When did you last receive a letter that made you genuinely happy - in the post, I mean, a physical letter?
Not hate mail (as I tend to think of it) from the bank or the government but a letter from a pal, or beloved relative?
Hello, John-Paul Flintoff here. This is my ::Everyday Writing:: newsletter, which you probably signed up for at some point.
I've received some terrific letters recently, and I'm not talking about Christmas cards-with-letters-inside. I'm talking about straightforward letters. January letters.
I was going to write, "I've been lucky enough to receive" those January letters, but perhaps it wasn't luck, because most of them were sent in reply to letters I had sent first.
I realised late last year that I could hardly bear to watch my entire life being digitised, and urgently needed to bung some physical reality around the place.
Then, as if by divine command, my daughter gave me a book of author's letters for Christmas (Chekhov, Jane Austen, those lot). Sensational!
It prompted me to hoik from my shelves the collected letters of (among others) Virginia Woolf, Lord Byron, PG Wodehouse, Charles Lamb. By gosh they're good.
(Woolf pic by me.)
After dipping into these books - and please follow along carefully, because this is technically complex - I got a pen and a blank sheet of paper and I wrote with one upon the other, and I folded the other into a third item, an envelope, and attached a fourth, a portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, then delivered the complete work into the gaping mouth of a red letter box.
In some cases, I additionally enclosed a physical copy of what had previously appeared only digitally, as an earlier edition of this newsletter you're reading.
That's right: I printed up an email newsletter as a signed, limited edition A6 booklet.
(Newsletter laid out as a booklet.)
I was pleased with the finished result and felt a bit like Virginia Woolf setting up a printing press in her home, Hogarth House, calling it the Hogarth Press, and publishing her own books.
What do I mean by saying "by gosh they're good" about the collected letters of those authors? Well, much of the pleasure comes from the natural way in which they wrote, perhaps because they were writing to one particular reader. This distinguishes the writing from so much that we read today, the great majority of it addressed to potentially the whole wide world (including, now I think about it, this email).
For several weeks, I've laid low on social media because I was so thrilled to have the experience of writing just for so-and-so, and hearing back precisely from so-and-so. Dwelling in that small (and slow) world, believe it or not, has been terrifically exciting.
The lack of immediate response made a welcome change from the instant ping! of a text-message reply. In some cases, it took several days for people to get my letters, let alone send one back.
Another thing I have been pondering in my short spell lying low is whether or not to come off certain social media platforms, forever. It's tempting. I think I will probably stay, but be (even) more thoughtful about how I use them, which ones, and how often.
I read a fascinating article recently pointing out that people aren't meant to talk as much as we do. The dominant container for modern social life, wrote Ian Bogost in The Atlantic, is social media; and online life is all about maximising the quantity of connections and interactions, not the quality.
In the past, we talked less frequently, to fewer people, in daily life and in public too. If we made a speech to even the largest crowd, it was unlikely to be recorded, amplified and spread around the world beyond its original context as it commonly is now.
What if we shouldn't be able to do that?, Boost asked. What if we were restricted?
What if the metrics were changed, so that rather than try to reach every audience all the time, we could be encouraged to settle for an audience, some of the time?
I was stunned by the novelty of his suggestion that technology companies could actually restrict us - place a limit on the number of people who can see our posts, photos and videos. One we hit that number of views, or once a certain amount of time has passed, our post disappears. They could limit us to one post a day, or week.
This will never happen, Bogost says, because neither the tech companies nor we, the users, would welcome it. But he adds:
It should be shocking that you pay no mind to recomposing an idea so that it fits in 280 characters (on Twitter) but that you'd never accept that the resulting message might be limited to 280 readers, or 280 minutes.
Partly as a result of reading Woolf, Byron and Bogost - who sound like the villains in a Roald Dahl children's book - I decided to change the way I use email newsletters.
I'm enjoying this one, but the one I published previously, on a platform called Mailchimp, was making me depressed. I tried to explain that in a goodbye email to my Mailchimp subscribers, then deleted all the email addresses and wrote an essay about the the whole business.
The essay incorporated a number of the replies I received: variously funny, solemn and... automated.
Many of my Mailchimp readers signed up for this newsletter - hello, you! - which was gratifying. But the vast majority didn't, presumably because they didn't get my email (it may have gone into spam) or because just didn't want to.
If you're wondering what that feels like - well, it's basically OK, though I do have occasional pangs.
It's not half as bad as the time, about six years ago, when I unfollowed absolutely everyone on Twitter, because the noise was doing my head in. Afterwards, I felt certain that every person I'd unfollowed would unfollow me back - or, worse, come after me with an axe.
Seriously, it was a very scary experience.
Before I finish, I'd like to mention a tiny experiment I'm doing. I'm going to send out the most stripped-down version of a magazine I can imagine, and would like to send it to you (if you wish to receive it).
I'll be posting ten identical envelopes, each one containing writing / illustrations by me and by two others. This material will not be laid out together, like a proper magazine, but will be magazine-ish because delivered in the same envelope.
Then I'll do it again, and once more. The plan is to post out three magazine-ish mailings, at intervals of about four days. All three will contain something by me and something by my author pal Wendy Jones, who is currently writing a rather funny historical novel. There’ll also be something by one other person (a different person each time).
After three - that's it. Finished. Ka-boom.
To keep down the time / cost, I'm offering this to the first ten people (if any) who indicate interest by sending a reply to me with a postal address where I can bung this physical material.
If the experiment is even moderately successful, I may do it again some time.
::Everyday Writing:: is supported by members of my Adequate Projects. Thank you, gang.