You Could Call, You Could Text, You Could Send an Email, or You Could Surprise Someone and Send a Real Handwritten Letter!

May 12, 2010

My subject is beginning to oppress my mind as a nightmare does the body. My head is full of ideas, of which the order is not yet clear to me, and which I must consider singly. I should like to run, but I can only drag myself slowly along. You know that I never take up my pen to support a system, or to draw, whether wrongly or rightly, certain conclusions. I give myself up to the natural flow of my ideas, allowing myself in good faith to be led from one consequence to another. Therefore, till my work is finished, I never know exactly what result I shall reach, or if I shall arrive at any.
• Alexis de Tocqueville in a letter to J.S. Mill, Esq., November 10, 1836, from
Memoirs, Letters and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, 1862 edition, volume 2

I imagine de Tocqueville writing this letter nearly two centuries ago, and because it’s survived the years, he speaks to me today, describing the way I feel about research processes. The open and everquesting search for understanding is integral to the research processes of The Collectory (see earlier related posts). This connection with others whom I’ll never meet is one of the things I love about the written word.

When de Tocqueville describes his nightmare-ish head full of ideas, I think of Byron who wrote that if he didn’t write to empty his mind, he would go mad. I think of another poet, Robert Burns who said, “I pick my favorite quotations and store them in my mind as ready armor, offensive or defensive, amid the struggle of this turbulent existence.”

I think of Steve Carrell in The Office, whose character, Michael, tells his staff, “Too many different words coming at me from too many different sentences.” And I think of myself, awakening in the night with these words so vivid in my mind it’s as though someone is in the room saying them to me: “In the night, words slither from my brain, lie coiled on my pillow, tangled in my hair, hissing my name. Charm us, they say, and we will dance for you.”

I often find it difficult to get back to sleep because of the insistent thoughts that keep watch in the night, just waiting for my consciousness. The notes I make in those waking moments are letters to my self.

I know that audio and video capture things, but for me they are less accessible. Even the written word overwhelms me now that so much of it looks alike. An email is an email is an email and once they’re printed out, even when they’re collected in labeled file folders dedicated to their senders, they maintain an unappealing anonymity of appearance.

When did you last write a letter to someone? Not just a birthday card or a quick note, but a real letter? I’m reminded of the value of genuine handwritten letters because I recently received one. I picked up a business envelope from my mailbox at work and put it with things to take home. I get such envelopes often and they’re pretty much always filled with work-related forms. I was surprised to find a letter inside, handwritten and many pages long.

I’d forgotten what a joy a letter is and how happy it could make me to get one. I do get letters from my mother and I love them, but getting one from a friend was like having her visit. Her thoughtful words gave me a glimpse into her mind, and like de Tocqueville’s words, reminded me that I am not alone in the world of my ideas.

And finally, it especially delights me to find a connection between writing letters and procrastination. Here’s what Hemingway had to say: “Or don’t you like to write letters. I do because it’s such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you’ve done something.”

Procrastinate. Write a letter to someone. Not an email. A letter. Use pen and ink. Mail it.

To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart.
• Phyllis Theroux


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