I recently evacuated a storage bin of books and papers and came across a few boxes of letters that pertained to my publishing; letters from editors, to editors (carbon paper, anyone?), marketing folks, publicity, from teachers and librarians, friends.
For those not familiar with letters, I speak not of computer fonts, but exchanges, written on paper. Sometimes, gasp! written by hand.
These days, I use e-mail every day, all the time. It is instant communication, it is usually brief, to the point. It moves things along fast.
Old letters—communications—were often slow to arrive, often over-written, took time to read, and to absorb.
They were usually typed (remember typewriters?) and in their way, short essays. There were some really good letter-writers, and it was considered a form of literature. You may find published collections of letters. For some research I’m doing, on my desk, right now, is a collection of letters from Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) one of the founders of renaissance humanism. There are collections of letters by Lincoln, John Steinbeck, Virginia Wolff, and so on.
And they were (are) interesting. I doubt if anyone will publish The Collected E-Mails of, well, anyone.
But what my own mailbag of publishing past (as I suspect, would be the case for other writers) reveals, is a different world, a world of personality, characters, and thoughts, composed thought. “What would you think about…?” “I’ve been considering…” “I’ve mulled over your ideas for a while and….” “I have to admit I don’t find …..”
It all comes across as much more of an interchange between people working towards an understanding, of creation. And the personalities of editors, market folk, editorial assistants come across, people who have thoughts and ideas that they need to share, are there to read. With time for personal asides: “Yesterday I saw our old mutual friend….” “I’ve been reading….” “By chance, last week I …..”
Because I’ve been in publishing for a while, I’m often asked what’s the difference between what is, and what was. By looking at these old letters I find that the work of creating a book was much more about shared creativity (and life) more than the mere making of a book. No doubt slower. Less about getting the book done. More about getting the book right. More about working together.
And emotions. Not long ago I was working on a book with an editor for quite a long while. When it was done, I felt compelled to ask (because I did not know), “What do you feel about the book?”
Maybe the “e” in e-mail stands for “empty.”