Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why I Write Letters

Without doubt Fiddler on the Roof is my favorite musical, and "Tradition" is one of my favorite songs from that musical.  Of course, no song in that musical can match "Sunrise, Sunset," but "Tradition" is a pretty close second.  The refrain of the song is pretty simple, it goes like this: "Traditioooooon, tradition!" 

Our culture could learn a lot by watching Fiddler more often.  Most of the musical revolves around a traditional Jewish father having to adapt to new and/or unwanted realities, brought into the community by intellectuals from the West and his daughters' insistence on loving and marrying whom they choose.  Socialism, justice, religious tolerance, romantic love, what nonsensical modern ideas!  What Fiddler exemplifies is that no matter how much we may prefer our current ideals and modes of living, we often have to adapt to ever-changing situations.  Obviously, right?  Well, perhaps not.  If we learn anything from the musical it's that we should never live in a certain manner either because of familiarity or because of newness and progress.  At all times we should evaluate how we live our lives by what is best for us, not by tradition or supposed progress.

It might seem commonsense to say that we should evaluate how we live our lives by what is best for us, but I fear that this is a skill that we in this society learn too late in life to make much use of it.  Too often we simply go along with whatever new item is on the market and think that we absolutely must have it.  Now at an early age many of our children carry around cell phones, spend hours on networking sites, learn that texting and e-mailing are basically the only modes of communication, and that we should be talking to five or six people at once because we can.  All of this might escape our contempt at the end of the day, but what I worry about is that most of the activities our children learn, and that we all participate in, have not been evaluated at all and have been accepted simply because "it's the thing to do."

Following a mantra of "it's the thing to do" will never foster a blazing trail to success.  This is especially true for me, I think, trying to succeed in an industry that is simultaneously collapsing and being flooded by poor, imitation writing.  Instead of following along, one must be very intentional about all of life's choices. 

Intentionality, for me, has led to writing letters and some other material by hand.  Originally my intention was to follow in the footsteps of the famous writers who have gone before, all of whom have written by hand or used typewriters.  At first, then, my love for writing letters and using typewriters was intimately tied to my attempt at being a strange young man who preferred tradition over modernity.  But as in Fiddler on the Roof, tradition cannot be chosen for the sake of tradition, just like the new supposed progress cannot be chosen for the sake of progress.  I've always thought that we too frequently confuse "new" with "progress."  The two are not the same.  So, as with the typewriter which I talked about in the last post, I had to find a reason for writing letters and other things by hand or scrap the idea entirely; if there weren't some good reason for writing by hand then I couldn't justify its time consumption if I want to be a writer. 

Strangely the reason why I have so avidly continued to write by hand, particularly letters, is the exact opposite of why I use a typewriter.  When you write by hand you have to think carefully about what you're saying and have a good idea of how what you're writing now will transition into what you want to write next.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that it's for that reason that Newsweek suggested writing things out by hand to improve your mind during 2012.  With every stroke of the pen your mind must be on its game or you won't be happy with what you're writing.  And then, if you end up not liking what you wrote because you weren't thinking carefully, you will have to take responsibility for what you just did, knowing that you can't retrieve the time you just spent writing.  The art of taking responsibility for one's actions and dealing with how people perceive those actions, knowing that not everyone will think highly of what we do, is in itself reason to take up letter-writing.  Of course, the connection I just made between thinking carefully and taking responsibility might seem tenuous, but trust me, there's a strong connection there.  If you don't trust me, then just focus on the thinking carefully part.

Letter-writing came into my life shortly after realizing that writing by hand requires constant careful thought.  At first I was only writing out poems or ideas and outlines for papers.  Soon, though, I realized that what seemed like a small decision, to write some things by hand, had quite thoroughly changed my personality.  I no longer much liked responding to e-mails, facebook or text messages.  Admittedly, part of my processing was due to my ever-present struggle between my preference of isolation and wanting friends--I still struggle with returning even the simplest of phone calls from even the best of friends.  Mostly, though, I came to realize that most conversations today lack depth because of the speed with which they do and can take place and the alacrity expected in returning messages and mail.  If I'm going to talk to someone, I want to sit down and really immerse myself in talking to them, thinking deeply about what I want to say to them and putting some serious time in.  You may not hear from me right away, but when you do you will know that I have put time and thought into what I have to say, no matter how long or short my letter may be. 

If we as a society reverted to only face-to-face and letter correspondence for our social world, we might have fewer friends and fewer conversations, but we'd actually be encouraging conversation.  More than that, we'd be encouraging thoughtfulness, empathy, compassion, and how to build character in silence and solitude.

Besides, the more letters I write, the more material my biographers will have that will be easy to dig up.

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