When I sit down to write something, fiction or journalism, I begin by dumping every vaguely related thought on to my laptop, before gradually starting to shape the pile of slurry into a piece. This practice, common among my writer pals, helps remedy that initial dreadful mind-crippling blankness of the blank page. Give yourself permission to be as dreadful as you please in your first draft, they advise aspiring authors, and it’s sound advice too; no point comparing your initial efforts to Jane Eyre, or you’ll depress yourself into paralysis.
Recently, though, I was sent a letter. A letter from a fountain pen, no less, with the occasional crossed out word, even sentence, where the writer had a better idea mid-flow. Four sheets of proper writing paper, covered with his tiny, elaborate scrawl. There was a lengthy post-script which might well have made a more arresting beginning, on a second edit. This creative endeavour was perfectly imperfect, and felt like the most precious, fragile thing I’d ever held. It smelled of him. I tucked it into the back of one of my favourite books, admiring the way its stiff creamy jut expanded its place on the shelf. Later that evening I went into my study, extracted the bundle of thoughts from the heavy envelope, and sat poring over them once more.
Once I had his words almost by heart, and worn the paper soft with repeated handling, I decided to answer in kind. First, I had to purchase writing paper and a quality envelope, not one of those shoddy manilla beasts you use for invoices and council tax bills. I didn’t trust myself with a fountain pen – it’s been too long, and my writing is illegible anyway – but found a quality, heavy ballpoint, black and gold. I assembled the items alongside my precious letter, and tried to think how best to begin. Then stood up and decided to go for a walk.
It’s a skill, assembling your thoughts into a coherent order without the aid of a gadget; a skill which seemingly I’ve lost. I could have cheated, created something on my laptop then copied it out, but I was certain he hadn’t and it didn’t feel right: I’d do this properly, damn it, or not bother at all. I walked and thought about how happy his letter had made me, how much he meant to me; any dopey anecdotes from my week that he might enjoy. I imagined a beginning that might capture his attention and make him smile. In short, I spent several happy hours thinking about him, and how best to delight him. That was a treat too. I got home and set to work.
My effort wasn’t perfect either. My stomach fizzed with anxiety and self-loathing when I saw I’d used the word “joy” in one sentence, then “joyous” in the next. That’s the kind of drivelly error I’d edit out on a second draft. I considered crossing one out, then replacing it with a synonym. But no. I’d crossed a few blunders out already. I had to assume the recipient would have enough brains to realise I knew other words. Letter writing requires you to make demands of your reader in a way no other writing does. They must be able to concentrate. They must have brains and insight. But of course, it makes more demands of the writer too. S/he must be content to create something solely for one reader. Writing is hard. I only do it for attention, praise, likes, comments. To write for only one person you have to really, really like them.
But in some ways it’s easier. With only one reader in mind, you can write solely to please him. You can choose words and ideas guaranteed to delight someone you know exceptionally well; someone with whom you have a shared history and set of understood mutual references to draw upon. You know how best to make him glow and preen. Instead of earning the grudging envy or indifference of a few hundred, perhaps, you can instead be absolutely certain to delight one. We throw away words every day – angry careless tweets, terse emails, and in my instance at least, mediocre pieces of journalism, in the hope that some stranger, somewhere, will pay us some attention. Here the attention was guaranteed. That knowledge was initially crippling, then liberating.
And for several hours that day, as I laboured, there was only one man in my mind.
I managed my own six pages of scrawl, folded them carefully, addressed the stiff white envelope, marvelling at how rare and exhilarating it felt; added a stamp, then consigned the whole of my heart to a post box. No instant feedback, no way of ensuring even that it would find him; no read receipt, no bobbing icon and row of dots to indicate my message had been seen and a reply was on its way.
To be able to gratify one’s desires instantly, easily, to the point of over-saturation, soon leaves one jaded; to consign one’s most intimate needs to time, fate, the whims of others, can prove a restorative, thrilling delight.
Dust off your quill and discover it yourself.