On Sending, and Receiving, Letters


Letter writing is one of those things said to fall under the rubric of “lost art.”  Like tango dancing or throwing a knuckleball, whatever semi-vanished pastime we’re getting sentimental about this week (a google search reveals reference to a “Lost Art of Blogging,” which means time’s really moving, isn’t it?), letter writing is rumored to have disappeared. Maybe it has, in daily practice, but to speak of the “art” as “lost” just seems silly: there’s no lost art of tricycle riding, for example.  Just because we don’t do it anymore doesn’t mean it’s lost.

Or maybe I’m just pushing back against my own nostalgist impulses.  I wrote a Letter in The Mail recently: a winding and discursive narrative that was half about Marlon Brando, and half about the vanishing of Los Angeles.  Really what it was about was me, or more specifically the different imprintings that have been left upon me: Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.  The person I was, and can’t seem to stop being, even as all the available evidence suggests that person no longer exists. That crazy psycho-existential trap we call ‘identity,’ barless prison made of quicksand that it is.  The letter was a bitch to get right.  To figure out how it could address the various recipients in their privacy without just being a complaint or a mass mailing: without being a handwritten email sent to several thousand people.  (Really the only person I’ve ever encountered who writes delightful blind emails, who’s elevated spam to an artform, is Stephen.)  Nevertheless, I tried, and I frosted the letter with various encouragements to get the recipient to write back.  I wasn’t particularly nostalgic for receiving letters in the mail myself (I’m nostalgic for just about everything else—why not that, I have no idea), but I asked for it.  Simply because I wanted to know what others would have to say.


It’s shocking, how pleasurable it was, and is, to get responses.  The letters came back: two, then four, then six, then five.  Not a torrent, but not a trickle: they come every day right now in minor bulk, each one a small thrill in its simple physicality.  Even before I open the envelope: the shape, the bulk, the slant of the script.  Some are handwritten, others typed, a few contain minor tokens: drawings, doodles.  (It amazes me that some people have such gorgeous handwriting, given how little I write by hand these days myself.)  The first day I opened one and the tag from a teabag fell out…

This much is delicious, but what’s most startling is the fear.  I open each one with the conviction that someone is about to call me out.  I expect abuse, which I’m sure says a good deal more about my background than it does about anything else, and yet…does an email have the same volatility?  I suppose it can: I certainly receive  emails on occasion from editors, agents, bureaucrats, spouses of sick friends, and girls that I’m hesitant to open.  But do any of these carry the same implicit threat, the same capacity to wound (at worst, to wound)?  I’m not sure they do.

And naturally, these letters in particular do not wound.  They shoot to caress, or to tickle, not to kill.  Yet they still have that capacity.  Each letter, each response, from a stranger has knocked me flat.  I read them with a kind of gathering panic: my eye skitters across the page and I have to restrain myself a little.  I mean this in a good way: I feel taken into confidence.  One person remarked that they were having their first drink in a year while they wrote, that my letter had somehow set them off.  I didn’t know whether to be delighted or horrified: I couldn’t help, really, feeling the former.  There was just such energy in the sentences.  This person wrote from Café Vesuvio, in North Beach, and I’ve been there: the letter triggered not just its own rush of sensory suggestion, the handwritten scrawl that had a jagged, urgent personality, but a whole host of memories to go with it.  Others were the same: someone who’d just quit her job and was flying back to her hometown to begin writing again; a polite person who wanted to recommend a Nigerian novel to me; a woman in Alabama, people in Portland and Seattle, Austin and Phoenix: slivers of dailiness that are probably more interesting to read than to live, someone else’s familiarity turned inside out into yearning.  A lot of them are written on buses, or ferries.  Almost everyone is in motion, one way or another.  We’re moving soon, to Brooklyn probably, which feels like a failure.  Everyone loves Brooklyn, but I hate it.  So full of hope and sincerity and organic pickles and terrible art.  There are confessions, revelations, admissions and complaints, recommendations and enthusiasms.  Just categorizing them like that feels like a falsehood: they don’t blur, or sift into categories.  Each one is unrepeatable, a sort of spell that conjures something—this much is true—that will never happen again.  Just looking at the envelope on deck, from a person with a gloriously unpronouncable-looking Gaelic name, gives me a thrill.

There are a number I still haven’t read.  I can’t.  I mean, I will, as avidly as I have all the rest, but each one has such density, such force I want to live with it a while.  I’m responding to each, but in no great hurry.  I feel like I’m being given a window, an accidental portal into each writer’s life.  And I kind of want to hang out, to linger a while: to drink in not just the information contained in each letter but the implication, as well, the subtext.  I want these letters to enlarge into fiction, and their writers to become, so far as that goes, characters in living drama.  I want them to be real.

This is a pleasant way to feel, at a moment when I’ve just finished writing a novel and find myself wondering what, if anything, I’ll write next.  I never know, and I like to allow the possibility, the freedom that perhaps I’ll write nothing at all.  (It’s unlikely.)  But at the same time, I’ve been feeling a fatigue around the whole idea of fiction: the creakiness of its contrivances, its history, its mannerisms and tics.  If I never write –or, I sometimes think, read—another ‘novel’ again, it’ll be too soon.  But then I remember that it’s all fiction: that someone else tells you a story of their life, or just their afternoon, and you wind up with pure invention: what you see in your head while they’re telling you what’s true.  That gap, which every writer and every reader since the dawn of both practices has tried to bridge, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and so the art of the novel, or the letter, or the essay or the story, none of these are going anywhere either.

It’s nice, though, to get a letter.  I read them in my car, at my desk, at the café up the block, at my desk.  They’re strewn at the moment across my dining room table like cards, and there they tell a kind of limitless fortune.  A few of them make mention of pen pals, “I haven’t written to anyone like this since I was in fifth grade,” but where those letters were dutiful (I remember writing to a girl at a different school in 1977: her name, preposterously, was Desiree, at precisely the moment when Neil Diamond’s song of that name ruled the airwaves),  these are generated from curiosity, interest, maybe even something like gratitude, for having something beautifully useless to do.

They’re certainly received in that spirit.  And if they’re more perishable than emails (one of the envelopes is already torn along its edge, thanks to the grabby hand of my daughter), they’re more indelible, too.  More inclined to become part of what my own letter talks about: my mortal self that dissolves into vapor, or what used to be called a soul.

Matthew Specktor is the author of That Summertime Sound, and of American Dream Machine, which is forthcoming from Tin House. He is Senior Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. More from this author →