Samuel Webster

April 13, 2009 Keepsakes: The Lost Art of Letter Writing Posted In: Writing

Originally published for Trespass Magazine – Cover Story March 30th, 2009

My friend Ana is the kind of person who lives between the pages of a book. She’s not only an avid reader, but has always loved to fill empty pages herself. We’ve been close friends for many years now, and so I’ve had the chance to glimpse the pages of her journals (I use the plural because there are now many in her personal collection.) Always a momentary glance for privacy is to be strictly adhered to. Just enough of a look to know that for her, I can almost guarantee there is a page for everything important. So it didn’t surprise me at all when I signed into Facebook, two months ago and read something along the lines of “Anasaskia will send you a real letter if you respond to this before this status expires.”

So, in a feigned spirit of camaraderie (to hide a more truthful description; blatant theft) I changed mine:

Sam Webster is stealing Ana’s idea and will send you a real, hard copy, letter if you reply to this status before I change it.

Then I waited, but not for long. Within half an hour I had five names and changed my status to allow myself to really focus on the letters
I had to think. What had inspired me to take on this idea?

Well for one thing, I wanted something in return. I looked at my desk at the pile of letters that lay unopened. Bill, Junk, Bill, Bill. I couldn’t remember the last time I had received an honest, personal letter from anybody. When I used to complain as a teenager that nobody ever sent me a letter my mother always responded in her way, “Well, did you send anyone a letter?”

Stage Two begins. What to write?
I sent out a message to my five recipients: two school friends, one camp buddy, a ‘friend of a friend’ and Ana.

Thanks for your enthusiasm guys! Send a reply to me (rather than to everyone above) with your address and if you want me to write it while sitting somewhere in particular, answer a question or write about something specific.

I decided that I would take the leisure that we freelancers have and wander the city for a day. I would find five different spots to write the five letters.

Stage Three. How to write it?

These days, my everyday connections with people happen by phone or internet. I’m on twitter a lot, writing 140 character messages with a life expectancy of about five minutes. My text messages become parts of longer inane cellular conversations; my e-mails more often than not are purposeful but mundane. We’ve grown to have a short attention span for communication. We’ve grown to multi-task everything we do for the sake of convenience. But at what cost? When was the last time you took time out of your day to sit and compose a text message, or intently read Facebook updates?

The beauty of a letter is it almost forces you to stay on one track. You start at the top and you get to the bottom, it’s hard to read a letter while engaged elsewhere. They require and demand ‘one-track time.’ I feel the same way about reading books.
I thought back to the pile of letters on my desk. What made me avoid opening them?

They weren’t worth spending ‘one-track time’ on. They had figures I had to pay, and products I didn’t need. I could safely throw them away and feel no guilt. I made a decision: a real letter should be worth keeping. It is not mundane or banal, it is tactile and sentimental. I cannot make any claims for my own writing, but I knew that I had to endeavour to make these last.

While hiding in the QVB from the rain outside, I wrote “It’s funny just how much people rely on the world around them for their mood without realizing it. Poets have been doing it for centuries. Weather, the unwitting muse of the masses.”

To the school friend who had spent her year in the slums of Cambodia, I enclosed seeds to grow a Thyme plant, “You deserve a bit of thanks, but knowing your humility as I do, I know you wouldn’t want gratitude to come from man.”

I described my thoughts on photography with the words, “It seems right, that we would harness the triumphant sun but as every manic depressive knows, the brightest sun creates the darkest shadows. Sunken eyes, a dark shadow beneath the nose, a hard reflective forehead. All symptoms of a powerful light source that is better at creating life than expressing it.”

Finally, to Ana, the closest person my poet soul has come to finding its other, I sat in the empty foyer of an office building and wrote “In a few moments, the place will be quiet. The orange paintings will fade into the wall fixtures, the leather will sit unrumpled and the streets will be my home again.”

They weren’t carefully constructed, or even edited at all for that matter. But they were honest and they were messages I wanted kept around. I took the letters home and typed them up on my vintage typewriter. The noise makes me feel like I’m creating something real. The pounding of letters and the punctuating *DING!* at the end of a line. The effort it takes makes me rethink the entire process, and evaluate whether it was really worth it. I can’t say I’ve ever thought through a message before writing on someone’s wall on Facebook, or SMS-ing them.

Stage Four. Response.

Like my mother said, in order to receive mail, you must send it. So the next stage I’m hoping for is a response. I have this image of me at 90 years of age, with boxes of this stuff, all dated. There’s something special about corresponding that lasts longer than a status update or a text message. There’s something tangible about holding the page. At this stage, many of the recipients are yet to receive their letters and reply. But the other morning I received a text message from my friend who had been battling it out in Cambodia.

I just read – & cried through! – your beautiful letter… I love, love, love that you did this & I really needed to hear this today :) thank you so much… a keeper indeed. I will be planting those seeds later this year!

And that, for me, is worth it all.

*All Photos by Samuel Webster

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