Not everyone writes, or writes much. Writing is not the distinctive expression of the self, for everyone. But I am close to some people whose voices in writing capture who they are, and their writing moves me, more than their presence does, sometimes. We can be bored together in person, but when we choose to write, and share our writing with another, when we write about something urgent and pressing—the self comes through. And I treasure those selves shared with me in writing. This is why we feel we know great writers, whether they write about themselves or not—their distinctive, crucial voice feeds us, and we know them.
I have written about reading my own journals from age 12 on up, and how my voice is essentially the same over all these decades. And I have written about my daughter’s first grade journal, and how thrilling it is to hear that familiar voice, through phonetic spelling and simple sentences. There are others whose written voices have brought me close.
My friend Lena and I became friends gradually in person, cautiously spending more and more time together, becoming housemates, but the summer after we first lived together we began writing letters. I recently reread one of her letters from that first summer, 1980, and there she was, the same person I have loved for over forty years. The letter was full of soul-searching, as letters from 20-year-olds often are, and I remembered that earnest friend, and how our closeness thrilled and relieved me. Here was someone who poured herself out to me in letters as I did with her. She moved to Japan and we kept up the writing, tiny words filling aerograms and onion skin paper in air mail envelopes. We’d talk on the phone every month or so, counting the minutes, which ticked off their price as we gabbed on. Today we live near enough to see each other regularly, and once in a while I email her and it feels familiar, that writing voice writing to her. The me that she loved and accepted. And I can’t throw away her letters because there she is, then and now.
When my mother died, I called her cousin in Wyoming to let her know. I had never met her, but when I went through my mother’s address book, calling people I remembered her mentioning as important, I knew I had to call Cousin Jane. Jane knew all about me, from my mother’s letters and long phone calls. She knew my mother’s version of me, a beloved, accomplished daughter. Now and then other cousins send me letters my mother wrote to them, and I get to hear from my mother again, in her letter writing voice, and she is so alive to me.
My first love and I were separated by an ocean early in our time together, and he wrote magnificent, witty, searching letters. He wrote his way further into my heart, and I felt I knew him even better when we came together again. Whole courtships can be conducted by letter, and have been. I missed his voice when we broke up, and I still have those letters.
So many voices fill me up.