I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 6 of 100.
Everyone has a used book store tactic, right?
Mine, ordinarily, is to scour the shelves for books of letters. Anyone’s letters will do; I don’t care if I’ve ever heard of the person. I fell in love, first, with John Steinbeck’s, and moved on to love Virginia Woolf’s and Flannery O’Connor’s and Anais Nin's (duh), then started reading weird dusty old religious relics that NO ONE COULD UNDERSTAND.
The thing I love most about letters is when they’re accidentally brilliant. Letters aren’t trying in the same way as things designed for earnest publication. Letters are trying just for one person. And since their aim is so narrow, the writer of the letter is usually very passionate, and does not, for the most part, hold back. This is charming to me, and it also feels sort of deliciously voyeuristic.
I am guessing that my early love of epistolaries turned me into a certain kind of emailer. You know my type without me having to say it, right? OK fine, I’ll say it: I am that verbose emailer who sends you emails that you either hunger for or dread, depending on your (usually gendered) disposition. I am of the 1200-words sect. I am the type who says “I love you” for the first time via email; and “I hate you” for the first time via email; and who tries to deal with all conflict, as wordily as possible, via email.
In a bygone long-distance relationship, I sent thousand-word long emails to a boyfriend every single night of our twoish-year tenure together. Poor Boyfriend. He always obligingly wrote back, but I’ll bet he had other things to do.
I still regularly email another ex-boyfriend to wax poetic with variations of “I still love you.” Poor Ex-Boyfriend. He usually replies gently a few days later: “Can we, uh, talk about this over the phone or something?”
I want to say that no, we can NOT talk about it over the phone. I AM GOOD IN EMAIL. I know how to say just the things I mean to say, and you will definitely understand my perspective, and in person I will simply not be so brave or strong. Plus, what about in a hundred years, when I am gone, and the historians need to know how I felt about love and conflict? The verbal conversation will no longer exist, but the email — prohibiting a massive cloud crash* — will remain.
The age of letters was so romantic. Isadora could write that she longed for Theodora, and Theodora wouldn’t even know as much for four whole days. The longing! The wait! The pangs! There were plenty of lovesick pen-wielding types who wrote letters Every. Single. Day. to the person they loved. LETTERS! That they put in the MAIL! How novel and marvelous and well-documented this all was.
I am no longer in a minority here. Most of my tech-savvy peers would rather use text than mouth-words to talk about tricky things — or anything. Social anxiety is on the rise. I can’t get a single one of my journalism students to make a phone call for a quote, because it is just “way too scary.” I relate to this and probably excuse it a little too much because of my commiseration. And now that I can see the way remailtionships (!) are taking over our world, I begrudgingly concede that they are a problem — and that I am a part of it.
Over the summer, a friend and I had a disagreement. He emailed me his grievance, and I responded coldly; and then a week later, I decided I had not said enough and wrote a highly verbose treatise explaining my simultaneous rightness and deep love for him. (You know: “I’m right, but I love you sooooo much.”) My friend barely wrote back. I was disturbed and held a month-long grudge that followed me around and weighed heavy on my little heart.
When we finally talked in person (because I don’t know, I suddenly realized that I am an actual adult human being), of course it wasn’t so bad. We both apologized; I cried; he was like, “Why are you crying?”; I was like, “I JUST CRY ALL THE TIME OK”; he was like, “There there”; and we ultimately talked about those Facebook events that make fun of The Bean for a while.
And just last week I got a little drunk (JUST THE LITTLEST BIT) and decided that I would air some small, nit-picky complaints I had in an email to one of my best and closest friends. The next morning, we walked and talked, and I could see how my words had been both confusing and hurtful. My friend said, “Honey, this has happened before with us, and it makes me wonder about this whole email business.”
This friend — let’s call her Wife, because that’s pretty close to true — is a huge chunk of my soul and a defining factor in my overall well-being. Wife is smarter than I am and a little older than I am and wears the best clothes of anyone I’ve ever known, no joke. And Wife is a REALLY good writer. Because we are both busy, email has been a central pathway to our communication, and when things are generally good and updates are light-hearted but necessary, email is still lord.
But for the bigger things, Wife was right. It’s better in person. Looking someone in the eyes when you have a conflict is scary because you know you will have to acknowledge things about them that you don’t feel like acknowledging in the two-dimensions of words on a page. For many of us, writing is easy; talking is harder; and listening is the hardest of all. But listening, I’m afraid, is at the beginning of how anything ever gets done.
Now, look. There are exceptions, of course. And actually, I’m very good at writing emails. For this reason, I have composed this brief companion essay called “How to Write An Email.” It makes sense to write them in work capacities (because sometimes meetings are so woefully unnecessary in a busy day), and it often makes sense to write them in faraway love capacities. The ex-boyfriend who fields all the “I still love you” emails told me (via email) that I should never stop sending him long, gushy emotions letters. This makes sense to me, because it feels exciting and good when you get to that part in a letter where the person reveals something juicy that you wanted to hear. My fiancé (at least says he) is tickled that I told him I loved him for the first time via Facebook Messenger.
But I’m scaling back. Let’s talk in person! If I don’t have the time to talk to you about it, then it isn’t worth worrying about in the first place, is it?
Plus, I don’t know that I need those “Here’s-a-conflict-I’m-butt-hurt” emails in my Collected Letters volumes anyway. I’d much rather be known for all the “I still love you”s I have in my heart.
*My fear of the cloud crash is such that I do, indeed, print out a lot of (read: basically all of) my emails. You know. For the historians.