INTRODUCING THE CHRISTMAS EPISTLES
by Chris R. Morgan
If you, like me, are an intense person, you are likely to come into the holiday season with a greater sense of joy than usual. The preceding months are always kind of a slog, aren’t they? For much of it you find yourself unable to connect with others, and they unable to do the same with you. In fact, you may sense a kind of space clearing around you, as though you are a cold draft of air they can see coming. It is no fault of yours, or theirs for that matter. This is just the drawback of being born with what I call an Advanced Emotional Wavelength. You do not mean to put people off by your straightforward, abrupt nature. You do not mean to overwhelm them by never being able to do anything by half. Nor do you wish to frustrate them by taking hours out of the day to refuse to compromise on a single point that will later prove trivial. It is simply your nature, your strange power, your iron endurance. And if anything you do throughout the year is somehow not totally derailed on the count of your unusual stridency, then you are merely a very fortunate person.
But Christmastime is very different. It brings a feeling that never really announces itself but dawns on you gradually. You find that you are more tolerated in casual situations. The visible aging you’ve likely onset in your friends, peers, and loved ones has settled into a kind of glazed contentment. They have resigned themselves to you. At least until after January 1—January 7 if they are Orthodox—you are free, free as the air itself, to pull them up, by the follicles if necessary, to your exalted level. To impose upon them the full measure of your mental constitution, which knows no common mode of sleep, no dietary moderation, and no visual, aural, verbal, or otherwise conceptual limitations. Maybe you’re not given that much leeway, but even a little is still quite a lot, and so you have a certain freedom to … engage, I guess, with them in ways that are more amenable to your appetites and less constricted to workaday demands of practicality and courtesy.
And out of this mindset, probably, came the Christmas epistles, for lack of a better term, an interactive writing project I found myself undertaking in the lead up to one of our holiest and most cheerful of days. “Interactive” might be a bit of an exaggeration, though, implying heavy participation. The set up is actually very simple. I solicited some friends and colleagues to see if they wanted an epistolary essay sent to them, if they agreed they would choose a broad, humanistic topic, which I would proceed to write about and email to them. That’s pretty much it. It’s pretty amazing that this occurred entirely by accident, coming to a friend planning to buy a conventional gift, only to come away with this. I expectedly enjoyed the experience and quickly lost my bearings attaining more, getting 10 in all. (The first lesson of this project was that if you offer to write to people and, moreover, give them some input, they will unanimously accept.)
I assume most of you reading this are aware of what epistolary essays are. But in case otherwise, because it is, to be fair, a pretty antiquated medium, they are pieces of writing that mix the loose intimacy of personal letters with the formality of essayistic argument or instruction. Anyone who’s been to church has heard readings from the epistles of St. Paul. Letters form the basis of St. Jerome’s intellectual and spiritual legacy, among other things:
The same sentence, therefore, was passed upon both, and the executioner dragged away his victims. The whole populace rushed out to see the sight, pouring in dense masses from the crowded gates, so that you might have thought the entire city was migrating. At the very first stroke of the sword the miserable youth’s head was cut off, and his headless corpse rolled over in its own blood.
Seneca’s “moral letters” are also a good example; Edmund Burke was fond of the form; and De Profundis, Oscar Wilde’s long, emotionally frayed but graceful prison letter to Alfred Douglas, is a minor literary classic. This is to say nothing of epistolary novels like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Though these are shared publicly, and designed to be to an extent, they are not “open letters,” a popular mode of writing today that ostensibly talks past the recipient to preach to the writer’s choir. The epistle, wherever it ends up, is dependent upon recipient’s involvement. For example, if I knew one recipient to have a notable sense of humor, I was encouraged to be funny myself. More generally, though, was the tonal balancing act of being not too didactic or explain-y on the one hand, not too personal or self-involved on the other. There was some preparation involved, in fact for some subjects I already had ideas for which I could not find placement elsewhere, but generally I wanted to keep things loose and spontaneous as well as formal. I don’t think I actually needed style guides, and in most cases that would have been a hindrance. But that said, George Bernard Shaw’s mostly improvised speeches helped, as did Wayne Kostenbaum’s essays.
But these were nothing without the subjects assigned. “On X” essays by Bacon or Montaigne or Hazlitt or whoever are enjoyable to read but less so to write on a subject of one’s own choosing for no one in particular. But paradoxically this restricted setup made the activity more freeing. For this activity the subjects were either gloomy (suffering, mourning, incest, aggression, doubt) or subjects that could be made gloomy by me with minimal effort (justice, idleness, bodies, mirrors, the meaning of life). I always took the first thing they said and did not inquire as to their motivations and kind of ran with them, composing them longhand first and revising when I typed them up, length averaging around 1,400 words. I wrote the first one on November 29 and the last one on December 16.
But now you can judge for yourselves of their value after the fact. With name redactions and light clarifications and omissions, I offer the fruits of my Christmas crafting, two published each week some time after Christmas. My deepest thanks to everyone who allowed me to write to them. Few if anything contained in these letters will be new, and these are not perfect documents, but the creative exploration they afforded me made for some interesting writing here and there: I forsook the goth revival, I detailed my selfie-taking method, I rolled my eyes at “post-truthiness,”compared the suburban home to a hermit kingdom, speculated on the persecution of slackers, and introduced a retired obstetrician to antinatalism.
If you are someone I know who liked these results and is saddened that I did not seek you out, I apologize, but hope to do another round some time after, maybe in more spaced out waves during those dreadful non-holiday months. And certainly I encourage others, when time and energy permit, to try this yourselves with your own friends, loved ones, etc. There’s no real principle guiding it, it don’t know to what extent in improves or degrades one’s life, it was just a fun diversion, a diversion, in any case, from Netflix or scrolling through Twitter, or whatever.