When we stumbled upon writer David Infante’s lovely online piece praising the practice of writing letters, we of course wanted to know more about the New Yorker’s fancy for classic correspondence. Here, the former conscious thank you note objector shares why railroad spikes may make for good pen pal letters and writing while curious always has the potential for a most memorable response.
When did your interest in the epistolary world begin?
In college. When I was a kid, my parents made me write “thank you” notes to anyone who gave me a gift—Christmas, birthday, etc.—and I hated it. Sometimes, if the gift wasn’t even that good, I would be angry about receiving it. Now I have to write another note, and for what?! I would fight back, too, if I had already verbally thanked the giftee face-to-face. As a Cool Teen™ trying to spend as much time as possible playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater on N64, I didn’t see the point of sending a note after the fact—it seemed redundant.
When I got to college, I was sort of lost. I had a really rough freshman year at a small liberal arts school, and I hated it and felt depressed and alone. I don’t want to make it sound like writing notes “saved” me—I was living a perfectly acceptable life for a college freshman, I was just a bit down on myself. So to cheer myself up, I started collecting my friends’ home addresses and sending them Christmas cards. Just for the hell of it. Everyone seemed to get a kick out of it, so then I did it again at Easter, then again the following Christmas and so on. Obviously I still wrote “thank you” notes—it was an ingrained habit at that point. It kinda went from there, but it started because I had a lot of downtime and wasn’t enjoying myself in a new environment.
What is your favorite step in the process of writing correspondence?
That moment of excitement when I’m sealing the envelope. I’m a pretty compulsive person—I check light switches, coffee pots, door locks, etc.—so I have difficulty with uncertainty. Did I spell their name right? Am I addressing this to the right person? So after I’ve checked and rechecked, it’s always a nervous thrill to seal the thing and pop it in the mail.
If you could be pen pals with anyone in history, to whom would you write and what would you say?
I was always a big fan of Oscar Wilde. I wrote my undergrad thesis about A Picture of Dorian Gray. I think it would be fascinating to write with him, although as one of the world’s preeminent turners-of-phrase, my copy would probably bore the hell out of him.
I’d love to trade some postcards with Joseph Conrad, too. I guess both these answers are incredibly precocious. Yikes. If I’m allowed to pick a third person, how about Phineas Gage, the dude whose skull got punctured by a railroad spike in the 1800s? He probably had some interesting sh**t to say. I don’t know if the brain damage impaired his small-motor skills, but let’s assume he could still write.
To whom do you most often write?
It varies, but if we’re going for absolute volume, it’s definitely my grandparents.
Describe the most memorable letter or postcard you have ever received.
I don’t have a good story for this, so I’m going to borrow my older brother’s. From an early age, Mark knew he wanted to fly jets. Unlike most people who have dreams, he actually followed through on his—he’s now a Marine fighter pilot.
In high school, Mark read Blood Meridian, arguably Cormac McCarthy’s most mainstream novel at the time. This was before No Country for Old Men became a feature film. There was a line in there—I forget what it was exactly—challenging his earnest, adolescent perception of the military duty he planned to serve. Paraphrasing from memory (Google isn’t pulling it up, which shows you how inconspicuous this quotation was to most readers), it was something like: “In most pursuits, good men prosper. In war, good men die.”
Mark wrote a letter to McCarthy about this sentence. I don’t know what he wrote; I’m sure it was the stumbling, aggrandizing babble of an AP English prep-schooler, and I’m sure it was a respectful, naive challenge to the author’s fatalist paradox. It’s not important. What’s important is that McCarthy, perhaps the greatest living American novelist, wrote back to my brother, in a letter typed on a typewriter and signed by the man himself.
“I don’t normally respond to correspondence,” McCarthy began, “but your question poses a moral quandary for me.” I get chills thinking about it, even ten years later. You don’t get chills remembering retweets. Letters are a fundamentally sincere medium. They carry weight far heavier than the sum of the papers we write them on.
What makes your correspondence distinct?
Probably my cursive. I grew up in Catholic schools, so I learned to write in the nuns’ swoopy script. I write faster in cursive than I do in printed letters, so when I was in college, it’s how I took notes. It’s always kind of stuck with me.
What do you think classic correspondence will look like in a decade or two?
Like newspapers or landlines, I think mailed correspondence will survive into the next few decades as a lifestyle choice. People have habits, you know? These are living relics, and while I think it’s foolhardy to believe correspondence will never, ever die, I don’t think it will happen in our lifetime. Unless the USPS shuts down, in which case some 19-year-old will invent “Uber for letters” and get heinously rich off a centuries-old idea. As long as it keeps the mail moving, I’m fine with it.