The Lost Value of Letter Writing

I’m a child of the ’80s. Email didn’t come into my life until midway through university, and it needed to build momentum before the centuries-old tradition of letter writing began to fall by the wayside. When I was thirteen, I wrote to my first pen pal, another thirteen-year-old in Brisbane, Australia. From there, my letter writing quickly expanded. I came to have friends in places like Argentina, China, Egypt, Estonia, and Thailand. The postman delivered letters to me with exotic stamps, in penmanship much nicer than anything I could produce, and with details of lives lived far from me. This was before “the global village”, before information sharing was so easy and you could “friend” someone you met in passing at a party with little thought or effort and no commitment for the future. As with anyone you meet, some of us clicked more than others and our letter writing burgeoned from the obvious and polite questions, like “how is school?”, to real discussions of culture, events, and beliefs. I learned how Thais celebrate the new year, discussed the fall of the Berlin Wall with a girl in Germany, and exchanged candy with a friend in Japan. (They’ve got some good stuff.) My letter-writing friends opened up the world to me in a very personal way. “What’s happening in Poland” as the Cold War ended meant “what’s happening to my friend Krysztof.” It made politics relevant and the world accessible in a way I couldn’t otherwise reach as a young girl in a very homogenous American suburb. And it was fun.

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Stamps from my letter-writing days. Yes, that is Lenin’s face glaring at you top left.

Today I’m still in touch with several of my old pen friends and have met a few in person. On my first trip overseas, I met in person my good friend in the Netherlands and she showed me around her home country. Before the trip, we discussed (via MS-DOS-styled email) how we’d handle things if we didn’t get along as well in person as we did on paper. On another trip, I met a friend who drove with her husband and young sons to the town I was visiting to meet me for dinner.  When I, with my American sense of geography, asked if it was too far for her to come, she set me straight: “Nancy, nowhere in Slovenia is far.” When I began writing letters at age thirteen, I didn’t look into the future to see the impact that my overseas friendships would have on my life. I didn’t realize that these would become some of the most enduring friendships I would have, that they were the first step in me exploring my interests in other peoples, languages, and cultures. I just wanted to find out if traffic lights used the same colors in other countries. (They do.) And I loved the anticipation of waiting for a reply. Would it come swiftly? What news would it contains? The mailman and I became pretty well acquainted, and we shared disappointment when a long-awaited letter from India arrived with the envelope torn on three sides, the contents lost.

That anticipation, enjoyment, and surprise is largely gone now. Email is the vehicle of twenty-first century correspondence. That’s been great for more regular communication. I email my friend from the Netherlands nearly every day. We can share so much more of the ups and downs of life for being in frequent contact. But the anticipation of an email reply is not the same as opening the mailbox and pulling out a letter. Typed words on a screen are not nearly as intimate as handwritten words. And emails are a lot harder to pass down to future generations. I still have many of the letters I exchanged in my youth, and many of the gifts that were sent with them. Today, though, we’re more likely to keep in touch on Facebook or via email than by putting pen to paper, and sometimes I feel we’ve lost something for that.

This has been brought home to me over the past year, when I began writing letters to an elderly cousin whose address I uncovered online while doing genealogy research. (The Internet: both helpful and creepy.) There’s a joy in receiving and reading her letters, and amazement when she enclosed a letter that my grandmother had written to her, telling of her joy in her grandchildren. I’m not giving up email, but I intend to revive my letter writing. It won’t be nearly the same as in the past. Today is what it is, and before I write my cousin, I type out what I’m going to say first. But I believe in the value of letter writing, in the unique sharing of self that comes from pen on paper, and I don’t want to lose it.

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Frustrations with Roasting Chestnuts

Chestnuts are a wonderful nut. Roasted, they are warm and meaty and full of nutrition. But I’ve found them rather fickle. Cut an “x” onto the surface of the nuts’ shells, stick them in the oven at 350 F for about half an hour, and you get something edible. You’ve got to crack them out of their shells while they’re still warm, but don’t do it right away your you’ll be playing hot potato trying not to burn your fingers. This is a recipe worth trying.

Lately though, I’ve been finding a third to half of my chestnuts come out burned, while the rest are fine. It’s preventing me from enjoying all of the lovely goodness that is warm, spiced chestnuts, and I protest. There’s a limited season for these things and I want to enjoy them to the fullest. So, chestnuts, please stop burning. I want to consume you all.

I ate all of my remaining chestnuts yesterday, so on this Happy Thanksgiving, I’ll have to turn to my precious chanterelle mushrooms, which are divine. And I don’t say that sort of thing about mushrooms.

What’s with the guy under the pretty dome?

The guy in my banner photo is Thomas Jefferson, and the pretty dome is the Rotunda in the U.S. Capitol, one of my favorite buildings. There are lots of free and fantastic things to do and see in Washington, D.C., and a Capitol tour is among them. Used to be, anyone could walk into the Capitol and wander around. Now, of course, security is tighter and the Visitor’s Center is there to funnel everyone through key public areas at a rather rapid pace. Not much of a chance for lingering.

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U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

But the first time I visited? I could wander at my leisure. It’s common enough to say that we’ve got a “do nothing” Congress, but that’s not exactly true, is it? A lot goes on in Congress – big and small – and we may not agree with all of it and it may be frustrating as hell, but the idea behind the institution? That’s pretty cool. And so is the building. I took the Visitor Center-offered tour in 2014 and snapped this photo then.

So why did I choose this photo for my blog banner? The thrillers I write are set in the near future, where democracy is a broken relic and an oppressive regime does its best to discourage anyone who wants to revive it. The more I learn about how we got the government we have, the more fun I have layering bits of history into my storytelling. What do you sneak into your writing?

Beginnings

There’s a lot of pressure in beginnings. The opening of the novel has to do so much to grab a reader and convince them to keep reading. The first day at a new job leaves you wanting to look just right – no toilet paper clinging to the bottom of a shoe please, nor spinach hiding away between teeth. I’m a quiet person, contained. A public blog feels like the antithesis of containment. It’s… revealing. So let’s just get some revelations out of the way up front. I cajoled my lovely friend and author Elizabeth Bonesteel to make me answer some questions that may not exactly leave me standing here naked, but will show more than I’d manage on my own.

What do you do all day? (e.g. day job)  I’m a development editor, which means I develop manuscripts for organization, content, clarity, cohesion, and all things big and small. This also means I do a lot of project management, reviewing of page proofs, consulting on design, and rewriting of marketing copy. (Rewriting because: editor.) My career began with encyclopedias and has since moved on to textbooks.

If you could meet any writer, who would you meet?  I’ve already met so many wonderful writers, unplanned, that I hesitate to name any in particular. Best to be surprised.

Dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets, or reptiles?  Dogs, definitely, but I seem to be cat-magical. They like me. Even feral cats who run from everyone like me. It is baffling.

What is your favorite cuisine?  I have been told by a friend that one day, I will become Thai food. And that will be a good day.

What is your writing process?  I need the general idea of something, along with a character, before I begin writing. No outline, but a sense of direction gives me what I need to begin researching and make it through to the end. The rest reveals itself as I go. If the setting requires world-building, I develop a lot of those details before I begin or get too far into things. When the first draft is done, I revise, let it sit for months, and then revise again until it’s as good as I can make it.

What five pieces of advice would you give an aspiring author? 

I am aspiring as well, but donning my editor’s cap:

  1. Write what you want to read (it’s one bit of cliched advice I agree with).
  2. Be patient. It takes time for skills to develop.
  3. Work hard, or it won’t matter how patient you are.
  4. Be constructive in your criticism of yourself. “This sucks” is not useful. If you’re not satisfied with something, take the time to determine why you don’t like it and then figure out how to make it better. Which leads to:
  5. Experiment. Your words aren’t set in stone and our lovely modern technology allows you to save and create new files, which provides a great opportunity for experimentation. Try different approaches, different styles, different points of view. It’s both fun to play and effective for skill-building. You learn a lot in the process.

Thank you, Liz, for helping me with this peep show!

What Is This?

Welcome to my blog! “An Uncommon Event” is uncommon precisely because I am horrible about maintaining a regular posting schedule. Yet still I will blog. At irregular intervals. Possibly about writing, books, and publishing, but more likely about other things, like how I found myself in a foreign land, stuck on the side of a mountain in the rain and the dark; frustrations over roasting chestnuts (seriously, I have issues with this); and other curiosities. If you want me to blather on about something in particular, please do tell me because I usually have no clue.