Letter to No One

Dear Friend,

It has been far too long since we’ve talked – or rather written. I miss our old exchange of ideas, the conversation, the flow of words, the surprising revelations that only written thoughts make possible.

Oh, Facebook can be very charming. I appreciate the news of babies I would not have heard of, job successes and health problems and hilarious videos and pictures. I enjoy all of this. The trouble is, we all enjoy it so much and are so close to satisfied by it that we forget the things that satisfy us more, or don’t “need” them enough to make it worth pursuing them. Facebook is like knowing you’re going out to a very fancy, celebratory dinner at an amazing restaurant that you’ve been looking forward to for months… and getting to 3 p.m. and being hungry and filling up on snacks so that you get to dinner and can’t eat much and have to skip dessert altogether. It seems like such a treat to have a place we can say all those pithy little clever things we think of throughout the day, but which are never important enough to bring up in conversation four hours later. After doing this for a while it turns out that they’re really not so clever after all, though, as much of a cliché as that observation is, we all still put them out for everyone to admire.

It’s not that I really blame Facebook. It is, of course, only a product of our lifestyle. I remember being a child with my pen-pals and our regular correspondence and wondering at my mother, who received letters (real letters! Written with pens on paper and put in an envelope! What a dinosaur I am already) and took weeks or months to respond, because, she said, it was hard to find time. And then being a teenager and finding, much to my surprise, that I had a hard time finding the time too.

Email was an improvement. It was faster to write and, in some cases, considerably faster to read – without hindering the full expression of meaning. (Oh, I hate text messages! Impossible to say what one really wants to say 90% of the time.) As much as I love paper, and wish I had reasons to shop for and buy and use pretty notecards and stationery regularly, it’s really email I’m lamenting here. Such wonderful exchanges I’ve had over email.

You realize that the great majority of those wonderful quotes from historical figures come from their letters? If the figure is an author of course many of the quotes come from their published works, but still, we do not know Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning from the brilliant things they said in conversation that were handed down through the ages – it is from their letters. I really believe there is something about correspondence that changes and deepens and beautifies language – just a little bit – just enough to make it more likely a person will say something worth remembering. It makes sense, really. The conversation of day-to-day life is so often mundane, but if you are going to take the effort of writing it out you’re more likely to focus on the worthwhile things and not the grocery list.

I have the sense that all of this is wildly tangential to what I meant to say, but of course, that is one of the pleasures of letters too! Nobody can interrupt so you are free to wander down whatever path calls most, and then you cannot interrupt your correspondent so they are free to do the same. As I have been saying: richness of expression.

None of which is meant to disparage conversation, you know, exchanging ideas face-to-face with someone. I sometimes feel as if I have forgotten what that is too. Yes, I have often felt an emptiness in my life lately from lack of writing, but I would not feel so much need for the idea-exchange of writing if ideas were being exchanged in person.

Tell me those aren’t the times that mean most to you: when you sit down with one friend or a tableful and subjects ping off in directions you could never have imagined, and a side-comment makes everyone laugh until they cry, and someone says something that seems simple and unimportant to them but upends your whole view of the matter, at the end you feel full of life and new perspectives and humor.

When I wish for that I feel a bit like Anne Elliot, who said (in a book), “My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation,” and was rebuffed, “That is not good company, that is the best. Good company… with regard to education is not very [particular].”

Still, I can’t be the only one who wishes for more of the “best company.” So why is it so hard to pull ourselves away from sports and fashion and what we did over the weekend and discuss things that matter – or, at least, that feed our brains?

I can’t wait to hear from you and hear what you think.

Your friend

P.S. In the four years since I wrote this, the situation has only gotten worse – the snacking has become more ubiquitous and less satisfying, if you will. In fact, I recently read that Facebook is becoming concerned that users are increasingly sharing third-party content rather than actually posting statuses. I can attest that my feed was becoming overwhelmed with silly pictures and articles re-shared without comment. (I have, in the last week or so, begun hiding all such posts, and the situation is slowly getting better- but it takes constant vigilance to prevent it from creeping back.) I understand it’s not an easy problem to solve; thoughtful conversation requires having time to think, and the more rare that kind of interaction becomes, the more shy we are about initiating.


7 thoughts on “Letter to No One

  1. I enjoyed this. I see many of these issues and certainly agree. I’m not going to my high school reunion in part because I know what is going on with everyone due to Facebook. (It’s also the same weekend as a Trek convention, but the “snacking” you speak of makes that meal seem less appealing).

  2. This is wonderful, and a very accurate commentary on how social networking has impacted our social tendencies. It also made me miss pen pals and those long, thrilling letters.

    (As a college freshman away from home the first time in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I learned the true beauty of finding actual mail in your mailbox. Even junk mail from home became a happy event.)

  3. Maybe it’s me, but I still use FB as short note writing to my REAL friends (of which number I count your good self). As I live so very far from many of them, it’s such an easy way to stay in touch. And yes, it isn’t always D&M (deep and meaningful), but it keeps the line open until we meet again.

    I believe you can also create a book of your own FB history at the touch of a button, although I haven’t done that myself so I don’t know if it includes whole conversations, more probably just a pictorial history.

    For the record, I do still write REAL letters too ;)

    1. “of which number I count your good self”

      Why thank you!

      I’m not really down on Facebook – it IS an amazing tool, which is why I’ve never yet been able to bring myself to cancel my account – and it is handy to be able to send a private message to friends whose emails (and sometimes phone numbers) I don’t have. I have also sent some longer, email-style messages using it. But I’ve made a few attempts over the years to get various friends to correspond with me in a more long-form way, and nobody, no matter how good a friend, could be bothered. Probably because they’re all satisfied with Facebook.

      And… you still write REAL letters?! This is incredible!

      1. Yes indeed. Not many I admit, but there are three older people in particular I write to a couple of times a year mainly because they are not on FB.

        Plus, I still love the feel of a beautiful pen on beautiful paper (not that my handwriting is anything to ‘write home about’). But it gives me an excuse to buy lovely pens, pretty cards and handmade paper on occasion.

    2. Indeed. And the world needs more excuses to buy pretty cards and lovely pens… and use them! I had an absolutely gorgeous pen (it might even have been Tiffany) given to me for my high school graduation. I don’t think I’ve ever used it except to write the thank you note; it just felt too nice to use for every-day stuff. The husband just tested all our pens to see if they still work and informs me that it has dried up completely. I wouldn’t let him throw it away – maybe I can get a refill – but even then I’m not sure if I’ll be able to bring myself to use it. Which is silly.

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