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The art of letter-writing and words that make worlds


Last month in New York, I saw Martin Crimp’s adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. James McAvoy plays the soldier and poet Cyrano, who has agreed to compose love letters for a young cadet who is in love with the beautiful Roxanne, but ungifted in verse. Cyrano has secretly been in love with Roxanne for years but fears rejection because of his physical appearance — his big nose.

I’ve always loved this play, written in 1897 by French playwright Edmond Rostand, and have seen many versions over the years. I’m drawn less to the love story and lessons about inner and outer beauty, and more to the centre stage it gives to the theme of communication. It always gets me thinking about how we express our thoughts and feelings to one another, whether colleagues, friends, lovers, admirers or even strangers.

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In this age of texts and social media direct messages, it is worth thinking about how we communicate with one another, and the cumulative effect this can have on the quality of our relationships and connections.

The thickly oiled painting “Michel’le at Wayla” is by the 30-year-old Atlanta-based artist Gerald Lovell, and is currently on show at the Anthony Gallery, Chicago. Lovell considers painting “an act of biography”, and holds that “not all black figures put down on canvas are political” — sometimes they are just scenes from a person’s life.

The young woman in the painting sits in a restaurant at a table with other people. She has a phone in one hand, maybe texting with her thumb. It is a warm, vibrant painting that exudes a youthful, carefree air. The mustard yellow of the woman’s hat plays off the lemon- and caramel-coloured drinks on the amber-stained table and chairs. Twinkling white yellow lights set off the greens across the canvas.

The woman’s attention is split between the phone in her hand and the people at the table, which feels emblematic of how many of us communicate these days. We steal a few seconds online while already in communion with other people, or while doing other things. We find it natural to divide our attention between multiple things, all the while surrounded by noise and distractions. I don’t say this as a judgment, but simply as an observation. It is rare to find someone who doesn’t do this.

Though it might appear to be efficient, this way of communicating tempts us to keep real dialogue at bay, and to bypass slower, more thoughtful considerations of engaging with one another. On our little screens we offer bite-sized morsels of our thoughts and feelings, and expect other people to feel adequately addressed, or imagine they will somehow flesh out the rest.

But the reality of communication is that, regardless of intention, how we say a thing can directly affect how others receive it, in ways that affect how they respond to us in kind. Who can’t relay a story where a message sent via instant messaging was lost in translation, and resulted in a lengthy conversation to undo misunderstandings?

Communicating this way does not always save time. Nor does the frequency of our texts and messages necessarily equate to building intimacy or nurturing relationships. These devices and apps are just tools for communicating with one another. And in using them, we often seem to run on autopilot. Maybe we have lost sight of the fact that while they have a valuable role in communicating certain types of information, they are not a catch-all for all the types of conversation we want and need to have with one another. It sometimes seems as though more thoughtful ways of communicating with others is a dying art.

The means of communication in Cyrano de Bergerac is letter-writing, which seems to most people today an antiquated practice. Why, with all our responsibilities, take the time to hand-write letters when it’s so much faster to write an email or to send a barrage of texts?

A painting of a young woman with dark hair, and wearing a white jacket and long pink skirt, sitting at a small round table writing a letter
‘The Letter’ (undated) by Federico Zandomeneghi © Alamy; private collection

Searching for paintings depicting people reading or writing letters, we often have to travel to another historical time period. The 19th-century Italian impressionist Federico Zandomeneghi was an admirer of the work of American painter Mary Cassatt, whose work often focused on the quotidian intimacies of women’s lives. Zandomeneghi painted several depictions of women and children in the middle of their daily routines, a number of which were of women reading or writing letters, each painting suggesting a certain emotion or mood of the letter bearer.

In his undated work “The Letter”, a woman sits with legs crossed, leaning over a small round table writing a letter. Her left hand rests contemplatively on her chin and her right hand holds a pen poised at the top of a small blank sheet of white paper. Even though it is a tight scene with just her body, the delicate wooden chair and the table framed by the canvas, there’s an air of space and freedom suggested by the flowing movement of her clothing and her loosely held rope of hair falling off her left shoulder. She has space and a pocket of time set aside to reflect, to say what she means to say and find how to say it.

I’ve been a letter-writer since I was in elementary school. It started when I was 10, with a fifth-grade friend who lived in America while I was in Côte d’Ivoire. We wrote to each other throughout our college years, slipping photographs in the envelopes from time to time. When I was at boarding school in England as a teenager, I wrote letters to my parents and to my friends around the world.

It was, and remains, something I have to set aside intentional time for. A letter can’t be written while you’re walking, or eating dinner, or on a bathroom break from a meeting, or watching television. It requires you to be still and to take the time to gather your thoughts. It requires you to slow down. And when we do slow down, our thoughts have a chance to slow down too, and to sort themselves out. We have space to note and consider our feelings, and time to consider how to choose our words.

Researchers suggest that writing by hand has a wide range of benefits, from stimulating neural activity in the brain that can lead to a meditative state, to boosting creativity and our ability to make connections between ideas, to stimulating learning and improving our memory. I am not suggesting that letter-writing is the key to faultless communication, but it is a practice that helps to foster a clarity of thought before we speak things out into the world. Even if we never post the letter, it will probably have informed our thinking and feeling about the person to whom the letter was addressed.

Yet in the art and challenge of communication, so much happens in the space between the words. The 1981 painting “Conversation”, by the late Jamaican artist Barrington Watson, is a powerful illustration of this idea. Three Jamaican women dressed in simple skirts and headscarves fill the width and length of the canvas. Rural women on a break from the day’s labour, their buckets beside them, they each rest their weight on one leg, hips out, and each is casting their eyes to a point beyond our vision. It’s titled “Conversation”, but no one’s lips seem to be moving.

Still, there is a definite mood portrayed. There are surely things to be said, but each woman’s posture is determined, almost defiant, as if waiting to see who will make the first move to sharing what’s on her mind. The hands on the hips and the crossed arms could be read as a stubborn refusal to be the first to speak up, to show signs of vulnerability or concern.

A painting of three black women, all wearing similar skirts and headscarves, taking a break from work for a chat
‘Conversation’ (1981) by Barrington Watson © National Gallery of Jamaica; © estate of Barrington Watson

This picture reminds me that the silences we keep, the things we don’t say, can communicate as much as the things we do. Sometimes our silences confuse or fracture relationships, because no one can read minds, and we are left to fill in the blank spaces with our own often incorrect narratives. And sometimes, it can be wiser and kinder to remain quiet until we are clear on what we desire our words to convey, in both meaning and effect. To pause from communicating can create the space to determine how we want a relationship to develop further. Words make worlds. And how we use them powerfully shapes the worlds we create between us. 

Enuma Okoro is a New York-based writer and columnist for FT Life & Arts. Email her at enuma.okoro@ft.com

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