I have become an abysmal letter writer ever since the advent of e-mail. My notes have become choppy, and I edit them all over the place. They're no longer organic, and rarely reflect what is actually going on in my life. I became painfully aware of this as I started reading A Life In Letters, the collection of letters written by M.F.K. Fisher to friends and relatives over the course of 60 years. They are impressively lengthy, detailed recollections of her life, a diary in intimate conversation with another human being. It made me gasp to see how much attention she gave to each person she was writing. It reminded me of letters I've received in the past, where I can feel the person breathing through the paper, letters that warm me to come across years later. It reminded me how good writing letters can be. And it reminded me to buy stationery.
I have decided that at this stage of my life I am as obviously a letter-writer as other people may be alcoholics or benzedrine-boys.
- M. F. K Fisher
Two days ago I set out to do just that. I owed a letter to my grandmother. I have a drawer at home filled with notecards, birthday cards, and thank-you cards, but none of these seemed appropriate. Too designed. Too small. Too occasion-specific. I needed a clean slate, several pieces of pure, blank paper. So I set out for the stationers. When I was young, I used to love going to the stationers. The pens and paper all seemed so peaceful, dormant, yet full of potential energy: pens waiting to be emptied, paper waiting to be filled. I never got over the habit of buying a multitude of pens and notebooks, even if I had unused pens and notebooks already lying around at home. But I hadn't bought stationery in years. I walked into the store, and was confronted immediately with my first dilemma: what color stationery do I buy?
I limited myself to the unembellished sale stationery, in the hopes of making the decision a bit less traumatic, but there were still enough choices to make that I had to stand around a bit longer than is normal for people to stand around staring at paper. These were my thoughts: Is grey too depressing? Is bright white over-confident? After walking around the store for half an hour, I finally settled on cream white, which I still think was a cowardly choice. Cream white is safe. Cream white is M.O.R. No one will really know who I am if I write them with cream white stationery. Joan Didion, for instance, uses stiff, pale blue note cards with her name embossed in silver at the top. Which I think just screams Joan Didion. (I found this out not by searching for "Joan Didion" and "stationery," but just through a general search on what the color of stationery says about you. Don't think I'm that obsessed.)
What color am I? Steel blue with a two grey pinstripes down the left margin? Bright white with my name in Courier Black? Who knows, I could even turn out to be pink.
But then I got home, took out my cream white sale stationery, and I sat down to write. The sensation of pen to paper wiped my insecurities away. The color of the stationery didn't matter. I turned to Emily Post and channeled M.F.K. to get me through the first paragraph, past the delicate "thank-you" part, and, if I may say so, I wrote the perfect letter to my grandmother. I don't know if I'm a letter-writer yet quite the way M.F.K. seems to be, and I need to find more people to practice on so that my grandmother doesn't become exhausted with my news, but I hope to work damned hard at it. Some day soon, I might even settle on a color.