The First Letter

I am combining a number of things in this post. In the traditional academic world we might call this cheating, I hope that in the DS106 world we might call it creative. 

We have been reading Alone Together on DS106 Book club and it has challenged my views about how I use technology in my life. The detail of that is for elsewhere, but here I wanted to tell you the story behind the gif I created with Vine this morning.

Does it count as a gif given it was totally painless?

At least, once I had decided on the composition and yes I had to record it several times to get the effect I had in mind. So, here is the story that goes with the flow of written paper above.

The book tells us, amongst many other things, that we may need to attend a little more to the tangible. I have been having a tough time with a friend and reflecting on that after reading the book I realise our difficulties are to do with our conversations having transferred to texting almost exclusively. This has led to many misunderstanding which we then have tried to solve with more texting. It was only when reading about the allure yet inherent dissatisfaction we experience with virtual communications that I realised that my friend and I needed to reclaim the conversational frontier as Sherry Turkle, the author of the book, tells us.

Just as I was about to send a text to tell her this (No, I am not kidding), it occurred to me that one way to put into practice the book’s ideas would be to write her a letter. A letter that explained my insights from the book and how I saw them connecting to our difficulties – we have both been dissatisfied about the alone together nature of our friendship of late but have not been able to name the frame. 

It took a lot of conscious effort to choose this path. Many an excuse came to mind for not doing it and yet it felt an important developmental experiment precisely because I was resistant to doing it. 

So after coming back from walking the dog around the farm, I set out to write (what felt like) my very first letter. 

I would have liked some lovely stationary, like what I used to have in the days many moons ago when I set aside whole days just to write letters to friends and family. Paper is not an easy find in my ideologically paper-free household. I have been heard to say many times ‘Paper is so yesterday!’ as many friends would confirm. Eventually I tracked an old pad, not an ipad. Pen was simpler as I have continued to love buying them, if not using them. 

Bringing mindfulness to the process showed me that I felt very different as I set out to write a letter to my friend from how I feel typing this post. A key difference seems to be a sense of urgency and get it done here versus a sense of space and engagement with my relationship as I sat in front of the empty page. 

It was a new feeling, something I had not felt for a long time.

I understand now why architects continue to draw by hand and why Sherry Turkle says we need to be purposeful in finding these spaces where we bring up ourselves by ourselves – spaces where we are alone with our thoughts in a task prevented from clicking or ‘nexting’ to the next new shiny thing. 

I have a strong meditation practice and can sit in meditation for hours. This is different. It seems to me that this was about being alone with the task at hand, reliant only on your memories and ‘forgettings’; unable to rely on the life browser that is our computer. It felt vulnerable. It felt other. I had forgotten the experience of writing in terms of habits of mind, though I spend my life writing in terms of task. 

Vulnerable? yes. I had no spell checker, so the letter will clearly have spelling mistakes. I had no backspace key, so I had to think about what I was writing. This made the process much more embodied and engaged. The most difficult thing to overcome was handwriting itself; I have not written a long letter or anything else for a long time. The physical process of writing itself felt like a speaking a foreign language – even though I am fluent in Italian, I have to concentrate and focus on simple things like buying bread when I go back to Florence, an old stomping ground from student days, after a long absence. 

The advantage of this limitation is that all that exists in the moment is that moment. In the writing of my letter, all there was was the letter and my friend. I feel like the letter I wrote was the highest quality time I have spent with my friend in a long time; no split attention, reflecting on my reading and how our friendship may improve as a result of what I have learnt. Alone with my own thoughts, my own connections and limited memories.

I plan to reinstate letter writing day in my life. I will stop sending e-cards even if that seems easy and more beautiful. I will choose to sit with my friends and focus on just them through pen and paper…until the next time I am seduced by a new app that promises to give my friends a much better experience than my boring old letter could ever do.