Not long ago, Former President Jimmy Carter reported that in light of Government surveillance, he has begun to write letters again. If it matters, he says, he takes out pen and paper. Jimmy Carter has the advantage of a presidential seal on his letterhead, a design element that makes even the most mundane observation seem significant, but the simple fact of writing something down on paper does that too—especially if we can see the writer’s hand.
Why is that? To begin with, a hand-written document letter tells the receiver that thought has gone into the message: a letter-writer has the end of his or her sentence in mind when he or she begins it; possibly, the overall project of the letter is in the mind of the writer, as well, which tends to keep the message coherent and on-track; and, most of all, we have a sense that the writer is writing to us—to the reader, personally (which, of course, is the case).
The novel, both in the Western World and in Japan, was born of letters: one person writing to another, telling a story, explaining events, weighing in on clothing, manners, and issues of taste, sharing emotions, assessing the emotions and actions of others. Lady Murasaki, writing in 11th century Japan, Samuel Richardson in 18th century England, Mary Shelly during the next century, and Aravind Adiga, winner of the 40th Man Booker Prize six years ago, told their stories through letters. They did not write to save themselves from the spying eyes of the Government (although some Haitian and Czech writers did encode their work for self-protection), but because the form provided them a method of direct address.
Beginning and experienced writers find that the voices of their characters will become clear when they write letters from one to another, or by taking a persona, themselves, and writing to their readers. The exercise forces a rhetorical identity—what we call voice, or what is similar to his or her handwriting on paper. A writer’s voice helps the reader know who the writer is and helps the writer locate his point of view.
One good way to do this is to take out pen and paper and simply write in your own voice to someone in your story. Write a letter to the character you like or dislike most. You will discover that, rather than typing along and backspacing or cutting and pasting, you will think of what you want to say before you put the words down—usually a good thing. You might look at your handwriting and see characteristics of your own persona you hadn’t thought about before. You’ll also have a better idea of your overall project if you write it as a series of letters. Unlike a journal or diary, a letter assumes a reader other than yourself, and its purpose is not self-validation or self-exploration so much as narrative and observation—another good thing.
When you are done with this pre-writing exercise, you might discover that your work is more clear, more direct, and more immediate in its language. The position of the narrator is present and accounted for.
The NSA is probably not tracking your emails or hacking into your word-processor while you’re working on your next short story, but take President Carter’s advice, and if what you want to say matters, write a letter.