Suburban Soliloquy #45
To someone who doesn't have a written language, the ability to communicate with symbols must appear to be magic. I am in awe of the distinction this ability to write has given our species. This incredible human invention, the ability to store any kind of information outside of the skull-bound memory, has no equal for the power and the meaningfulness it confers on our species. This one achievement makes all other achievements possible. It must be an obvious realization, a cliché of the mind, that many have independently noted the significance of writing and have been struck with wonder.

For the subject of this essay, I want to step back from the purpose of writing and address the physical mechanics of the craft. Although the content, the message, is paramount, I am also fanatically drawn to the ritual and romance of the materials employed. I am an ardent writer of personal letters.

Part of my passion for writing extends beyond content. This isn't to say that content isn't important; it is the prime reason for writing. Scribbling without purpose may as well be the product of automatons. I am fundamentally attracted to the art form because it is so portable, because all you need is a writing instrument and a surface, or, as I think Andrei Codrescu says it, all you need to write is a razor. (If he didn't say it, I'd be happy to lay claim to the remark.) Singing is one art that requires fewer tools.

Unlike this column, which is copied and read by however many, the personal letter is a holograph reserved exclusively to the one in possession of it. A letter can be copied or reproduced, but the original retains a special distinction. Just like a fingerprint, it carries subtle qualities distinct to its author. It is unambiguous proof of a specific individual's existence and testimony. Better than email or the ephemeral telephone call, the letter is artifact. It can become a piece of physical evidence lodged in history. Beyond historical artifact, the letter can serve as an objet d'art, worthy to be a keepsake for the recipient. I don't customarily compose drafts for my letters. Writing by hand is linear. I attempt to string my best words together on the fly. When a sentence is finished, it is a nuisance to improve it, so I press on to the next sentence. The writing of letters to friends is a casual affair of things imperfectly said and revealing of the private me, less guarded. With formal writing, as in this column, I am far more careful with my presentation, conscientious of wanting to appear at my best.

The writing I do here must at some stage of creation be transmitted through a keyboard. For me, writing is a handicraft, not unlike woodworking, and so I prefer holding and manipulating a pen, not pecking at a keyboard. Pencils tend to give me shivers, as with fingernails scratching across a blackboard. Throughout my grade school experience I was always in trouble for using a pen to do math, where those in power demanded I use a pencil. Pencils produce a piffling gray line; I preferred the tactile experience of a fountain pen, where one is pouring a wet, saturated line on to paper.

I am guilty of having a fetish for fountain pens. I'm not actually a collector, but I am unable to walk past one of Manhattan's many pen shops without stepping in and browsing. I receive pen catalogues through the mail. I've been known to hang out at the message board of a fountain pen web site: I attend pen shows when they are within a hundred miles of home. If I had the money, I suppose I would collect fountain pens, but it would be with the money left over after collecting fine press books.

At the desk in my study, I have a half-dozen beloved fountain pens at the ready. The last letter I wrote was to a friend who is a bachelor. For stationery, I used the back of a vintage calendar from the 1940s, cheesecake lithographs of pinup girls. Because several of the people I've been recently writing are singers and musicians, I have been manufacturing my own envelopes from sheet music, Mozart's scores of his last symphonies, and using the recently issued stamp of Leonard Bernstein. I have been known to write my letters on the backs of place mats, but also on handmade sheets from the paper mills of Cartiera F. Amatruda in Amalfi, Italy.

As I compose this essay, the price of postage here in the United States is up to thirty-four cents for the first ounce. There are some who complain about the high price of stamps, but I remain astonished that it is so cheap. For less than the cost of a candy bar, I can send a one ounce letter across this wide continent in about three days.

Before we met, Ms Keogh and I had a mutual friend, and to this friend I wrote often. He shared my postcards and letters with her. He introduced her to my poetry. When at last she was introduced to the poet himself, she was extremely disappointed. She had imagined me tall and slender, with a shock of dark hair and not so plump and bald. I was probably also a bit jollier than one who is expected to suffer for their art. Nevertheless, we became friends and because she enjoyed my letters, she asked if I would write to her, if she were to write to me. I was surprised and delighted. So it was that I, who puts his heart into the written word, struck up a correspondence with Ms Keogh, and inadvertently seduced Ms Keogh, even as her letters were seducing me.

Somewhere those letters are tucked away for us to rediscover and peruse in the future. It will be interesting to see when the reporting of events and philosophical discourse gave way to an amorous tone. When did our correspondence become billets-doux?

Our romance began almost twenty years ago with those letters. But once we were together, the letters stopped. Ms Keogh had complained about being deprived of my letters, a tremendous disappointment to her. She had been jealous of the many letters I write to others. But recently, the matter has been rectified. She has taken up the pen and began writing to me again, addressing her letters to me at my place of employment. And be assured, I am responding in kind.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the forty-fifth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
For further reading, Mr Bentzman's book "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman" is available from Amazon.