Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Jun 25, 1949
I sometimes wonder whether anybody spends as much of his life answering letters as I do.
Not that I always, or even usually, write the answer down and post it in a pillar-box. But, as soon as I receive a letter I begin answering it in my head, and simply because I get no further than this in most cases, I keep on answering letter upon letter week after week, month after month, year after year.
Often I find myself answering them at three o’clock in the morning.
You may find something heroic in such dilligence. But, believe me, it means nothing more than that I abominate the act of writing. E. V. Lucas once told me that he loved the feel of a pen in his hand. I, on the contrary, have never liked any writing instrument since I first did simple sums on a slate with a squeaking slate pencil.
I must have been one of the worst pupils in the writing class at school, though I think I contrived to make some of those fine copybook maxims, like “procrastination is the thief of time,” almost legible.
As for writing letters to my people when I was away from home, I had a sense of helplessness as soon as I took a pen in my hand, and felt as though I had been tolling like the village blacksmith by the time I had written down the vital sentence: “Please send p.o. for 2s 6d,” and signed it “Your affectionate son.”
It was not entirely that I had nothing else to say, but writing seemed both an unnatural and ardurous way of saying it.
The odd thing was that I had an ambition to write, as was shown by the fact that I contributed puzzles to a local weekly and signed them with my name, followed by “aged 10½” in brackets.
This only means, I think, however, that in hours of inspiration we human beings can rise above our everyday selves and accomplish miracles.
It is much easier, unfortunately, to write an inspired riddle-meree than to write a letter, and as time went on my failure to answer the letters of my friends often caused me acute discomfort of conscience. It was not till after I was married, indeed, that I began in self-defence to invent theories that put my conscience more or less at its ease.
The first of these theories was that the only men whom nature means to be letter-writers are men whom she means to be bachelors.
The four greatest letter-writers in English — Horace Walpole, Gray, Cowper and Charles Lamb—were all bachelors. The two next best—Byron and FitzGerald—were almost bachelors, for FitzGerald ran away from his wife on his wedding day and Byron was separated from his after a very brief period of married life.
This, I tell myself, is scientific and statistical proof that the marital instinct and the letter-writing instinct cannot be expected to be found in the same person, so that it is no crime in a married or marriageable man to be a bad correspondent.
Even so my conscience keeps on nagging, and I keep on answering letters in my head and even try to answer them on paper.
No sooner, however, do I decide to answer a letter in writing than I find that I have mislaid it. After an hour and a half’s hunting I find it in a drawer where I had left it so that I should know where to look for it. Then I get out a sheet of paper and feel in my pocket for my fountain pen, but there is no fountain pen there.
Another half-hour’s hunt discover it on a mantelpiece and I sit down to write. There is no ink in it, unluckily, and I look around for an ink bottle. There must be half a dozen ink bottles in the house, but the only one I can find has no more than an eighth of an inch of ink in it.
At length I find a second bottle, and, just as I am about to begin my letter, someone calls upstairs that tea is ready.
By this time I am so exhausted that there is no hope of getting the letter written till another day.
And the worst of it is that, even when I do get a letter written, I cannot always find my correspondent’s address, and often have to put the letter away in a safe place in a drawer where I discover it unposted months or perhaps years afterwards.
Do you think, then, that I mean to be discourteous, all you who have not received answers to your letters? I assure you I have answered them, if not in the letter, in the spirit; and if our correspondence seems rather one-sided, you have the joy of knowing that you possess the gift of letter writing, which I so sadly lack.
Meanwhile, I hope you will continue to write. I will certainly continue to answer, even if it means lying awake till the robin begins to sing.