This post is a re-print from my monthly column on creative practice at NicoleDieker.com.
I am just in the door from my afternoon commute. This consists of a mile’s easy walking in a circle from my house — marking the close of today’s hours at the laptop-enabled money-factory, and reminding me gently of my physical body, its welcome tether to the seasons and the earth.
In the moment before this one, I opened the mailbox to find two letters from friends. I smiled at them — a real smile, like I was greeting the friend named in the return address. Now I fold back the top of my little correspondence desk, and lay the letters inside.
I will wait, and shape a space to give them my full and slow attention.
Letters, in this last apocalyptic year-and-a-bit, have become for me a particular source of pleasure and perspective — and creative ballast.
I learned to write letters the first time as an adolescent, because writing was the only inexpensive way (remember long-distance phone charges?) to keep the friends I had to leave behind every few years, when the U.S. Navy stationed my dad somewhere new.
I didn’t learn well, though: I had good intentions, bad follow-through. For one thing, I didn’t know how to write and read letters, in the sense of understanding what I hoped to give and get from the exchange. I had plenty of ideas, but precious little discipline to help me explore them. Thus, when my mood or mindset didn’t line up with my goal, I had zero motivation. So I stopped putting pen to paper. So I lost my penpals.
Letters are a fruit of slowness and attention and care — qualities I cultivate, though often with stunted success. I have found my way back to letter-writing by paying attention to that cultivation, false starts and failures included. (I was learning to garden at the same time. This has perhaps influenced the metaphor.)
First, I noticed how much nourishment I’d begun to derive from some very long exchanges on Twitter.
I’d ramble for days at a time with people I didn’t know at all well, about books, walking, memory, landscape. We stacked ideas on top of questions on top of enthusiasm. Our conversations were generative and exciting and connective. We lost the thread a lot, in all the excitement. I wished often for the same conversations but slower and deeper, with everyone and every thought given more time to bloom than our present suite of communication technologies allows.
At which point, I realized I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. I asked for an address or two.
Also, I noticed the ways I was missing my friends. These folks are many and various. They live across town, or a few miles downriver. Also in Montana, California, Iowa, Alaska, Pennsylvania, England, Germany. We used to meet at workshops, at church, on boats, on trails, in restaurants, in backyards.
It’s not like we ever met a lot. But I think about my friends often, and I used to store up things to turn over when we saw each other next. Going nowhere and seeing almost no one has not injured me — a solitary — as it has most folks I know, but I have absolutely missed the opportunities for depth of conversation that arise from a life lived at least partially in physical community.
There was never a time when I realized all of these connection opportunities in person. But with the sudden inadvisability of in-person contact, relying on texts and Zoom and Twitter began to feel more hollow than before. Instead of handily filling in the gaps, those tools have become primary platforms to maintain entire friendships. They’re not, generally speaking, equal to the long-term task.
Why is this? I’ll offer two understandings gleaned from a year and more of writing deeply and regularly to friends and strangers.
Both understandings require creative exercise — that formative, necessary thing you (you, reading this) need, and with which I know many of my fellow artists have been struggling, as deaths and lockdowns and vaccine worries and economic pain wear us down.
First: To write to a person, or to read what they have written you, is to spend real time with them. It’s asynchronous, yes, but I think of it as sacred time, time-out-of-time, in which clock-time ceases to signify.
It’s real time because you are focused on that person. There is no room (indeed, no opportunity) to check your DMs or switch to a different channel, and there is only this one person you can listen to at a time. The conversation is very slow. You can read or write only one side of it at once, which forces a particular kind of concentrated presence. You can pause your conversation to think or feel about something your friend has said. You have what feels like infinite space and time to respond internally, to process, to enjoy.
You are also doing the work, all this while, of creating your correspondent there in your mind and heart. To recall or imagine a friend is a creative act, and also a specific pleasure. A letter places this work at the center of your being for as long as it takes to write, or to read.
Also: Creating a physical object is an act of magic, or an act of prayer.
I like to understand things intellectually. I used to think of magic as something abstruse, and I wasn’t really surprised when I couldn’t make it “work.” Obviously, I was doing something wrong. I used to be frankly baffled by prayer. How do you even start?
Sometimes the answer is just to do or make a thing. The act of creation is… creation. You are taking the materials around you, and shaping them, with your hands and whatever expertise you own, into a new object in the world.
To create that object with a very specific recipient in mind is to direct the power of your magic, or your prayer, to them, and to the relationship between you.
A letter, hand-written, maybe illustrated or decorated, is a powerful, non-replicable piece of art, constructed with your hands and given life by your care, your interest, your attention. It forges something, both inside the writer and between writer and reader, that a text message can’t.
My art has been my anchor in this last long terrible year, and my strong companion. Though poetry, my primary art, cuts as deeply as it heals, still I am fortunate that it has journeyed with me.
I have written here before that I need to commune with my places to write the deep poems I love. This type of communion has been in short supply for some time, and it has followed that most of the new work I’ve crafted feels adrift, amorphous, unspecific. Not so my letters.
I have said that a letter is a piece of art. I think it is one quite as beautiful and valid as poem. This is the end of the similarities.
I feel expansive when I sit to write a letter. Free-wheeling, like I’m embarking on an essay — yet much less formal. I can ramble in a letter, and excuse myself with phrases like “wandered off-topic again.” I can spell things wrong and cross them out and muddle my thoughts and still feel unembarrassed to put a stamp on the envelope. A letter feels unfinished because it is. This is a feature of the genre.
All art is a conversation, but usually we have to remind ourselves that’s true. A letter knows that in its very form. By choosing to create, and enjoy, this physical art form, we assert to each other and we reassure ourselves that we’re not suffering, enjoying, analyzing, and exploring this life alone.
The regular work of this creative reassurance is, I continue to discover, infinitely worth the considerable time and effort it requires. Full and slow attention to ourselves — each other, our world, and our shared and divergent experiences — is yet another healing friend. Speaking for myself, but knowing I am not alone, I can say that I need to cultivate as many of those as I can.