Mark Zuckerberg looks forward to the day when the camera, rather than the text box, will be the main way we share on social networks. What would that mean for the future of words and the experience of writing?
When I read Zuckerberg’s comment, I had already been thinking about how less rich our communication is now that we so rarely write letters to each other anymore. Handwritten letters were on a list of objects and ideas in American Magazine last November that are “teetering on the edge of extinction” (along with cursive handwriting and proper grammar!) I realize that communication consists of a myriad of nonverbal elements, and that a picture is often “worth a thousand words”, but do we value words, especially written words, enough anymore?
In the American Magazine piece, Amy Burroughs writes that letters have been a rich historical source of “information about the way people lived, loved, learned, fought, created, and died…In their own words, in unguarded candor and confidence, letters reveal the day-to-day experience of real individuals.” I know from my own experience that I communicate differently in writing than I do when speaking. I am more likely to say what’s in my heart and to express my emotions, and less likely to worry about sounding “cool.”
When I was a young adult, I moved across the country a couple of times, leaving friends and family behind. In those days shortly before the internet exploded onto the scene, we wrote letters back and forth to stay in touch. Two years ago, when I was moving yet again, I spent some time going through a huge box of those letters that I had saved. The thing that struck me the most was how thoughtful all of my friends were. They spent a considerable amount of time, and care, writing their letters, and it shows. The letters are smart, funny and clever. Many of them are several pages long. Some of them are from younger people I worked with, which touches me now, realizing that I must have had some impact on their lives.
I also have the privilege of being in possession of much older letters, some written by distant family members back in the 1800s, others by parents, grandparents and cousins. The letter that my father-in-law wrote as he shipped out of New York harbor on his way to fight in Europe during World War II is especially poignant. He reflects on his entire life as he departs, not knowing when he will see his family again. More quotidian are the letters from my mother-in-law to her mother while she was living in Toronto and expecting her first child (my husband). They detail her struggles with making friends, her shopping and decorating of their apartment, and of course her pregnancy, including the choice of baby names.
The letters are a way for me to know people I never met, or to know the younger selves of people I only knew when they were older. The letters sometimes reflect an optimism that was missing later in their lives. Often the change from optimism to discouragement is recorded in the letters, as with the relative who between the 1830s and 1840s lost 11 of 12 children, divorced his wife, and thought his brother had forgotten him. I’m fascinated by these people, and I wonder if my children and grandchildren might feel the same if they ever come across my old letters and my younger self.
The thing is – I have a lot of old photos too – pictures that might be posted on Facebook if they were taken today. But they only tell me so much. Sometimes I don’t even know the names of the people in the photos, or when exactly they were taken. That wouldn’t be a problem with Facebook tags, but still…what was going on when the photos were taken? What was in their minds, their hearts? We just won’t know without the words to go with them.
People want very much to be heard, not just seen, by others. They want to tell their stories. When Burroughs speaks about the “unguarded candor and confidence” of letter writers, it’s the desire to be heard and known, a desire for intimate retelling, that inspires it. Or as Anais Nin said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”