I get a letter in the mail back from my son’s dad, and I immediately forget what I had written to him. He’s responding to stuff I’m sure I said, but I don’t quite remember my exact words. I wish I had my letter in front of me too, but they’re in prison with him. And he knows them word for word damn near. Actually, he knows what both of us wrote because I know he writes a draft first before sending off a final copy. So he can compare and contrast. Me, I just pull out a sheet of paper from wherever–my son’s school notebooks mostly–and get to writing whatever is going on. From the top of my head. Scribbling out any mistakes as I go. And maybe the act of exchanging letters isn’t about the words but the feelings, but I still want to read mine again.
Rereading letters came up a lot in my Victorian Literature classes in college. Characters in those books are always revisiting letters–perhaps as a nod to the reader to reread the book, revisit the story, don’t let it die off. Still, it’s something about letters in particular that make them worth coming back to. They’re so personal and sentimental. Between just you and them. No Mark Zuckerberg in your business, only the uninterested eye of the guard reading them before either of us get them in our hands. So yea it’s not just about their words but their handwriting, their style. Will they write the date or time? It’s a different sensation than messaging or even talking. It’s slower. You use your hands, not your fingertips. No one even knows you’re writing it. But once it’s sent, that’s it. Gone. Now someone else’s property.
And maybe that’s the thing about writing letters–you don’t know if or when a letter is received or what they’ll do with it. They might stuff in it a pile in their closet and never unfold it again. They make lay next to it in bed. They might hold it in their pocket all day, looking at it at their leisure. Or at their own excitement or as a step in their end of the night unwinding. This topic of reading and writing back and forth with someone comes up right in the opening of The Idiot–with the concept of the email. In that novel, Selin marvels at how, “all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with others, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time.”
That sounds a little more like passing notes in class to me. Both people’s responses written on the same piece of paper. Two different pen colors, two different hand writings. And who knows where those pages ended up by the end of each day. I remember one time getting a note from a dude in like sixth grade and we used to pass notes all day because we had a couple classes together and he wrote me hi and I didn’t write him back. Just a brand new clean sheet of paper with “hi” written on the top line, laid flat on my desk. Wonder what I was mad at him about.
-Rachel Wagner 2021