On Doing Things The Old Way: Letter Writing

Wednesday morning and finally!!!!!  The weather here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia has gotten hot.  We had 90F (32C) heat for a brief moment this weekend, and have enjoyed temps in the 80F’s (27C-31C) since then.  My sister even turned on her air conditioner!  Why yes, now that you ask, I am exactly like a lizard in that regard:  I adore warm, nay, hot, weather.  Hot weather reminds me of the happiest moments of my childhood.  Plus, it also helps that the warmer the weather, the less my body hurts, so there’s that.

I need to apologize for failing to provide any installments of April Tyree the last two weeks.  Mea maxima culpa.  I had a temporary brain lock:  no writing was coming out, even my blog posts were an absolute struggle.  Why I had the brain lock is a long and unimpressive story, so let’s not go there.  But like I said, I think I’ve gotten past it.  Time will tell.

In the meantime, I want to ruminate a moment on a subject that should be dear to the hearts of any Steampunk, Dieselpunk or Pulp afficianado:  Doing Things the Old Way.

A letter by Jane Austen. Note the vertical writing on top of the normal horizontal writing? That is what they mean when people say they “crossed a letter.” It was done to save cost: paper was expensive, and on top of that, the number of sheets determined how much it cost to send through the post. More pages, more money. Note also the address and stuff in the middle of the left half. Again, it was cheaper (and more fun) to creatively fold the letter itself, rather than spend the extra cash for an envelope.

You know what I received the other day?  I received a letter from a dear friend, Thomas.  Not an email.  Not a cold missive that had been typed up on a computer, printed off and barely touched by human hands.  It was a proper letter, handwritten on stationery, with envelope, stamp, delivery by an actual mail carrier, the works.  And because Thomas is as passionate about his letters as I am about books, it was even closed with sealing wax.  With a signet stamp in the wax!  The stamp, in the shape of an oak leaf (the perfect symbol for Thomas), was something new, and everybody in the family just had to have a look at that tiny treasure.  I took special care not to break the wax when I opened the letter, because that stamp was worth preserving.

Thomas and I have known each other for fourteen years now, and for maybe six of those years we have carried on an off-and-on correspondence.  This is entirely by snail mail; I am not even sure the man looks at his emails, because I guarantee he doesn’t answer them (at least not with me).  I still have every letter he sent me; I save every letter like that, from Thomas or from anybody else.  I’m not quite twee enough to bundle the letters with a scented ribbon, thank goodness.  I have a beautiful mahogany box (a gift from Thomas) where I save all my correspondence; it’s stuffed to overflowing now, so pretty soon I’m going to have to get a new one.

Letter writing, proper analog letters that have never seen a keyboard or a text function, is becoming a dying art.  Heck, in some schools they’re no longer teaching elementary students how to write in cursive!  And I think that’s a terrible thing.  There’s something special about sending and receiving letters.  The main argument against writing letters is that they’re slow.  It’s slow to write one (unless you type by the Finders Keepers method, typing is faster than writing by hand), and it’s slow to send one (Thomas’s letter was written on Monday; I received it on Thursday).  And “oh they’re sloooow!” is pretty pathetic as an argument, if you ask me.  Not when you look at the arguments in favor of them.

1.  They’re permanent

You know what my little sister found a long time ago?  A bundle of letters between my mom and her first husband.  My sisters and I knew Mom had been widowed before she met our dad, but beyond that we didn’t know much more than his name — Billy — that they had met and married while both were in university, and that he had died of a genetic illness only a month or three after they were married.  Yet here were these letters, written by man I had never met, who had died before I had ever been thought of, but who loved my mother very much. HIS hands wrote those letters to my mom.  HIS thoughts were caught it the little yellowing pages.  Not some imaginary person my mom occasionally thought about:  this was a real person with real feelings.  Billy instantly became a person to me, in a way he had never been before.

To move beyond the personal, there are lots of historic periods where the only solid data historians can find are in letters people wrote to one another.  Soldiers and their families writing back and forth when they are separated have been collected and printed in book form (a perfect example:  Gone For A Soldier, by Pvt. Alfred Bellard, is the collection of letters of a young man fighting in the American Civil War).  These letters tell us something more important and more interesting than the dry “this battle started on X date, ended on Y date, Z number of casualties, blah blah, blah.  These letters tell us what it was like to stand on that front line and know that the enemy is coming, there’s very little to stop him and all he wants to do is kill you in the name of his cause.  That’s powerful stuff that you don’t get from the dry facts in your high school textbooks.

There are more than soldiers writing letters.  One of my mother’s prized possessions was a book that held a collection of letters written by the Bronte sisters.  In it they discussed their daily lives, the adventure of publishing “our little stories” (some of the most brilliant pieces of Georgian/early Victorian literature ever published) and, amazingly, even talked about their shared play worlds, Angria and Gondol (a paracosm; read more about it here, it’s fascinating).  For myself, I treasure a collection of some of H.P. Lovecraft’s letters (the man was obsessed with writing letters; some of his letters are longer than novels.  I shit you not.)

Every generation up to now have contributed to this body of knowledge by way of their letters.  The generation that grew up on email and internet, they’ll be the first generation since…. well, pretty much since the beginning of the written word, to NOT contribute to the group knowledge.  Email isn’t permanent, servers and clouds may still exist in a hundred years or five hundred.  But I guarantee your emails, that you dashed off in half a minute without thinking about it and sent it with the same lack of concern, those emails will not be on those servers and clouds in a century or even a decade.

 3.  They can contain more than just a letter.

Do you know what else — besides letters — is in that lovely mahogany box on top of my piano?  The dried up leaf of a palm tree.  My husband sent it to me when he was in the Navy.  It was right after we were married:  we were young and we were 4000 miles apart.  He sent me letters every day, and in them, he enclosed things that he and I, both children of Appalachia, had never seen.  Like a palm tree leaf.  Like a pinch of sand from the Pacific Ocean shore.  I sent him things, too.  A lock of our infant son’s hair.  A little swatch of green cloth from a quilt I was making.  A pressed Rose of Sharon blossom from my mother’s front yard.

And there were things that we didn’t plan to enclose in those letters, but they got in there anyway.  Like the smell of chili powder because I was dividing my attention between writing a letter and cooking supper; apparently my fingers carried some of the powder onto the letter.  Hubby loved it, said it reminded him of my cooking. For me, it was the smell of his cologne that was on every letter he sent me; he used an embarrassingly cheap brand of cologne, but on him it smelled very nice indeed.

Yeah, I’m talking a lot about smell. The sense of smell is very strongly linked to memory, according to what I’ve read.  It used to drive my husband crazy that I put a little spritz of perfume on my letters to him; he said it made him homesick.  (I don’t think it was quite hearth and home he was thinking about; like I said, we were very young and full of hormones, hehehe).

Anyway, how do you send stuff like that in an email?  A digital photo just doesn’t begin to substitute for a lock of hair.  You can’t touch a baby’s hair in a digital photo.  You can’t smell a pressed flower through the computer screen.  You can’t tell from a selfie whether that sexy guy smells of leather and cologne, or whether that beautiful woman’s skin is as silken as it looks in a picture.

And just as important as what’s inside the letter is the physical truth of the letter itself.  This isn’t some lights on a screen.  A letter is something permanent that you can hold in your hand, that is real in a way emails aren’t.  You can pull it out and look at it a thousand times, you can smell its scent and touch its creases and just experience it.  I know that sounds New Agey, but you know what I mean.  It’s real; it’s not a bunch of colored lights that can be erased from existence with just a few clicks of the mouse.

 3.  They are SO punk!

Do I even need to say that, in the time period covered by Steampunk, if you wanted to communicate across long distances, there were only three options available to you:  telegram (quick but expensive, usually only used for time-sensitive or urgent information), messenger (speed varies, not always reliable), or letters.  By the time we get into the Dieselpunk era we’ve more or less lost the telegram, but added the telephone.  But even then, much communication was still by letter, especially personal communication.

We spend a lot of time creating costumes and gadgets, pimping our accessories, our wheelchairs (hi!), our hair, to look like we stepped out of our favorite genres.  We fantasize about living those adventures and visiting those imagined times.  Why isn’t letter writing the logical next step?

Think about it:  the whole concept of -punk is that the person wearing that descriptor does not conform to the norms of his society, that he has to go his own way, for whatever reason.  I’m here writing this blog and you’re reading it because the -punk side of Steampunk and Dieselpunk strikes a nerve somewhere in your brain, right?  The entire world uses email and texting and a thousand flavors of instant messaging and that’s fine for what it is.  But does that automatically mean we have to communicate the same way?

Writing a Letter isn’t that Hard

The problem is often that, if you had the same sorts of teachers I had in school, they turned letter writing into a painful or a dull (or both) exercise.  It wasn’t about communicating your thoughts to another person; in those classes, it was about getting the date in the right hand corner, do you put the address on the left or right, do you put a comma or a colon after the salutation, and do you say, “Yours, Truly,” or “Sincerely” or something else entirely when it’s time to sign out.

Jeez, I think my breakfast is getting ready to come back up, thinking about how stressful those classes were.  Blech!  Yes, I know, it’s important to know how to do that sort of thing, and I know I’ve used it in the past, so it’s not useless information.  But they make what should be a pleasant process into a chore and who wants to do chores?  Then there are the “How to write a letter” pages online make it even fussier.  I don’t get it:  if I don’t have a dedicated stationery and a fountain pen, it’s not a real letter?  Get serious!  I’m not a bit ashamed to write a letter on a sheet of printer paper, folded over to look like a greeting card.  One of my friends writes to me only on lined loose leaf paper, the same kind you used to use in school.  Do I care that he didn’t buy an expensive cream colored stationery to talk to me? What do you think?  I am just glad to hear from him.

My parents between them taught me how to write a letter and enjoy it.  My mom showed me the folded printer paper trick.  If you’re as long winded as I tend to be (you would not believe the word count on this blog right now), the folded paper turns into two or three papers nested inside one another like a folio booklet.  She also taught me about crossing a letter (see the illustration above), and, when I did need to know the fiddly bits, she showed me how to make it all work.

With one sentence, my dad told me how to write the body of a letter.  He said, Talk to [the person to receive the letter], just as if he’s right there beside you on the soft; only instead of saying it out loud, put the words down in the letter.”  He told me that when I was eleven years old, and it still is the best advice on letter writing that I ever had.

For the record, I do have stationery that I’m using at the moment.  I keep it in a beautiful little leather folder, also given to me by Thomas (he really wanted to encourage my letter writing!).  I also have several fountain pens.  I even know how to cut and use a goose quill pen (I used to be in the SCA; it’s astonishing the disparate skills you pick up when you run with that bunch). I do not have sealing wax or a signet stamp like Thomas does and don’t think I’m not envious as hell!

I can see why a Steampunk would want to pick up the same sorts of tools as soon as possible, were he to decide to start writing letters.  The idea of fountain pens date back many centuries, but the kind we would recognize today were developed in the late 1840’s to early 1850’s, totally within the Steampunk time frame (here’s an article that shares an 1870’s article about letter writing).  A heavy stationery, with or without envelopes, liquid ink from a fountain or dip pen, the wax and seal, they convey a 19th century elegance that modern epistles just can’t match!

Now for Dieselpunks, things are much easier.  Envelopes, lots of different kinds of pens, lots of paper opportunities.  A little Google-Fu can net you letterhead from all sorts of official places (I found one that was from the desk of J. Edgar Hoover!).  The same arguments about Steampunk apply here, too.  Yes, they had the telephone, but long distance calls were expensive as heck.  If you wanted to talk to your sister on the other side of the country, a letter was the way to go.

Miscellany

Did you know you can tell stories with letters?  Go look at the original Dracula novel by Bram Stoker.  That’s called an epistolary novel, because it’s told in the form of letters going back and forth between the principal characters.  You can play games through the mail, too:  chess is famously played by correspondence.

Have you ever heard of Ghost Letters.  I’ve seen it called The Letter Game, but I know it as Ghost Letters.  Basically, the idea is that two players get together and decide on a a setting for each of them (1943, player one is in Paris, player two is in London).  Each player decides on a character, how he knows the other player, and why they have to write letters instead of just meeting in person.  Then they start writing letters back and forth to one another, IN CHARACTER, and by that they write a collaborative story between them.  One lady has made a career of writing books based on this game.  I’m not suggesting you do that, but I can recommend the game.  It’s really fun, especially if you like writing fiction.  I’ve played it a few times; it’s hard to find a partner willing and able to play along (any volunteers?  you know my email!)

Okay, this blog has gotten out of hand; sorry I went on for so long.  I have other “Old Way” ideas I might throw out from time to time.  In the meantime, you know the drill:  write, share, tweet, comment.  If you have a recommendation for Fun Friday (which is my next installment, so be here in two days!), please write me at ajwriter-at-ajclarkson-dot-net.  Between now and Friday I have a crapload of sewing to do, plus another crapload of writing.  Lot of work ahead of me.  So while I’m running myself ragged, ya’ll be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

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Categories: Dieselpunk, DIY, History, Personal, Pulp, Steampunk, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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