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Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog

Writing Letters

Does anyone save old family emails?
. . .
Many of the writers I know are quite proud of it.

“Oh, I never write letters anymore,” they say, nodding. “I’m just too busy. I email or text.”

Elsewhere, I’ve already confessed to how I changed my mind about computers when I realized how efficient they were for preparing manuscripts.

And I’ll even admit that when pressed for time-- let me rephrase that-- when PARTICULARLY pressed for time-- I may do a little recycling with a letter. I’ll write a letter saying what I’ve been doing lately and then change the "Dear____" part to fit the recipient. After I print it out, I add the personal notes at the bottom before mailing-- and I usually say, “Excuse the generic letter.”

But I stubbornly continue to write personal letters to many friends. Not only that-- but I hand-write some of them, proving that I am stuck in antediluvial times, sinking in the swamp of prehistory.

Here are some of my reasons.

I have only a few of my father’s letters, usually headed with the date and “At the breakfast table.” My parents lived in what is now my writing retreat house, which doesn’t much resemble the way it looked when they were there. The round oak table at which my father wrote is gone; the curtains he pulled aside to look out the window have been replaced by modern shades. The buffet on which he kept a dictionary so he could look up any word about which he was uncertain is in someone else’s home.

But when I see my father’s handwriting on those letters, I can picture him just as he was on those mornings, the blue eyes, the smile he never wore for photographs because he hated them. My mother is cooking breakfast in her blue bathrobe. He has been out and looked at the weather, recording the night’s low in his journal. He’s planning his day. And he’s writing words of advice and love and encouragement to his daughter.

These letters are particularly precious considering how his life ended, in anger and bitterness and confusion. Without seeing that strong handwriting, I might gradually let the good memories be submerged in the horrible ones. The handwriting provides an anchor; a typed copy of the letter would not be the same. Had he been emailing his thoughts, they’d have long since vanished.

Perhaps nothing I write to any of my friends is as important as those notes my father wrote and it may be that none of my friends keep my handwritten notes. That doesn’t matter either. I like the feeling of holding that pen and seeing the words flow onto the paper, even the recycled scraps I sometimes use for notes, tucking them into envelopes with a few clippings of news stories I can imagine discussing with my friends.

I like seeing in my mind’s eye my friends taking those envelopes out of the mailbox, slitting them open, sitting in their favorite chairs. My handwriting conveys my voice, my thoughts, my image in a way no computerized facsimile ever could.

And when I am hand-writing a letter, my mind slows down. I take time to form the letters, picturing the person to whom I am writing.

Fairly often, I discover as I scribble a thought that had been eluding me while I sat at the computer and pecked and stabbed and jabbed and dug and prodded the keys, a thought that could not be born as the cursor blinked.

So whether the post office is efficient or not and no matter how much it charges me for the privilege, as long as mail service exists, I’ll keep folding those letters, hand-addressing the envelopes and hauling them to town, thinking of the people whose handwriting will be on the envelopes I’ll get back in a few days.

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How to Live in Spite of Your Computer

. . .
A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any other invention in human history, with the possible exception of handguns and tequila
--- Mitch Ratcliffe
Funny Times, April 2006, p. 4.


I drove away from the computer repair shop that day feeling pretty darn smug. My computer needed repair over a weekend, so I’d spend four days without it. Not only was I not worried, I looked forward to the weekend as if it were a vacation.

Since I didn’t get a computer until long after most people were speaking glibly of their PCs and I habitually write in longhand and read widely, I expected to have no trouble at all filling time without the mechanical device.

When I got home, I carried my groceries upstairs and then whipped downstairs into my office to check my email.

Hmm. Maybe computer withdrawal would be harder than I thought.

So I set about reconstructing my life of writing without the blasted thing. The results were satisfying enough to convince me that it would be beneficial to any of us to deliberately choose computer-free days in the future.

First, I realized that without the computer, my schedule could be changed. On the average day, I get up at 4:30, turn on the coffee, let the dogs out, and return to bed for an hour or so of reading. After breakfast, I go to my computer-- and I could begin writing at that moment.

A few years ago, before I got email, a fellow writer, commented on how productive I was, how much writing I got done. “What’s your secret?” she asked. Well, I said, I started work early in the morning and stop only to fix lunch.”

“I do the same thing,” she said and then stopped. “Well, first I take a quick look at my email. And sometimes when I’ve finished that I’m amazed that a couple of hours has gone by.”

These days, I don’t start writing as soon as I sit down at my desk. I know that my assistant has probably sent me email from my public email address, so I check. Ah! There’s the answer to my question about what accommodations are available for that speaking engagement. And I’d better see if I can accept that writer for a Writing Conversation by eMail. And I ought to let that officer of the history group know that I will attend the meeting. There’s the schedule for the workshop in October; I’ll print that out. Oh, and Nancy has played Scrabble; I’ll play my turn now.

And before I know it, an hour has passed. I’ve done what I so deplored in my friend.

So I shake myself and get back to work on the latest project, feeling a bit harried and hurried and guilty for wasting that good writing time. Feeling guilty and harried is not a good way to begin one’s writing day and yet only rarely do I slip through the email reading only positive messages.

One way to begin my writing day in a better frame of mind would be to leave email unopened until I have written something. This is easy when the computer is twenty-five miles away, a little harder when it’s sitting on my desk. Fortunately, I have two desks: I try to keep the old-fashioned one clear for hand-writing.

That weekend, I set out to break the Email First habit by tackling the job of writing a foreword for a soon-to-be-published book by a friend. I collected the manuscript and stretched out in my comfortable recliner with a yellow tablet. The dogs settled on the couch beside me; outside the window, grouse gurgled in the trees. Ah! The life of the writer!

Usually when I am reviewing a manuscript, I fill it with sticky notes to mark passages, writing cryptic notes. Every few minutes, when an idea becomes too complex to fit a manuscript margin or a yellow sticky note, I go to the computer and expand my immediate responses into more coherent paragraphs.

Because I couldn’t go to the computer, I had to hand-write every step of my thought process. I’d read an essay, taking notes in the margins and on my yellow pad about its contents. Then I’d make a cup of tea to sip while I thought about the implications. How did this piece relate to the previous essays? Each period of thought led to more notes. Without the cursor blinking at me, I seemed to have more time to flip back through the pages to check references, re-read passages and appreciate them again.

Sometimes, even when I get to the computer fairly quickly after making notes on the book, I’ve lost track of some convoluted idea. Having to write out my thought process helped clarify my thinking about many points.

The slow speed of hand-writing my thoughts allowed my brain to race ahead of my fingers-- and this meant I had to consciously think out each step of what I was saying. “No that is not what I mean; it’s more nearly this.” I leapt up often to refer to the dictionary. The resulting foreword is, I think, better than it would have been had I done all the work on computer.

Naturally, when I got the computer back, I first copied my notes and then reviewed the manuscript. I am convinced that I covered the points I needed to make more thoroughly because of having to write them out by hand.

Of course the job wasn’t finished-- I did considerable revising on the computer, reminding myself that when we first began to use these things, we called them “word processors.” And it is easier in many ways to “process” a lot of words with the machine: one can tentatively check spelling, though no spell-check program is very reliable. I do like using the word counter to keep track of the length of the writing, and moving paragraphs from place to place in the manuscript is easier with the machinery. And since I do my best proofreading with a hard copy, I can without guilt print multiple drafts-- on the back of already-used paper.

Throughout that weekend without the blinking cursor, I didn’t have to work hard to find both jobs and entertainment that didn’t involve the computer. My partner was away, so my only companions were the dogs. We took longer, slower walks, played many more games of kick the ball. They could stay longer in my lap because I didn’t get up as often to go to the computer to check on some point or write a paragraph.

During my free time, I let my mind relax, wander. My reading broadened, rather than being simply an escape from the constant demands of writing. I picked up a mystery and then swapped it for a couple of nonfiction books I’d been meaning to read and a volume of poetry.

Still, I had to remind myself not to check email. The need to do so was a gnawing that reminded me of how hard it was to break myself of chewing my fingernails. And of course that’s the secret: Much of our addiction to the computer, in whatever way we express it, is only substance abuse-- like smoking a cigarette. It’s not good for you but it digs its talons into your body and mind so you have to be determined to break its hold.

Unlike most of the other substances we abuse, computers really do have benefits: but only if used in moderation.

Friends received notes, postcards and long thoughtful letters. I baked cookies and didn’t eat all of them. I read six books, some for enjoyment and some because they related to various writing projects. I found dozens of packs of cards and was chagrined that I had to concentrate to remember how to play solitaire without a screen. I couldn’t play any of our board games-- I had no partner-- but I did put together one of the many jigsaw puzzles I’ve found at secondhand stores.

I counted wildlife: a dozen rabbits, two antelope and then six antelope, a bald eagle, an owl, and four chukar partridges along with a couple of dozen sparrows. I took the camera with me and studied patterns in the grass, tracks in the dust, rocks.

Before my weekend of solitude, I’d take breaks from my writing to fix meals, help my partner with a project outside-- but I’d always check the email first when I came back to the computer. Now, unless I’m expecting an important communication, I often spend most of the morning working on my current writing project before giving in to the Email Desire.

Some of the changes I made that weekend are, I hope, permanent. Nowadays, instead of automatically thinking “email” every time I look up from a job, I try to do something else: stroll out onto the deck and take a good look around. Perhaps go to the greenhouse, pet the dogs, check my paper file of unanswered letters.

And I’ve started shutting the computer off at 5 p.m. daily just as if it represented paid employment: no games, no email, no flashing cursor. Since we have no TV, we play board or card games, entertain the dogs.

Hmm. Now where did my partner put that magic trick he bought so long ago?

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