Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Every Time I Tried To Tell You, The Words Just Came Out Wrong

Reading about Philip Larkin's letters in the weekend's paper set me thinking about my own letters. Presumably I will have to do or write something of worth before anyone deigns to publish mine (or indeed desires to read them) but given that I put more time into my correspondence than I do most anything else, I'll be hard pushed to find the time.

I love written communication. Always have. It's the only way I feel I can properly express myself, be that expression good, bad, or mildly indifferent. I wonder, though, would my collected works reflect on me as Larkin's did on him? His Selected Letters saw him branded an “emotionally-retarded misanthropist”. I wouldn't want to be one of those (I looked "misanthropist" up) though I suspect I might well be on most Tuesday mornings. I don't get to write letters all that often any more, but my collected texts, google chats and emails amount to a substantial body of work. Or evidence, depending on your point of view. O'Driscoll's article in the Irish Times centres on Letters to Monica, which shows Larkin in a far more favourable light. It's a collection of his letters to his love. Not necessarily love letters, mind, but letters to someone he could be honest with, if not true to. Those are the letters of mine I'd like collected.

I remember writing to my mother as a child. Not happy little missives that you'd stick to the door of the fridge, but heartfelt little letters about sads and sorries. I remember leaving them on her pillow, with the timidly passive-aggressive tenderness of a ten-year-old child. I've never been very good at letting someone know if they've hurt me. Instead, I apologise to them and hope that they'll say sorry right back, and mean it. It doesn't really work, and though I still do it, I recognised that even then and wrote the deepest of my sads down. I hope she hasn't kept those letters.

Genuinely apologising when I've more than good reason to sticks in my craw too. They made up the rest of my letters to my long-suffering and endlessly patient mother. "I'm hurt" and "I'm sorry". What a legacy. I wouldn't mind if she'd kept the remorseful ones. I'm sure those sorries were hard-won out of me, and well-deserved. I only remember writing one to my dad, when I was 14. I outlined (in bullets numbered 1-10) the reasons I should be allowed to dye my hair. I wanted his permission so badly and was so emotionally invested in his response that it just seemed easier to write to him than to ask. He got it though. He still does. He told a story at my wedding and referred to my writing as my "gift". "Her magic with words found expression not through pen onto paper but into the mystical world of the web. No Maude Gonne, but yet perhaps she had something of what Yeats described as “the burning cloud” in her presence. Her anonymous words reached out for contact into the new world of virtual reality, virtual friends and virtual possibilities" he said. I sniffed, and so did the table of bloggers across the room who knew what he was on about.

My first boyfriend and I wrote to one another twice weekly. We were 15, he lived in Clondalkin and I in Kilkenny. Our relationship was made up of maudlin moments on railway platforms and miserable ones in the Bus Éireann shelter on the Naas dual carraigeway. Our letters were long, banal and tortured in the way that lust-sick teenage letters are. I've kept them, sellotaped up in a shoebox in one of my parents' cupboards. Even though he dumped me, took me back, dumped me again, took up with one of my friends, dumped her and then ran away to join the circus Garda Síochána, I kept them. I wonder did he keep mine? I'd say so. I was 18 when we broke up, and I haven't read his letters again since. I'm not sure that I will or that I would ever want anyone else to, but I won't throw them out. I didn't love him (though I'm sure I thought I must at the time) and I don't believe he ever loved me, but he was a much gentler critic of my teenage self than I could ever be, and if someday I read his letters, I might like her a little more for who she was and me, now, for who I am.

My next boyfriend lived up the road. It didn't last so long, though still it lasted longer than it should have. I didn't keep so much as a card from him, and I'm not sure he ever wrote me one worth keeping. Nor did I write him any letters. I've written love letters since, though. The first time I said "I love you", I wrote it down. On some sleeve notes for a mix tape. I know. I dunno if he kept them, the notes and the tape, but I hope so. I'd abandoned the tortured banality of my teens by that time, and opted instead for handwritten, heartfelt, signed-and-dated simplicity. I'd like to think that piece of my heart's still hidden in a sock drawer somewhere.

Not all of my correspondence is so hopelessly heartfelt and romantic, of course. There's a million mundane notes about picking up milk and putting out bins. Of Larkin's letters to his love, Dennis O'Driscoll writes that "work-related philippics are frequent". I had to look up what "philippic" meant, but my own correspondence yields similar tirades. “How little our careers express what lies in us, and yet how much time they take up” said Larkin. "Pussycat is on the verge of a nervous collapse and would rather be hit by a truck than have to come to work any more" said me, in my text to Andrew at 3.45pm yesterday.

"Send your 16-year-old self a tweet" twittered Shane Hegarty in the same supplement of the weekend's paper. The world probably doesn’t need another piece gasping at how awesome The Twitter is, I think, but here we go again, and I read his article anyway because I like Shane Hegarty and though part of me wants to caution him as one might a child who's sat too close to the telly, another part of me is willing him to convince me of Twitter's merits. He doesn't succeed, not this time anyway. Instead, he gets me thinking of these letters I write to myself, published by my own vanity press, to be read by you and reread by me too, my personal public correspondence.

9 comments:

Kitty Cat said...

It sounds like your Dad has a beautiful way with words and all. My favourite things I've ever gotten from The Bear are easily the handwritten notes and cards. Hands down.

emordino said...

Sniffed, and then stuffed my face with Skittles to hide it. Good times.

Annie said...

The blogging bit was my favourite part of all the wedding speeches. Good times indeed.

Conan Drumm said...

Great meditation on a theme, Rosie. A publisher, of whatever kind, should be paying you money.

I developed an early letter-writing expertise, and built on it when I was sent away to school. Which reminds me that the first piece of 'paid' writing I did was a letter home in the style of a death notice (complete with blacked margins) because no one had written to me for a few weeks. Guilt money flowed in the post by return.

Rosie said...

he does, Kitty. turns out he'd workshopped the same speech some weeks before and made all of the other class participants cry. and ditto your sentiments about the notes and cards, though they're facing stiff competition from my new Lost box set.

Colm, Annie, i loved that i could point to your table as evidence that my friends from the internets are real and not just in my head. or on my 'puter.

i feel better about my letters to my mam having read that, Conan. i'd say you still pen the odd letter of lovely, do you?

i watched a programme on RTÉ the other night about two irish people who died when the tsunami hit Koh Phi Phi in 2004, and one of the stories Barry Murphy told was of how his girlfriend Éilis Finnegan had given him a letter as a christmas present, the day before the tsunami hit. he got to read the letter just the once, and the following day lost it and Éilis to the tsunami. my heart broke for him, for her, and for how lucky he was to have gotten to read it even once before she died.

Au Lapin Blanc said...

I also sniffed and not because I am sitting beside a window my colleague refuse to close that is pumping cold air into my face abruptly.

Lovely post as usual m'dear.

Rosie said...

thanks, Squidpiss.

the dublinista said...

Simply charming, as always.

Tessa said...

I still have all the love letters and family letters I've received, although, as to the former, I'm not sure why I bothered. For someone who loves words, I had a perverse gift for picking semi-literate boyfriends. (I still cringe when I remember the pick-up line of one: "So ya like readin'? Me too. I do devour bukes." Fortunately, he never wrote me a letter.)

My heartfelt screeds to boyfriends were mostly answered with a few sentences on lined paper. But my Dad's letters were definitely worth keeping, although he did not have anything like your father's way with words. But they were dry and funny and I have them still. (A la Conan, I once wrote to him from boarding school, snarkily reminding him of my existence, only to get his response that he'd have written earlier, but he was busy burying his father. Gulp.)