When a friend mentioned the special paper she’d bought to write me a letter, which she hadn’t yet done, I started thinking about unwritten letters, the ones we plan or even half compose in our heads, but never write. Years ago, my brother sent me a card; at the bottom, my sister in law had added a note: “I’ve written you loads of letters in my head, the only problem is that I don’t have anything to prove it”.
This can be a good thing, like the letters we may have written but sensibly never sent. But for the most part unwritten letters remain unwritten because, as another friend put it, we let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Writing a letter has become more of an occasion than banging out an email with its easy-delete option. And so we think it must be a Very Good Letter, written beautifully, or at least legibly, on fine paper.
Once somebody has told me that they have written to me in their head, I never stop wondering what they wrote. When they tell me they ‘mean to write’, I become like a child promised a Christmas present, and look for that letter when the postman comes. In most cases, it never comes and I’ve concluded that when you tell someone you ‘mean to write’ you have probably passed the point at which you will. So, I’ve tried not to tell people that I mean to write, instead either writing or not writing.
When letters were a principal mode of long distance conversation, people seemed less daunted by them. They took a sheet of paper or equivalent and started writing with the same confidence that we launch into an email or an SMS message. Even with the scratchy quill in need of perpetual sharpening, a literate and well-connected person could clock up tens of thousands of letters in a lifetime.
But we’ve become too deferential, and perhaps deterred by the time lag which goes against the grain of instant gratification. You would send a letter which could take days or weeks to arrive. Then you’d have to wait days or weeks or months for a response, although if you were well off, like Jane Austen or Pliny, you could make the footman or the messenger-slave wait while you scratched or stylused your response.
Perhaps I will write a novel about an unwritten letter. And then a sequel about a letter written but not sent. And the one that was sent but not delivered. Or delivered but not read.
But first, the letters I haven’t yet written.