My husband and I recently saw an episode of Mad Men in which the Sterling Cooper creative team is trying to find a way to advertise Western Union telegrams at a time of widespread telephone use. The episode, “The Color Blue,” contains several references to writing’s value—Paul “loses” an idea because he doesn’t write it down, for example, and the evidence Betty finds in Don’s desk is a jumble of documents and photos with handwritten captions—so it’s no surprise that the “aha” idea to pitch telegrams has to do with the relative permanence of the written word.
“You can’t frame a telephone call,” Don says.
Telegrams were not handwritten; however, they were unique. There was one copy. It was hand-delivered. It was a kind of missing link between an age of frequent handwritten correspondence and today’s emails and texting.
What are we leaving for others to find or to frame? What personal words have you written today, not as an email or text message, but with your own hand or, at least, as a printed document that you intend to keep?
I’ve been asking myself these questions as I work to transcribe diaries kept from my great aunt Hattie. She wrote daily from 1920 through most of 1957. Every day, without exception, she dutifully recorded the weather, the day’s work and travels, her and her husband’s health, and any goings on in the neighborhood to which she was privy. Some of the entries are only three or four lines in length, kept in composition notebooks or hard-bound ledgers. Others are full-page accounts that include such details as waving to her brother and nephews who were cutting wood as she drove by, or the subtle changes in the weather when the wind shifts at noon.
These kinds of entries are what Jennifer Sinor in The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diary calls ordinary writing: “Ordinary writing, writing that is typically unseen or ignored, is primarily defined by its status as discardable.” Ordinary writing is divorced from a broader context. It is often repetitious, even tedious. It is writing that “does not tell a story …. does not mark an event or narrate an idea” (pp. 5-6).
Without her diaries, Hattie would be relegated to a line on a family tree, a name only. Yet, as I type Hattie’s life into a Word document day by day, they do slowly shape themselves into a story, a person whom I feel I know, who sits beside me as I work. I was born eight years after she died, so I have no memories to go by, only her own words. It has taken me months to become well enough acquainted with her handwriting to transcribe the entries quickly, and just as long to learn to be not only unfazed by but thankful for her inconsistent and uncommon spellings and her short-cut sentences that sometimes omit articles or verbs (“Louise to school”). I am grateful that these pages were not discarded, that they somehow survived and found their way into my hands, and that I have a chance to know the extraordinariness of an otherwise ordinary woman who was also a writer.
As a recent post on “Once Upon a Blog” puts it, “You never know when those few lines you scribbled a few years ago will inspire something wonderful. I believe ideas need to steep, find other ingredients, and brew a bit before the next bestseller can be written.”
|1886 Letter: My dear son Edward,
Many thanks for your kind letter. I was very glad to hear from you once more and greatly surprised to hear that you were married and had a family….
For my father’s birthday present two years ago, I framed some of Hattie’s photos and captions she had written for them. Her captions—otherwise ordinary writing—were frame-worthy precisely because of the personal touch of her hand. I think of the letter my family has, sent from my great-great–grandmother in Woodhull, New York, to her son in Dakota Territory in 1886, and how grateful I am that she sent it and that it has survived.
I am no Luddite. I do not take for granted the ease of modern technology, the speed and green advantage of electronic communication, nor the liberating aspects, especially for a working writer, of being able to cut, paste, save as, delete, and revise without rewriting by hand or retyping entire manuscripts.
At the same time, I sometimes ask myself, will anyone want to frame our emails? Would we want to read The Complete Text Messages of John and Abigail Adams?
“I love getting telegrams, but I never send them.” ~ Ken Cosgrove, Mad Men
This year, our family is planning an 80th birthday celebration for my father. Yesterday I sent the invitations, and, while the cards came hot off my printer, I resisted the urge to use address labels for the guests. Handwritten addresses might not be much, but it’s something. As I wrote each name and street, city and zip code, I thought of the person who would receive the invitation in a day or two. So much better than pressing a self-adhesive label on an envelope.
I do not want to return to the past, nor do I have the answers to these questions or a crystal ball. All I know is that these days I’m more aware of my own ordinary writing, and I’m doing just a little more of it with pen and paper.