It was the sort of room in which exactly this sort of conversation would take place: genteel, old, understated, and with an oriental rug underfoot. This was the site of a memorial art exhibition at the Pen and Brush Club, in a West Village brownstone, Edith Wharton territory. Therefore we murmured. We also held glasses of prosecco
and accepted Asian-fusion hors d'oeuvres off silver trays held by semi-invisible young waiters who wished they were anywhere but here. That is when I heard something that floored me.
I had been charged, by a relative, with collecting any inside dope I could about how to get into one of New York City's most exclusive private schools. At the kindergarten level.
I found myself talking to a woman whose three children attended said school. I tried not to think of the tab--over a hundred grand, I just learned from the website--in order to gather information diligently. A crucial item, she told me, was the letter one must write after the initial school tour. She helpfully listed some things the school might like to hear, then allowed, "Of course, some people hire a ghostwriter to do this."
You could have knocked me over with a feather--one dripping borrowed ink from its quill. Jesus Christ. Hire a ghostwriter to write a letter to a school for admission to kindergarten?
Apart from my broad and general naivete about how things are done now in this world (an unknowingness that extends, on one side, to the private grooming habits of young women these days [ouch] and, on the other, to the wow of learning that Lockheed-Martin apparently wields unprecedented power over every aspect of U.S. government; in both cases, who knew?), this showed me to be a positive rube.
Ghostwritten letters had gone out, or so I thought, with the prevalent illiteracy of the last century (the last before the last, I mean: the nineteenth). Then, people who needed that one persuasive phrase, the one that might turn a head most desired, would pay a professional to craft the letter of a lifetime. For those who did command the written word, but not the ability to gather enough flowers to make a suitable literary bouquet, there existed books of templates: the thank-you, the sympathy, the employment query. There are still those books today, although the handwritten letter--on paper! in an envelope!--is going the way of the floppy disk.
I have been blessed with some extraordinary correspondents, and not just in that antediluvian time of the postbox. In fact, e-mail has allowed some incredible prose to flourish; incredibly, it has been meant for my eye alone.
The only thing the e-mailed message cannot do is what I find among the letters, every one saved, sent me by my college roommate H. They are astonishingly well-written, first. They catalog events and feelings and people otherwise forgotten, second. (Without this record, which brings them momentarily back into the present--I see things before me as I hold the unfolded note, even twenty or thirty years later. Why, they must have lived inside this shoebox of letters, feeding on these words in the dark all this time.) But third, I saved them because they are unique works of art, made for me, with collages overlayed with rubber stamps, strips of colored paper torn and pasted just so, exquisitely Japanese in their sensibility. She wrote better than she spoke, and she spoke far better than most. Letter-writing is a craft and a discovery for the reader, temporally built, like a sculpture made of words.
As I said, though, now that I no longer receive letters in the mail (except from H. occasionally, bless her; they are beautiful as ever), I am yet not bereft of greatness arriving in the mail. Something arrives that knocks me back: brilliant writing. I can do nothing but attempt to reply in kind. We will go back and forth, and I find that the smarter, the more surprising, are the letters, the better are my responses, too. I never played tennis so well as when faced with an opponent who could cream me in the first three strokes.
I hope my backup program is doing what it is supposed to be doing, and I also hope that backups themselves aren't merely talismans of mystical hope. In other words, I hope to god these virtual letters are truly saved. Although they are private, I wish some could be made public, as some of my friends have written ideas, expressions, humorous riffs, tied together in a dense and perfect whole, one that rivals anything anyone ever set down in print. Perhaps they flew so high because what they wrote was not meant to be judged; yes, I think that must be so. It was meant to convey, as a boat carries its passengers, precious cargo, to the opposite shore. The beautiful sunset glinting off the waves was just something that happened along the way.
Sometimes writing a letter confers a singular closeness between two people, writer and reader. The considered missive has a different quality than the conversation, or the dashed-off message, or the query, or the phone call. It is meant to draw together two minds, two hearts. And it does, in the hands of the best letter writer. It is something that could never be ghostwritten. Only written, just to you.