Author’s note: I originally planned to bring a piece to this month’s Carapace, the reading series here in Atlanta. The prompt: Take inspiration from “Brother, I’m Dying,” a memoir by Edwidge Danticat centering on the lives of her father and her uncle, in Haiti and Brooklyn. I wasn’t able to make it last night, but I read the book and was struck by the themes of communication, and saying (or not saying) what needed to be said. Here’s what I wrote:
I wasn’t much good at sleep-away summer camp. The first year I went, for a four-week session, I cried for roughly 25 days. The second year, I improved slightly, crying for only about 15 days. I didn’t like being away from home.
One of the few joys I got, before I settled down, was getting mail from my parents. Nowadays, you can probably just Snapchat your parents from your bunk. I only got to use “the phone” — the landline in the camp office — once or twice: When my crying jags became so overwhelming and ridiculous that the counselors gave up and let me call home. My usual correspondence was limited to the snail mail (or as it was called, mail) letters and occasional boxes of candy and toys my family sent along, some of which were mailed the day I left, in order to get me my respites quickly.
My mom always wrote by hand, in her elegant, swooping half-cursive. I can still see the big gaps in her e’s and p’s, the dangling tails of her g’s and y’s. She spared no detail in updating me on things at home — what my sister was up to, which homeless person she had either brought home to take a bath or given her old clothes to, how hot the Brooklyn summer was that year.
My dad’s letters were usually typed. My dad’s handwriting is not cute, and sometimes not legible. He tends to write as if he’s running through JFK to make a flight and a TSA agent has reminded him that he needs to excuse my latest absence from school. He writes like he can’t get the pen in his hand to match the speed of his brain. I remember being annoyed that I had to practice cursive in school when no one was grading my dad’s handwriting. It appeared he wanted to be deliberate, and neat, with his notes to me, and so he typed them on his computer at work, even signing them simply,
The letters were often filled with words of wisdom and platitudes about keeping my head up. The messages were short, relative to my mom’s — a paragraph or two, sometimes three if he was feeling wordy. They didn’t delve much into what he was up to. He wanted to talk to me, about me, and he did so, and then it was done.
Now, of course, everything is typed. For the most part, this is okay, even good. There are lots of reasons why typing something is better than writing it by hand. It’s faster, for one. It can be shared with millions of people instantaneously, for two. Here’s another reason I like it: It levels the playing field. Anyone can write something, and, unless they’re really ridiculous and use too many emoji, they are just as legible as anyone else. YouTube comments can look as official as AP reports.
But: When words are typed, what we convey comes just from the words themselves rather than how they are written. (Unless you type in Comic Sans, which tells us you are insane.) Our thoughts and feelings are our own when our fingers hover above the keys, and then the keys are struck and those emotions are transmuted down into a series of symbols that are stripped of what made them “our words” and turns them simply into “words.” Those words lack character, uniqueness, a sense that they originated somewhere off the screen, in the mind and heart of the writer.
Good writers can transmit their feelings through words alone. Not all of us are so talented. Much of what we say isn’t just in what’s said but how we say it: our body language, our tone of voice, and yes, in our handwriting.
In typing, we choose a medium that favors measured and clean lines. But it’s in our handwriting that the truth lies. Sadness, fear, pain, love, excitement, and hope all reside our shaky curves, or deliberate strokes, or crossed-out words replaced by something less troubling, or more authentic, depending on what we’re trying to say.
Like the inflections and rhythms of our voice, the way we write provides the second level of meaning when communicating.
The benefit of hindsight has given me some insight into the differences in my parents’ choice of how to write to me. My mom loves to express herself, to share everything, and her thoughts can spill if given the smallest opportunity. In her handwriting I see her openness and beauty, as well as something she could control. Her manic tendencies couldn’t force her outside the lines of the paper, and so she could be expressive while remaining clear.
My dad has been tasked, for as long as I can remember, with staying reserved, rock solid. He had to deal with a troubled wife, troubled kids, complicated relationships with family, anxiety that could manifest itself in different ways. And in his notes, ostensibly typed to save time and boost clarity, I also see what Edwidge Danticat saw in her own father’s letters back to Haiti:
“The impersonal style of his letters was due as much to his lack of faith in words and their ability to accurately reproduce his emotions as to his caution… The dispassionate letters were his way of avoiding a minefield, one he could have set off from a distance without being able to comfort the victims.”
I would sometimes get irrationally excited when my dad wrote something by hand when I was young. I was envious of his nonchalance and his disinterest in staying between the lines. Maybe it was a relief to me for my dad, who so often kept things to the chest, to just say, I’m not holding back, here’s a thing I wrote. I know it’s been a relief for me in my own life. I’d like to think it was a relief for him too.