Learning from Letters

Things have been a little quiet in Lacunae recently. With the pandemic inserting new layers of complication and chaos to our lives, it’s been a really busy time. As we have all been sucked into our own spaces, the monthly reading project has been shelved, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been writing! In fact we have been putting all our available energies into a research project which has taken us away from our screens (mostly) and immersed us in the world of good old-fashioned, pen-on-paper letter writing.

Without giving too much away (peer review may force us to revise what we promise to deliver!), we have been exploring our work and the world of academic development through the exchange of letters. Those letters – autobiographical accounts of our thoughts and experiences – are our data. Through analysis of them we have blurred the lines between fact and fiction, played with interpretations of text and looked for shared meanings.

The whole process has been revealing (not always in a good way!). And although our initial quest (a journal article) is complete, we were all so intrigued by the power and potential of the project that we have agreed to continue with it. Where the journey will take us is not yet clear, but we decided that sharing aspects and insights along the way would be a good thing to do. This, then, is a post to get the ball rolling.

For the love of letters…

At the moment I am reading the novel What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt and it has prompted me to reflect on what I have learned through my epistolary journey in the last 6 months. Half way through the story, following the tragic death of their son, a wife leaves her husband and the family home to take up a job in another city. Accepting their relationship is strained, but not over, they agree to find a way of sharing their day-to-day lives through letters:

‘I dont want the words to be naked, the way they are in faxes or on the computer. I want them to be covered by an envelope that you have to rip open in order to get at. I want there to be waiting time – a pause between the writing and the reading. I want us to be careful about what we say to each other. I want the miles between us to be real and long. This will be our law – that we write our dailiness and our suffering very, very carefully. In letters I can only tell you about my wildness…’ (p.151).

In a single paragraph, Hustvedt captures the essence of letter writing, exposing it as a physical, emotional, transformational experience which connects two people across chasms of space and time. For me, it really draws out some of the powerful contrasts between the way I reflect, read and write in the electronic vs. paper-based formats.

The physicality of letters

Letters have a tangible quality which emails or DMs just don’t have. The stamps and post marks say something about the miles travelled; the stationery carries a message of its own, be it a practical or aesthetic choice. The act of ripping open the envelope can be exciting, bringing anticipation, nervousness or joy. The clunkiness of having to fold all the pages together and stuff them back into the torn envelope and find a place to keep them – a pretty box or a letter rack (remember those?); mine are bundled in a blue elastic band! It makes email feel so sterile – opening with a click, standardised fonts and line lengths, moving to a folder – it is all so mechanical. The words are, indeed, naked.

Is it possible to bring some of these physical qualities and pleasures to electronic communication? You can include pictures, add attachments, use nice formatting. But is it the same? I don’t think so – it feels like a gap that can’t be filled. What is lost?

Writing our dailiness

Too often, electronic communication demands efficiency; the need to be lean with words/characters drives out what might be seen as unnecessary waffle or overly personal sentiment. What letter writing reveals to me is the power that ‘writing our dailiness’ has – it sets the context and connects the reader to the writer in a meaningful way. By sharing what we can see or hear from our desk, or musing about what to cook for dinner, we open up portals into our lives. This makes the reader experience richer, more intense; to be able to imagine the sights, sounds and smells that the writer experiences, and to feel/share the emotion is deeply satisfying.

I’m put in mind of Helen Sword’s work. Frustratingly, my copy of Stylish Academic Writing is stuck on my desk in the locked-down office – I can’t get a direct quote – but she talks about how we adopt a very formal, somehow detached ‘persona’ when we write emails. We are all conscious of being professional, and not wasting people’s time, but maybe it is time to think about how those communications could be more human? Is it possible to make receiving an electronic communication a more physical, sensual, connected experience through including more ‘dailiness’? Or must those details remain in the realm of the informal/personal rather than professional space?

Freedom in reflection

Somehow, writing with a pen feels more free and I certainly find it a more productive way to write. It is slower than typing, forcing my brain and hand to work together more slowly and deliberately. It is easier for thoughts to flow – it can be a stream of consciousness. But at the same time, I find that my mind is busy making decisions about what to include and not include – and often the things unsaid are more important than those written. When I write an email or text I seem to make these editing decisions after the words have been laid out.

I think letter writing has re-kindled a more active and honest form of reflective practice for me. I’ve bought a nice fountain pen (3 actually) and re-started my practice of a daily work journal (nothing more than a foolscap notebook which sits on my desk and records everything I do, think and hear). I am not sure when I stopped doing this – maybe a few years ago – but it strikes me how shallow and restrained my reflections had become without it. Letter writing has returned me to a place where visual and playful practices can catalyse and deepen my reflective thinking.

I’m pretty sure that none of these are original observations – there is a great literature on epistolary research and letter writing as a research methodology (literatures which we will inevitably get into as the project develops). But right now, it has really made me think about how I process my thoughts and share ideas and what I could do to make my writing and communications richer, more human, connecting to readers more strongly. What do you think?