Snail mail

20 October 2009

I took a bold step this week and did the unthinkable: I bought some cheap paper and a 100 envelopes, sat down and wrote some letter according to traditional recipe. It took me a long time, because my muscle memory has lost the ability to make all the abstract curves and lines pretty. I  do intend those letter to also be read by the recipient.

I found it surprisingly difficult to compose them, without the reassurance of fast feedback in case of misunderstanding that we have with electronic communications). Because of the effort involved, I found myself taking more “leaps in the dark” and creating much richer and interesting context.. There are some difficulties however, and I want to tackle speed in this post.

In chess by traditional mail,  a game takes many weeks due to the time necessary to communicate moves to the adversary. Chess players, a clever lot, have devised a novel way of making the game progress faster. When the opponent has a limited amount of moves, the player will send two separate instructions. One is the current move, the other contains instructions on the what the sender would do in response to every move action the recipient would undertake in response to the first move. Speed is effectively doubled.

In ordinary letters, this is of course tricky. Open letter B if you feel charmed, C if you feel non-committal. The novelty would wear off soon. So there are traditionally 2 ways of coping with this.

The inelegant way would be to assume the mosr likely (or desired) response from the recipient, and write on with full confidence.

The elegant way, of course, is to make your letter open to interpretation from different types of responses, through the usual tools of irony, double-entendres, allusions and other literary devices. These allow one the ability to say more than usual, with the recipient deciding which of the multiple meanings in the letter was probably intended. This comes with the risk that the receiver is unsure about the intentions of the sender, and will use the same trick in replying. You will end up with simultaneously advancing parallel, ephemeral conversations. Of course, this is not really the solution for the speed issue in the long run. On the other hand, it’s much more fun and challenging, and some new unforeseen possibilities might be discovered on the way…

I think I want to write more letters. Too bad I don’t have an address.