‘Letters are the great fixative of experience,’ writes Janet Malcolm. ‘Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience.’
Last week I went to a class about letter writing. Although we talked briefly about the sorts of letters that people write in the privacy of their rooms, we focussed on those letters written for the purpose of performance.
Letters a person might write to some imaginary friend, or even to a state of mind. For instance, one of our exercises involved writing a letter to ‘my wake up call’. Another to myself in three hours when the class would be over.
Michaela Maguire, who took the class was clear and focussed. We read letters; we wrote our own, with plenty of discussion in between, a group of about ten woman – always women – it was to do with women writing letters after all, and there was a sprit of thoughtfulness throughout the room. All in three short hours.
But I worried that I spoke up too much in the class; that I was a show off. That I wanted too often to share too much, especially as there was one or two women who were quiet.
I have often wondered what it might be like to be one of those quiet participants in a group. What it might be like to be shy or reserved, to keep my thoughts to myself.
I often keep my thoughts to myself but I have this instinctive urge when I enter the space of a workshop where a few of us have gathered to start the conversation rolling, if it hasn’t already started.
I’ll introduce myself and some people will introduce themselves back and we might talk about the space, or the weather or the fact that so far it looks as though we’ll only be women attending, as happened yesterday.
I do this to measure the temperature of the room, the nature of the people present.
Who’s here and what they’re like.
Will I enjoy myself?
Will I get something out of our time together?
I divide my experience into two, the audience and the teacher. In this case, the teacher was fine, friendly, though with a reasonable degree of reserve. Teachers need this I reckon if they are to hold the group. The other women were also friendly.
If we could go on meeting for week after week after week or even month after month we would no doubt become better friends. We would come to like one another as a group.
We would form bonds, but a once only meeting is never easy. There is the quality of what-does-it-matter-I’m-only-here-once-to-get-as-much-as-I-can-out-of-this time but there is also the sense, for me at least, of wanting to make the most of it.
And the business of reading our writing out to the class is fraught. People hesitate at first and then towards the end there’s an avalanche.
I was among the first to read, and then kicked myself for my solipsistic reading. But isn’t that the way of it? And the final worry I have in such groups is the fear that I will be judged harshly for my age.
Oh her, she’s just an old fogey.
Why would they think that?
Why do I think this?
Is this how I judged folks older than me when I was younger?
I fear it might have been so, until of course I came to know those older people. Even writing about this makes me feel slightly queasy. Too self referential, too much of what goes on in my mind. No story line.
But that’s the way it goes sometimes. You get the inside story, or at least some of it and the rest I leave to your imagination.
And then I found a copy of the 2013 edition of Women of Letters in my daughter's bookshelf and read Amanda Palmer’s letter to someone called Anthony. I imagine he was a friend. Someone who was dying of cancer and in it Palmer talks about her almost adolescent need to offer people the truth about themselves, however brutal, and about the time she had surgery on her throat and couldn’t speak for two weeks. How she came to relish silence.
In a much clearer way than I write here, she seems to confirm something I’ve been wondering about above.
Why not try being quiet for a while? Write letters instead.