provides an appendix, with a number of books on language that she finds helpful. I hadn’t heard of a couple, so will be checking them out.
Mary Norris. Between You & Me: Confessions of a comma queen. 2015. Text Publishing, Melbourne, and W.W. Norton & Co. NY.