Putting pen to paper

In 1940, Virginia Woolf wrote an essay entitled “The Humane Art.”
In it she said, “A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.”
She was reviewing a biography of Horace Walpole who had written sixteen volumes of letters that earned him the title of historian.
In this essay, Woolf had less to say about Walpole than she said about the art of letter writing and its pending doom. And one of my favourite bloggers, Maria Popova, fleshed it all out for me and as always, it got me thinking.
When was the last time you wrote a letter? Emails don’t count, nor do text messages, regardless of their length.
I loved writing letters as a child.
I wrote to relatives in far-away Winnipeg. I had a pen pal who lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that seemed entirely exotic as though she may have lived on another planet. I have no recall now of her name.
I was the Secretary of the Red Cross Society in my Third Grade class and wrote letters for some purpose that I no longer recall.
The point I am trying to make is writing letters was fun for me, a happy pastime and when I had no one to write to I wrote letters addressed to no one in particular, just letters that gathered dust in my box of secrets.
I suppose these letters could have been thought of as a private journal, but they were written as if to share, words to query my station in life, words sent out as though someone might be listening.
My father wrote to my mother and for my entire childhood those letters were tied up in a ribbon, each letter in its envelope and tucked beneath all the things my mother was saving in a large blue steamer trunk along with the taffeta and crinolines and christening gowns now yellowed, until she no longer needed to save them.
Upon her death we found the letters and my sister has them, still tied up with ribbon, still private, still unread by anyone but my mother.
I used to wonder what stories they shared, what worries they exchanged and put on the other’s shoulder to make the load lighter. But now I know we all tend to worry about a different version of the same things.
My dad wrote me letters when I left for university, letters I have read so many times I can’t count, letters in answer to mine that begged him to let me come home.
A guide was written in 1876 to provide instruction for those putting pen to paper on the proper etiquette for this epistolary art. I had to look up the word epistolary, though I was confident it was of the ilk of epistle, a written message.
This book of etiquette advised that letters weren’t to be limited to the passing of information, but should have the flare and beauty of any art initiative.
Woolf claimed that Walpole wrote so many letters not because he loved his friends, but because he wanted his words to out live him.
She went on to stay that writing becoming a paid profession was the very decline of what she deemed “the humane art.”
Where does the idea of change come in that I opened with? Well, if we had written letters over the course of our lives we would see how the world had changed from our perspective.
A journal becomes maudlin though, Woolf claimed, valuable but monotonous.
When we write to others we are reaching out, stretching, moving rocks to get to the truth of the very question we searched to answer.
What I notice today of those who put their thoughts out there in social media and the like, is the cruelty that follows being invisibly anonymous.
We don’t have to weigh our thoughts for accuracy or even for decency.
When we used to put pen to paper we were accountable, our words had measured weight and our own scrutiny. I wish that were true now.
wendistewart@live.ca

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