Message in a Bottle

In Plain Words

My favorite way to break up with people is by letter.

No, that’s not true. Rather, the only way I know how to break up with people is by letter. There’s simply something about that highly charged, traumatically emotional, in-person exchange that I can’t handle: the desperate reading of facial expressions, the vulnerable body language, the nervous shaking, the words—confused and incoherent—forced upwards through a constricted throat, threatening asphyxiation.

There’s a certain catharsis to communicating through letters. Alone in your room, pen in one hand and gin and tonic (mostly gin) in the other, you can craft your thoughts precisely as you want to express them—rational, truthful, perhaps even kind. More importantly, there’s the hope of amnesia: You finish your inebriated ramblings, fold up your letter, seal the envelope, and assure yourself that those words are for someone else now, never again for your critical self-examination, your retrospective embarrassment and sentimental regret. It’s the casting of ashes into a fast-flowing river.

But the utility of letters is not limited to cowardly break-ups. It seems to me an art that is slowly fading, and I lament its demise not because I’m a sentimental and nostalgic Luddite (though I am), but because there are real and pragmatic reasons for holding onto an anachronistic tradition.

In “A Letter to a Young Poet,” Virginia Woolf defends the penny post against the charge of having killed the art of letter-writing, commenting that the cheapness of posting a letter allowed writers to be “intimate, irreticent, indiscreet” and to fill their correspondence with quirky, lighthearted anecdotes, to hop, skip and jump from one random topic to another. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is even more true for emails, Facebook wall posts, Google chats, and Twitter feeds. There’s energy and vibrancy, immediacy and excitement, and nothing replaces the comfort of seeing and speaking to friends and family over Skype—that feeling of being intimately connected to people thousands of miles away. But there is also something completely different in the way we communicate through writing that permits greater honesty and reflection—the qualities I turn to when I can’t adequately break up with someone in person.

To begin with, there’s the moment when you start a letter and you think carefully about what to write. Letters, unlike emails, demand continuity and direction: There’s no way to write half a sentence, finish another paragraph, jot down a thought about something else, then return to finish your sentence. It requires discipline that is so often neglected in schizophrenic email drafts that you can always write first and organize later.

If you’re writing more formally to a friend with whom you’re only sporadically in contact, there’s the need to reflect holistically upon your life as you map out what you want to say: thinking carefully about what you’ve been doing and thinking in the past weeks, months, or years, since you last wrote to them.

Letters are sacrificial gifts of the most selfless kind: they’re written and given away with no hope of return, and much as I’ve been tempted (in my narcissism and eternal fear of forgetting) to make a copy of my letters before I send them, I’ve never succumbed to the temptation. There’s something sacred about giving away your words, an act of abandonment that is at once saddening and liberating, like when a friend of mine once cast the only copy of a poem she wrote into the Charles River tied to a metal fork.

In a world where Facebook and Whatsapp annoyingly tell you when your messages have been viewed by their recipient, letters have a delightful built-in delay mechanism. For those brief days or weeks just after they’ve been posted, they exist in a liminal space between sender and receiver: traveling in boats, planes, and vans, through package depots and sorting offices, until they eventually reach their destination. Letters don’t demand immediate attention; they encourage patience and permit a quiet lull between receiving a letter and deciding whether you’re ready to open it and read it, or whether you want to save it and savor it elsewhere.

And, of course, there’s the beauty of the object in itself. Much as I love the tactility of newspapers, magazines, and, above all, books, letters are in a league of their own. The care and deliberation that has gone into producing every word and sentence exclusively for your viewing; the orthographic scrawl that modulates and hints at the moment of composition, the writing that disintegrates as the writer’s hands get tired, that changes as they pause to think of what to say next and then begin writing again, the crossed out words and Freudian slips, the splash of a coffee-stain, the remnants of their morning croissant—these are the letter’s tiny tokens of triumph over electronic mail.

So some time during this week, month, year, pick up a pen, grab some paper, and write to an old childhood friend, a forgotten relative, a long-distance lover, far away somewhere, anywhere. There will be, I promise, a sense of satisfaction when you finish your letter, sign off, seal it, and send it away. And that’s without even considering the great pleasure it will give to your intended recipient, and the hope of one day, perhaps, receiving a reply.

Columnist Yi Jean Chow can be reached at yjchow@fas.harvard.edu.

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