Before I became a fulltime writer, my favorite jobs were secretarial. I didn’t know shorthand, but I was a fast and accurate typist; and my bosses soon learned that instead of dictating very...verrrrry.... slowwwwwly....., it was more efficient to tell me what they wanted to say, let me compose the letter, then make their minor corrections and have me retype it. I loved opening and sorting mail (authorized snooping!) and I adored filing. Bringing order to chaos.
No wonder the mystery form so appealed to me when I did begin writing. In fact, my first novel, One Coffee With (now an eBook!), was loosely based on my experience as the secretary to the chair of the art department at a NYC college.
I ordered my very first file cabinet from a Sears, Roebuck catalog soon after we moved back to the States. Four drawers, steel construction, $39 plus tax. I emptied out all the cardboard boxes labeled “Bank Records,” “Taxes,” and “Guarantees and Instructions” and spent a happy week sorting them into manila folders. One drawer was devoted to letters from friends. And because I had friends and relatives strewn up and down the East Coast, I began saving carbons of my letters to them so I could keep it straight as to whom I’d written about what and not repeat myself. As long as I was typing anyhow, a carbon copy was no extra trouble. (Some of you may never have seen carbon paper nor used a manual typewriter. Get your grandmother to describe them to you.) My letters became my journals.
Three years later, I had begun to write and sell short stories. Because I kept all my submissions and rejections, I had to buy a second file cabinet.
A few years after that, I needed a third. I had become vice-president and then president of Sisters in Crime during its formative, contentious period. I believed in openness and paper trails and I kept copies of everything. Same when I joined the MWA national board in another contentious period. My personal detailed records helped clean up a rather messy situation that would have dragged out longer without them.
After 28 novels and 5 or 6 dozen short stories, my current office has 31 file drawers. I’m hoping they will see me out. All the SinC files have gone to the SinC archives at Douglass College in New Jersey and several feet of files—rough drafts, speeches, and business correspondence—have gone to UNC-Greensboro. Lots of empty drawer space, right?
Not really. Our son is a father himself now, yet I still have the instructions for putting the training wheels on his first bike. I keep telling myself I need to start culling, but he was so cute on that little bike and my mechanically-challenged husband was pretty cute, too, when he turned the air blue trying to fix a broken chain. When our first video camera malfunctioned two weeks before the warranty expired, I produced the warranty and saved us the cost of a new one.
I now have nine drawers of letters: four for mystery writers, two for NC writers, three for friends and family who don’t fall into the first two categories. I have witty, funny friends and some of the friendships go back to childhood. It’s impossible to keep all their eMails but if an interesting or amusing thread pops up, I admit that I’ll print it out and pop it into the appropriate folder.
When friends were celebrating their 25th anniversary several years ago, I dug out the letter the wife had sent me around the time of their fifth anniversary. She was so much in love and so sure that the marriage was going to last forever. I sent the original to their children who were putting together an album for them. Another twenty-five years later, she still gets tears in her eyes when she tells people about seeing that letter again for the first time.
Next to a good mystery novel, my favorite books are letters, but I have to wonder if we’re nearing the end of that literary form. Back in the age of pen and ink, so many wonderful letters were tossed into the nearest wastebasket or used to
start a fire or thrown out in ignorance by the heirs. In our electronic age, what will survive to take their place? Will a biographer offer a telephone bill with a date circled to indicate that this was a conversation between two important world leaders? Will 140-letter tweets replace the long letters Flannery O’Connor or Edna Millay or Raymond Chandler wrote?
Will we care?
If you could retrieve one single letter from the past, yours or some historical figure’s, which would it be?