The Art of Writing Letters

     Yesterday, I came across an article called “Ten Rules For Writing Fiction”, published in the Guardian on 20th February 2010, in which a dozen or so well-known authors such as Helen Dunmore, P. D. James, Esther Freud, Richard Ford, and Margaret Atwood shared tips on writing successfully. Of course, the nature of the advice varied according to the personality of each writer, but there was nevertheless a certain amount of common ground. One of the tips that kept cropping up was to keep writing, whether the results were publishable material or utterly worthless – to practise writing, as it were, and not allow lack of inspiration or absence of recognition to become an impediment.

     Keeping a diary was recommended as one of the best ways to do this. Whether the diary is filled with random jottings, lists, or lengthy diatribes giving vent to various sources of annoyance experienced that day, what is important is to learn to express and to organize inchoate ideas and feelings. Away from critical eyes, the diary allows the writer to be honest and un-self-conscious, to learn the tools of his trade, and to find a voice of his own.

     Of course, I am not about to find fault with the tested and tried methods of veteran authors. In my humble opinion, keeping a diary is indeed a valuable exercise in writing. Mainly with regard to the discipline it requires: few of us can sit down each morning and write a short story or an essay “just for practise”, but reserving half an hour or so every evening before bed to record the events and impressions of the day is easier. At first, one tends to forget, but it’s all a question of training, and little by little, settling against the pillows to write even a single page becomes automatic. Having mastered that, it becomes less daunting to pick up pen and paper again and set to writing something longer.

     Personally, however, I tend to get bored writing in my diary. I do it as a way of boosting my memory, which is far from foolproof, and because I agree that the discipline involved is necessary and beneficial. But what I really enjoy is writing letters. First and foremost, of course, because of the letters I receive in answer (well, those I sometimes receive – my friends are not all avid letter-writers). It is the exchange that gives pleasure. Contrary to keeping a diary, a correspondence means writing for an audience. And this is where things get difficult – and interesting.

     Writing for an audience means adapting to that audience, and sometimes playing up to it. One doesn’t write the same things to one’s eighty-year-old grandmother as one does to a close friend. In my case, this is especially true of family members or friends living abroad who do not know the way things are done in France. Some things can be explained, of course, but others are omitted, as simply too complicated. When writing a letter, one inevitably writes from a certain angle, depending on who is going to read it. One has to pause a minute before putting pen to paper and think about the person one is writing to and what writing to them makes one: the dutiful grand-daughter? The pleased and grateful recipient of a gift? The sympathetic and cheering comforter of a friend in need? The teller of salacious gossip? The personalities and expectations of one’s correspondents imply a different persona for each.

     When I was an adolescent, like most adolescents, I was particularly conscious of the fact that my personality was a flimsy thing under construction. And – again, like most adolescents – I was very susceptible to influence. In my case, that meant the influence of books, and in particular of whichever glamorous, strong-minded heroine had captured my imagination at the time. In my letters to my friends, I would get the urge to make my daily life more dramatic, more romantic, and more like the life of a story-book heroine. I would copy the style of an author, make grand sweeping statements that made me thrill as I read them over, and in short, take myself very seriously indeed. I was half-consciously adopting a persona that had very little to do with my true personality – as my family kept moving every few years, most of my friends were abroad, which made it easier for me to masquerade about than if they had been around to laugh at me and thereby deflate my ego.

     I cringe now when I think back to some of the silly things I said. What I realize though, is that I was already aware of the creative power of words. Language is like clay in your hands: you mould it and fashion it into whatever you like. Writing to someone to fill them in on the latest events in the past month is an opportunity to tell a story, an exercise in style, a sounding-board for new ways of telling stories. The reader is a ready-made audience to be fully taken advantage of! And each correspondent means a new and different way of telling those stories. The danger is that the writer ends up catering to the expectations of the reader, rather than genuinely expressing his feelings. Writing to certain people can feel like trying to wade through cement, there are so many taboo subjects or sources of disapproval. That’s when one starts wondering: with whom can I really be myself? The person is in danger of being swallowed up by the persona (s). That’s when the diary also starts looking very appealing again. I’m very lucky in that I have one friend – one is all it takes! – before whom I need never wear a mask of any kind, or be anyone other than myself. Writing to that friend, I practise the same honesty I do in my diary, and bonus, from time to time the great empty void throws back an echo…

     So in case some of you haven’t got the message yet, let me spell it out for you: write letters if you want to write at all!

© Florence Berlioz 2011

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About Miss Darcy's Library

I love books - buying books, reading books, discussing books, and generally admiring them from all angles (except the e-book). I also love tea, roses, and my dogs, and seldom pass up an opportunity to slip them into the conversation.
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7 Responses to The Art of Writing Letters

  1. I love writing letters! 🙂

  2. Louise says:

    Loved your post! I remember this article in the Guardian too!

    Does writing emails count?!

    Sorry for being one of those bad letter writers, I do actually enjoy taking an hour to write a long letter, just never seem to make the time these days…. damn the Ph.D.!

  3. Dear Louise: yes, emails count 🙂 I wasn’t trying to make anyone feel bad, though… I hope work lets up soon so that we can catch up! xxx

  4. limr says:

    A kindred spirit! I still have boxes of old letters and there’s still a very tiny part of me left that feels a little hopeful every time I go to the mailbox. I know that there won’t be a letter, and unless it’s my birthday or Christmas, there won’t even be a card. But I loved the feeling of sending and getting letters so much that I can’t seem to let it go.

    I’ve often told myself to take on the project of writing more letters, and even sat down to start some, but never finished. But since I’ve been focusing more and more on my writing, I might take your advice and start my project again.

    • Everyday I keep my fingers crossed as I go down to check the mail, and I think: maybe today there’ll be a lovely fat letter waiting for me! Most of the time I’m disappointed but I haven’t given up hope yet! I function on the principle that if I don’t write letters, then I have no right to expect letters. And I love the idea of bundles of old letters tied with ribbon, and scroll-top desks with dozens of pigeonholes, and old-fashioned ladies sitting at their escritoires every morning, dashing off letters to all their friends and acquaintances…

      Good luck with the writing project – I hope it goes well!

  5. I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I right on enjoying every petite bit of it. I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.

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