This is a book that attempts to help you say the right thing when you have no time and no ideas.
There’s no right way to use this book. The book itself does not represent 100% correct responses to frequent puzzling situations, merely my take on an attempt to be humane and respond. These responses to human events were written in the spirit of the American books of manners, popular during the late Victorian era, which counselled the anxious and socially sensitive on what to say in a letter, whether you need to decline an offer of marriage or chide a friend for missing an appointment. The writers of those works humbly submitted their words for your use. If you didn’t like what was there, you could adapt it, without having to spend too much time on a first draft.
Not everyone is eloquent. Most people either want to be, or think they already are — until such time as they are confronted with writing a sympathy note and realize that a dove grey card with a fake-handwriting font — in and of itself — won’t be much comfort to your friend.
With the advent of the internet, the act of writing anything by hand or assistive device, and sending or giving it as a physical object to someone, is on the path to becoming a radical act. Letters are the first kind of self-publishing there ever was, if you think about it, one mind to another mind, or more. I know that in my family, in centuries past, letters, once they had been scanned for anything young ears should not hear, were often read aloud for the whole family – and were re-read often – as an acceptable family entertainment.
Anything hand-written is personal — and a small, comforting foxhole during our continued bombardment by advertising and screen-delivered content. The technology supporting screen-delivered content is powerful and useful in helping everyone, and especially marginalized individuals and colonized peoples, giving them a chance to communicate their practical, cultural and emotional truths – but there is something wonderful about getting a real note, letter or card in the mail.
The advancement of women into the workplace has diminished the time available for adults to write notes. There are men who carry out voluminous correspondences, but for social communications, it’s not the way to bet. You can, if you’re a man, dodge one of the worst bits of the gender binary by sending people letters more often than you do now.
We make time for the things that are important, and if social media is how we balance our social books and keep in touch with people, so be it. If a fascist regime were to shut down Facebook (as of 2021, a large social media company with more than a billion individual accounts), which sounds like a quaint thing to say given the contortionate bends the company has put itself through to support organizations hostile to democracy and civil rights, we’d all be forced back into handwritten notes. Were that to occur, they’d be normative again, which I find grimly amusing. Knowing that, I also know that this book may become relevant at any time.
When someone you love has experienced something good, bad, unusual or surprising, you might want to write a note but have no clear idea what to say. So you don’t say anything.
We fear to give offence less than we fear looking stupid, as I judge things, but both come into play when we don’t write the small, kind note. Another act of civility, solidarity and humanity, something we’ve had as a species for nigh 5,000 years, vanishes into the ether.
A friend or loved one may be facing circumstances that demand acknowledgement and some permanent sign that they were loved and witnessed during a non-trivial moment — whether it was one of elated triumph or terrible loss. You will not likely be holding that Facebook page in your hand in twenty years’ time. People may have responded with kindness to your distress in their comments, but if you don’t print that out (at some cost), there’s no guarantee it will be there when you’re having a bad day. Whether you’re sending or receiving, notes are good.
You may be a person who keeps the handwritten letters you received, because they are precious. Paper burns, and feeds silverfish, but it also lasts. Ask the people you love for their mailing addresses. It makes me uneasy how many people do not have alternate means of finding each other except via Facebook. If the internet ails or crashes for any length of time, as it may, you’ll need to know where your friends are, and keep that info close to hand. Most of us don’t do it; not a wise state of affairs.
I hope I’ve put you in a mind to shift that task closer to the top of the list.
This book is the pair of glasses you keep to find your real glasses, your belt in case you broke your suspenders, your friendly nudge to sit with remembering your friends when you’re stuck in one place, to reach out to them. I would like this book to be yours so you are reminded to think: which of my friends could use a kind word?
Then the hard part, assembling the address book (a physical one), the pen, the cleared surface, the words, an envelope, a stamp. If we’re close by, then popping it under a door. My advice is to keep all that stuff in one place, your satchel if you have one, the junk drawer if you don’t.
Keep this book in a junk drawer. It won’t mind. Close to the stamps is good.