the lost art of creative correspondence
I miss sending and receiving letters. Lengthy, well-constructed epistles demanding careful thought and deliberation. Typed or hand-written messages of multiple paragraphs worthy of proper capitalization and punctuation. Forget paper, I even miss lengthy, properly constructed e-mails that begin Dear So-and-so. Nowadays, it’s all likes and emojis and beeps and boops. Vines, chat roulettes, avocado toast, psychic blasts—doesn’t anyone miss the days of genuine correspondence? I’d kill for a good memo.
Maybe I only send this essay each week because I want an excuse to send anything to anyone. Sometimes a few of you write back, which is nice, but the least you could do is try to match my word count so it feels like a real conversation.
You ever read the blog Letters of Note? One gem after another on there. Vonnegut writing to his family about his experience as a PoW in a Dresden work camp. Bowie writing ecstatically to his manager about his first American fan letter. Beautiful stuff. Back in the day, we’d write letters worth reading long after we’re dead. We’d even seal them with wax!
I guess I’m in a mood. With a little tinkering, I’ve figured out how to write the Maven Game on a simulated typewriter. I’m using the Mac app Winston, available in the App Store. It’s not bad. You get the little ding before hitting the end of a line so you can do a carriage return before you run out of (virtual) paper. Typing in Winston, I can almost hear the hum of my grandfather’s electric Olympia (this model, maybe?). I can almost smell the intoxicating aroma of Wite-Out. (Some hipster Brooklyn cologne brand should make a correction-fluid scent. I’d wear it.)
Side-note: I love Tom Hanks—who doesn’t?—but his Hanxwriter typewriter simulation app for iOS is totally inadequate. As a professed typewriter enthusiast, he really should have gotten the details right. Tom: Consider yourself banned and ostracized from society.
Side-note to that side-note: Isn’t it ironic that Tom Hanks has been so nice to everyone he’s met all these years and never done or said anything inappropriate to women only to be publicly shamed and put on blast over a poorly designed typewriter simulation app?
What can you do? That’s life in 2019. All we can do now is accept that Tom Hanks is over and never watch any of his movies again and wince whenever his name is mentioned in polite company.
(In secret, I’ll continue to enjoy Joe Versus the Volcano, but let’s be honest, I’ve always had to keep that a secret.)
Using the Winston app brings me back to my 7th-grade typing class. Our teacher, who looked like Wilford Brimley, spent an entire class talking about his rabbit farm. He described, in detail, how he would use a hammer to kill each rabbit so as not to damage its valuable fur. Then he offered us free rabbits if we agreed to buy a large supply of rabbit food from him at what must have been a substantial mark-up.
I learned two important lessons from Mr. Brimley: how to touch-type at 90 words per minute, and how to make a hard sales pitch.
I’m in mind of correspondence today because I’m writing a series of letters to my son intended to arrive while he’s at sleep-away camp next week. But look, if you’re on the internet at all, I know you’re subject to more than enough typewriter, fountain pen, and physical mail nostalgia as it is. Here, I want to deal specifically with the creative ramifications of our shift away from real letters.
See this note from Stanley Kubrick to Saul Bass responding to Bass’s proposed poster designs for The Shining (h/t Kottke). Here, we see Kubrick’s creative thought process in action. This is an extraordinary perspective on Kubrick the artist that you could never get from interviews or documentary footage, let alone from his films.
As creators, we simply don’t communicate this way about making our work anymore. Creativity has gone back to almost being an oral tradition.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.Roy Batty, Blade Runner (1982)
If future filmmakers are curious about the collaboration behind the new sequel to The Shining, Dr. Sleep, well, they won’t be, let’s be honest. But if they were, they’d be out of luck. Authors and publishers don’t even keep track of manuscript drafts anymore. Not properly. As an editorial assistant, one of my jobs was to take each draft of every author’s manuscript and store it in a careful stack in the “dead matter” room. Now everything’s scattered between various corporate email accounts and hard drives. Future scholars: good luck sorting that out.
We often hear about a particular writer or filmmaker or musician leaving his or her archives—letters, studio exec memos, manuscript drafts, demo recordings, etc.—to a prestigious university library. These collections represent essential resources for biographers and for students of the art. What are today’s working artists going to leave behind? A Slack login with a list of backup two-factor authentication codes? Who are we kidding?
What are your thoughts on this? Typewritten replies of equivalent word count only.