Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for March 2019

Writing to faceless readers

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When I picture my mother, Helen Louise Schooley Hayes (03/11/1922–09/16/1993), the image that most often comes up is of her sitting at a table, a fountain pen in hand and a sheet of line paper in front of her, a cup of coffee off to one side and an ashtray with a lighted Pall Mall cigarette on the other side. When I picture her at different stages of her life and in different places where we lived, the table may be different, as also the brand of cigarette, but the cup of coffee and the fountain pen and lined paper are invariably present. I can still see her looking thoughtfully into space, taking a couple of drags on her cigarette, then lighting up with a smile and writing a few more sentences. Watching her write, even when as a young child I occasionally resented being ignored, brought me joy.

These pictures in my mind are almost the only ones I have of my mother. She hated being photographed. One Christmas she gave me a camera and then threatened to take it away from me when I snapped a photo of her preparing Christmas dinner n the kitchen. Years later she joked that she hated to be photographed because cameras only captured her overweight exterior and graying hair and failed to capture her inner beauty. It was one of the many light-hearted comments she made that contained a grain of truth.

During her lifetime, my mother wrote thousands of letters to her friends and relatives. Writing letters was nearly a daily activity. Her letters were written in a style that showed the influence of her favorite authors: James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, William Saroyan, Erma Bombeck. They were funny, clever, insightful, self-deprecating. She had a gift for drawing attention to human foibles by telling stories that illustrated her own. Like many people who write well, she had a tendency to lurch in the direction of depression, and I suspect that writing letters was a way of cheering herself up and keeping things in perspective—humor is, after all, one of the classical defense mechanisms. Whether or not she cheered herself up by composing her wry epistles, she nearly always managed to cheer up the recipients.

Several of the people to whom my mother wrote frequently, including myelf, urged her to consider writing a book, or at least essays to be submitted regularly to magazines. It seemed a shame that only one person at a time could enjoy her witty observations. Her response to such urgings was always the same: she could not imagine writing anything that was not addressed to a particular individual. When she wrote to a friend, she wrote what she knew that friend would appreciate reading about. If she could not picture a specific recipient reading her words, her muse remained mute. Although she loved language, she did not write for her love of well-turned phrases. She wrote for her love of specific people. She wrote to connect with them, one at a time, the way that intoverts prefer to connect with others.

When I was an undergraduate the first time around, I majored in English composition, which involved learning to write for several genres—poetry, short stories, plays, technical treatises, essays, even novels. I discovered that, like my mother, I could rarely write anything unless I had a specific reader in mind. If I imagined my professor, or my roommate, or one of my uncles, or the ghost of Mark Twain reading the piece I was writing, the words flowed more easily, and the result, I fancied, was more satisfactory than when I tried to write to an anonymous, faceless reader.

In one of my several attempts to encourage my mother to write for a wider audience, I suggested that she might try writing an essay with a specific reader in mind and then send it to be published. The finished product would surely be appreciated by far more people than the one for whom she was writing it. She thought about it for a moment and then told me it would never work. If she knew that eventually she would send it to a wider readership, she would also know that she was only pretending to write it for a specific reader, and her writing would reveal the pretense. It would lack authenticity. At the very least, it would lack the characteristic that made her writing such a joy to read, namely, that it was intensely intimate. On the other hand, if she really did write a piece for a specific reader, she would then feel it was a betrayal of that person, almost an invasion of the privacy of both the writer and the intended reader, if she shared the writing with a wider audience.

My mother lived long enough to see a computer enter her household. Despite all my father’s enthusiastic endorsements of the modern convenience of WordStar as a writing tool, my mother could not be tempted to try to compose a letter on that alien contraption. Even using a typewriter robbed a letter of its personal touch—a letter really should be written with a fountain pen, so the reader could detect all the subtle fluctuations of mood that showed up in the handwriting—but a letter noisily hammered out on a dot-matrix printer connected to a desktop computer was far too impersonal, not to mention just plain ugly, for words. The computer, she was quite sure, was a passing fad, for such a gimmick could never be used for true communication.

Looking back on my adolescent and adult life, I recall writing three or four letters a week to various friends and relatives. That habit stopped not long after a computer found its way to my desk when I was forty-one years old. My fountain pen eventually got put into a drawer and never came out again, and soon afterward my muse sought employment elsewhere. For the past thirty-three years I have been condemned to writing lifeless prose to faceless, and largely nonexistent, readers.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, March 11, 2019 at 11:32

Posted in Uncategorized