Letters To Your Biographer: Write A Few Before You Go To The Big Archive In The Sky
I am begging you to write a few letters to your biographer before you leave this earthly plane.
You may never have written a letter in your life, or at least not since your second grade teacher decided, as a Learning Experience, you should write to your parents, or Santa Claus, or something equally dweeby.
With the disappearance of personal letters, a biographer will not be able to write a book about you.
I’ve been reading biographies, and in each famous person’s case, letters enlighten the biographer, and are carefully preserved in a library somewhere in the Midwest as insights into the subject’s life.
These letters are saved for scholars and the idle curious who appear to have nothing better to do than read a stranger’s letters, when all they have to do is wait for the book to come out.
The biographer will tell us in the foreword about the hard work that went into the book; that he or she flew to Indiana to search through dusty archives, sneezing all the while, or tromped across North America searching basements or attics for boxes of letters from the Civil War.
Often, the biographer is writing from jail, because they did not have permission to tromp through people’s basements and attics. The boxes of letters they found are, get this, perfectly preserved.
Before you bring on an asthma attack looking through your attic, you should know your boxes do not contain interesting old letters, but are full of rodent droppings and mildewed potholders.
Assuming you have a box of wonderfully preserved letters that have survived numerous moves and rainstorms that flooded the basement, will a biographer be able to decipher the faded, flourished handwriting depicting homey events from the Civil War?
Old letters from a bygone, gentler era, beautifully emoted and carefully composed from people long dead about battles or day-to-day military life, are gold mines of information.
The loved ones at home wanted to know how their dear son was doing in camp. These letters serve to show us that we can still relate to people in other eras:
“Dearest Loved Ones,” a letter from a Civil War soldier may start, “OMG. Life in camp can be quite entertaining. Today, Cook has told us that weevils were found in the flour, but that they have become delightful crunchy additions to the hardtack. LOL! All of us were ROTFL. General Lee was quite astonished at the sight.”
Biographers often spend months trying to decipher what the soldier meant by the strange Civil War initials.
Lucy Maud Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables, wrote dozens of letters to two friends over the years, one of them 74 pages long, full of scrapbook items. Scrapbook items were very important during the Great Letter Writing Era. These items were the digital equivalent of the picture you posted of your dinner.
After delivering Lucy’s letters, Wells Fargo had to retire their ponies and institute limits on the number of scrapbook items people could send in regular mail. For instance, you could no longer mail your child to its grandparents, at least not without extra postage.
Lucy preserved her letters in boxes pending the day the biographer arrived. She knew that one day someone would want to see her letters.
How did her recipients know that these letters would be important later on? Were they just pack rats, and hoped one day to be featured on the show Hoarders?
Did Lucy tell them they’d better save her letters as she planned to be important someday? And, when she did, did they write her a 74 page letter back telling her what they thought of that?
Letters from Louisa May Alcott’s mother written in the 1800s to other people were considered interesting enough to make a book titled My Heart Is Boundless, which was something she’d written in a letter.
When was the last time you wrote a line like that? Was it in an email, explaining why you need an appointment ASAP with your cardiologist? Maybe you wrote something similar in the note you left for the UPS driver, telling him where to leave a package.
“The places you can leave the package are boundless,” you tell him. “Please choose one in this zip code, perhaps even at this address.”
Save this note for posterity, after removing the UPS driver’s chewed wad of gum, and put it in a box in your attic. Your biographer will appreciate your thoughtfulness in not making him remove the gum.
Biographers also tell us that the famous person was compiling their papers to be donated to a library well before they died. They did not start when they were on their deathbeds; no, they began well in advance of the papers being needed.
For instance, Julia Child’s husband donated all his papers to an archive in a university library, and yet who thinks of him when they think of Julia Child?
Let that be a lesson to you: You too could be insignificant and un-famous, just as you are right now, and someday someone may want your letters. (Not infamous; that word is reserved for people who do something so naughty, they wouldn’t commit it to paper.)
Your biographer will want your letters just to point out what a horrendous speller you were, but still. They may even want one of your relative’s letters, like Louisa’s mother. I’d advise you to make sure they’re not writing negative things about you. Just because you stole your cousin’s doll when you were six, is no reason to be reviled in history books.
I’m constantly battling piles of papers, dump any number of them into wastebaskets, and feel smug and virtuous when I’m done. My recent letters are usually to the CEO at some business whose representative has been really dense or snotty, and I’m threatening to take him to court in Las Vegas.
These letters revealed my passionate and fair-minded nature, besides revealing my knowledge of naughty words, but my biographer will never see them because I threw them away.
None of those papers that I threw away were letters from an articulate and intelligent friend who is on the road to being legendary. Not that I don’t have any of those, it’s just that they don’t write letters. I can scarcely get them to answer emails.
Letters have been the subject of our thoughts and songs for many decades. I could compile quite a list of songs with the word “letter” in the title and all of them contain references to someone holding a letter, crying over a letter, dreaming over a letter, kissing the signature, saving bundles of letters tied up in ribbons, or tucked under their pillow, teardrops often blurring the inky words.
Do you have bundles of old computers tied up with ribbons and stored in a box in your attic to dream over, so that later, all your emails can be included in a book about your life? And do just a few of these computers in boxes take up space the size of the British Museum?
It’s difficult to be romantic and reveal your deepest thoughts and emotions to a person in an email, knowing your heartthrob will share it on social media when the two of you break up.
If someone wants to include them in your biography, they will have to boot up all those computers in dusty attics, presuming you haven’t deleted all your emails. In which case, why are you saving all those faded computers?
There’s no need to save all your electronic messages. You’ve probably shared every intimate detail of your life on your “wall”.
The computer generation doesn’t care about privacy. Privacy has taken its rightful place beside the touch tone telephone and the cassette tape deck as Things That Are Vintage.
There will be nothing left to discover about you, much less about a celebrity. We are already subjected 24/7 to their marital disputes, preliminary hearings, and sonograms.
I wrote a letter to my guy every day, as I sat down at my desk before starting work. They weren’t handwritten, which isn’t required for famous person letters, or even for ordinary person letters, but were printed out from the computer. Those letters have disappeared, and my biographer will be the poorer without them.
I wrote and received dozens of letters when I was a girl, up until I was in my early twenties. I have saved some of them, but I threw many away. I would rack my brain trying to find different ways to write letters to my friends when I was in middle and high school.
Once I wrote a letter on toilet paper. It was unused, and was easily flushed so that sensitive information could not be shared.
I’m not sure whether I could find my friends now after all these years, so how is a biographer going to find them and tromp through their dusty attics?
Whether they have dusty attics or not is moot. In Julia’s case, she kept everything. Her biographer found some diaries she’d written as a young woman stored away in the basement.
You must begin now to write letters, so that there will be a reason your biographer was arrested for trespassing and is in jail.
2 thoughts on “Letters To Your Biographer: Write A Few Before You Go To The Big Archive In The Sky”
Most of the older folks (like me) I know are preparing for their eventual demise by burning, shredding (or like me who has no fireplace or shredder – dumping letters in a warm bath for a couple days till the whole bit is one smeary blob to be cast into the communal trash bin) evidence of their colorful pasts. Think I was glad when the digital age made disposal so much less messy. But they say once in the cloud, there forever. Good grief!
Their pasts must be really colorful. Why would you destroy all that great stuff from another era? Kids love hearing about our yewts.