On the subject of letter-writing, I want to say this: that it is a kind of work in which my friends think I have some ability. And I would have preferred to adopt this form to publish my sallies, if I had had someone to talk to. I needed what I once had, a certain relationship to lead me on, sustain me, and raise me up. For to talk to the winds, as others do, is beyond me except in dreams; nor could I fabricate fictitious names to talk with on a serious matter, being a sworn enemy of any falsification. I would have been more attentive and confident, with a strong friend to address, than I am now, when I consider the various tastes of a whole public.
— Montaigne, “A Consideration Upon Cicero”
Dialogue. A dialogue is the perfect conversation because everything that the one person says acquires its particular color, sound, its accompanying gesture in strict consideration of the other person to whom he is speaking; it is like letter-writing, where one and the same man shows ten ways of expressing his inner thoughts, depending on whether he is writing to this person or to that. In a dialogue, there is only one single refraction of thought: this is produced by the partner in conversation, the mirror in which we want to see our thoughts reflected as beautifully as possible. But how is it with two, or three, or more partners? There the conversation necessarily loses something of its individualizing refinement; the various considerations clash, cancel each other out; the phrase that pleases the one, does not accord with the character of the other. Therefore, a man interacting with several people is forced to fall back upon himself, to present the facts as they are, but rob the subject matter of that scintillating air of humanity that makes a conversation one of the most agreeable things in the world. Just listen to the tone in which men interacting with whole groups of men tend to speak; it is as if the ground bass of all speech were: “That is who I am; that is what I say; now you think what you will about it!”
— Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human
To whatever extent I have any writing talent, I learned all of it through email correspondence. I did well enough on writing assignments in English class during school, but never enough to seriously stoke fantasies of writing as a hobby. My first halting efforts at “public” writing occurred in philosophy and religion message boards when I was just shy of thirty years old. Over the next several years, I had the good fortune to acquire a couple of pen pals who were talented writers and disciplined enough to carry on regular correspondence. The inbox was my workshop; those sprawling conversational threads were the jam sessions in which I slowly improvised my way toward being capable of writing something that others might actually like to read. For various reasons, that sort of epistolary dialogue doesn’t play a role in my life any more, and that’s a shame. There’s nothing like having a specific, personal audience to hone your thoughts and expression and give them their unique character. Addressing a nameless, faceless audience is sometimes like practicing your serves and volleys against a brick wall rather than with a partner. Better than nothing, but far from ideal.
March 3, 2020 @ 3:07 pm
Do you save old letters? I have quite a few of them in a box somewhere. Some I received when I was a boy, others when I was older but email wasn’t much of a thing yet. With each year they seem more and more like artifacts of a Victorianesque era. My wife has one friend who still sends handwritten letters. I haven’t received any in probably ten years.
March 3, 2020 @ 7:19 pm
I do. I have a trove of letters from one of my closest teenage friends, which I brought out to surprise her with when she visited (she apparently still has mine as well). Nowadays we email each other around our birthdays and try to come up with creative ways to bust on each other for being old. But I didn’t have many handwritten pen-pals. My best friend in elementary school moved to Illinois after fifth grade, and we kept up a correspondence till high school. Unfortunately, I lost those.
Honestly, I prefer emails, because my handwriting is terrible and typing is more comfortable than writing for me. My aforementioned email-pals and I have proven that electronic letters can be every bit as substantial as the handwritten kind, but as we know, in general, the ritual of letter-writing never attached itself to the conventions of emailing. Few people seem to set aside time to make an email meaningful.