Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Friday, November 16, 2012

Personal Letters, or, Love In The Time of Texts

Someone recently asked me if it was okay to break up with their significant other with a text message.

Ah, what is this world coming to....

If someone was significant enough to become romantically-involved with, they deserve more than a quick adios typed into a phone.

Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but I value the written word.  I have always kept and stored away any personal letter anyone took the time to write me.  In file cabinets and cedar chests all around my house there are stacks of paper bearing the signatures and thoughts of the people who made me who I am today.

One of the things I am today is an incessant scanner.  Recently, after scanning every family photo album I could lay my hands on, I started scanning documents, starting with some letters written by my first love.  It was a fascinating experience, especially from a safe distance in time where there is no fear of rekindling old longings or lingering upon old regrets.  The first two years of our relationship stand relatively mute now, but, in our third year, she transfered to a distant college and a veritable flood of letters followed.  It was like reading a novel where you were one of the chief protagonists, but what made it really surreal is that I, the reader, looking backwards from the future, knew how the story would end, while she, the innocent writer, working in her present had no idea the relationship was ultimately doomed.

Of course, this foreknowledge of doom kept me reading between the lines.  Although I obviously remembered the outcome of the relationship, the time frame had grown hazy over time.  When did it go bad?  And why?  I started looking for the cracks.  I thought I found it in a long, agonizing letter written soon after our first significant fight as a couple, but, no, later that same week she wrote me an incredibly sweet and affectionate letter which has not been surpassed in its tenderness by anything anyone else wrote to me over the course of the last century.

That's the beauty of letters.  Spoken words, no matter how kind and sweet, can be lost in the fog of memory, but the written word remains.   I have discussed many kinds of writing on this blog, but, as you get older, the personal letters you've written and received may end up holding more emotional value than that script you wrote that got made into a movie.

I was always a bit of a letter writer myself.  In fact, in the unlikely event I would achieve enough notoriety to warrant a biographer, he or she would probably learn all they would need to know about the inner workings of my mind and heart from letters I wrote to the woman above and two others who followed her.  (If they kept the letters, that is.)  The next person on the list was not a romantic-entanglement, but rather a friend from the local film community.  Her sister was sick, and she decided to move to Atlanta to care for her.   In this self-obsessed age, I found her compassion and selflessness nothing short of heroic.  Knowing how difficult her life would be, I wanted to give her a distraction.  I started writing her to keep her informed of local film business gossip and perhaps some words of encouragement now and then.  After the death of her sister, my friend was soon traveling the world making movies while I was enjoying the first stage of my career as a screenwriter.  She ultimately became a trusted advisor and consigliere and my words followed her wherever she went, but the days of stamps slowly disappeared and the era of email had begun.

The birth of email coincided with rise of the internet dating.  The third person to receive an unending stream of missives from me was a farm girl with two delightful sons who I met on a singles board on AOL -- back when AOL was cool.  We had a long fascinating romance/friendship that took many twists and turns over the years.  Once, in a moment of weakness, I asked her to marry me, and, in a moment of even greater weakness, she actually said yes.  The engagement itself could have hardly been briefer, but the road we traveled is completely documented.  Ironically, we both married our respective spouses within a few weeks of each other.  We toyed with the idea attending each others' weddings, though I don't think our respective spouses thought highly of the idea.  We remain friends, if not physically, in the primordial mists of the cyber world where we met.  Thanks, Facebook!

Upstairs tucked away in a cedar chest I have some manila folders crammed with both sides of our email correspondence.  That to me, is the major upside of internet relationships.  You can easily keep a record of both sides of the conversation.  Also, it was a little easier to avoid some fights in a relationship borne of email.  If you had a problem on a date, you could express your problems in an email.  The cyberwall gave you the distance to clearly and as dispassionately as possible discuss whatever issue had arisen, and, hopefully, resolved it without any raised voices and thoughtless words before you saw each other again.  It actually worked sometimes.  What I didn't like about internet relationships, and the emails that fuel them, is the sense of false intimacy.

It seemed to me, as I was dating women from the internet, that sometimes it seemed like a race to see who could surrender the most intimate details of their life first.  You would hear about their troubled childhoods, failed marriages and broken hearts in excruciating detail.   This flood of information would definitely give you the illusion of intimacy, but not the reality.  Intimacy is something that needs to be earned over time, not poured out freely like a glass of water.  Something cheaply gained is not held in much value.

Then there's the lies.  What is it about the computer that makes people think they can get away with bald-faced lies.  You might send that twenty-year-old picture, but eventually they're going to see the real you.  Fortunately, I didn't have that problem.  At the height of my internet dating period, women definitely knew what they were getting when they finally met me because I was appearing a number of local television commercials as an actor -- like in the one below for WBFF Channel 45 directed by Chuck Regner.

Yikes, right?

Some people were still willing to see me after that.

There was one email relationship that I often think back upon.  I met her on the singles board on AOL.  She wasn't really looking for romance.  Just online companionship.  No pictures were ever sent or received.  Or real names -- well, I gave her mine.  She never gave me hers.  She claimed to be the owner of a large computer contracting company based in the DC suburbs.  "Beltway Bandits," is what my father used to call them.  She claimed to have met my father, a systems analyst for the Social Security Administration, who often worked on contracts and bids, but she didn't want to talk about work.  She wanted to talk about life.  Or what was left of it.  She claimed to be dying from cancer and just wanted to talk to a kind stranger in a commitment free environment.  Our email conversation lasted about two months.  Then I got a final email under her name from a woman claiming to be her personal nurse.  She said my correspondent had died, and she had been instructed to inform her online friends.

So that was that.

I often wondered about that woman.  Was she even really a woman?  Or was it some guy playing with my mind.  Was it just a sick game?  Or was it really the last emotional gasp of a woman on the verge of eternity? 

I'll never know.

But I do have our correspondence in a manila folder backed away in a cedar chest or a file cabinet somewhere around this house.

One day it might be the basis of a short story or perhaps a novel.  (Not a screenplay.  Too cerebral.  Not enough action.)

At the very least I am possibly perserving a human being's final thoughts.

My advice:  Write to people.  Often.  And keep everything people take the time to write to you.  Thirty years from now an old letter might bring a needed but unexpected smile.

And write something more substantial than a text message.

How much joy will you get twenty years from now with a text that reads:  CU@8.

Write some letters.  Personal ones.

(At the very least, it will help you find your true voice as a writer.)