Conversation, Correspondence and the Art of the Text Message.

Oscar Wilde’s well known quote: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth,” is a delightful indictment to the pain and pleasures of our contemporary modes of communication.

Text messaging can get a bad wrap these days as a communication device, yet it is arguably our most popular form of correspondence and has in my view far superseded the email in replacing the pretty much dead art of letter writing. Hard to find in my research yet however, are any thoughts on, or attempts to, elevate our passion for the ‘text’, for it seems the text message is at best, chided by popular psychologists as ruining our ability to communicate truthfully and at worst exploited by those same psychologists who pray on our baser instincts with search engines full of suggestions such as ‘Secret Sexting Strategies Revealed’.

I am an avid communicator and consider myself lucky enough to have come of age — the time when one often falls deeply in love for the first time — before the Internet. I wrote letters. My first love was a writer and a romantic who instructed me at the tender age of 19 in the art of letter writing. We became masters at it and I filled a suitcase over the many years of our relationship. Ours was an intoxicating exchange of ideas and sentiments that became for me, the first stirrings of a writers voice and, an enduring love for the art of conversation.

Conversation was raised to a high art by Goethe who saw it as the ‘art of arts’. He believed that to achieve this accolade, ‘its life must be given form within a framework. Otherwise it would straggle on amorphously.’ This seems a far cry from the mindless chatter that fills most of our garden variety text messages, though I am still hopeful that we can, as we become more adept in the practice of it, raise our texting to a form that touches, if not the spiritual crossing of the threshold of intellect to intuition, that Goethe intended, at least a place where conversation can begin to feel ‘more quickening than light.’ We can only try.

In a piece by Catherine Field in the New York Times on the lost art of letter writing she states;

A good handwritten letter is a creative act, and not just because it is a visual and tactile pleasure. It is a deliberate act of exposure, a form of vulnerability, because handwriting opens a window on the soul in a way that cyber communication can never do. You savor their arrival and later take care to place them in a box for safe keeping.


Recently I have been indulging in books of infamous love letters. Anais Nin and Henry Miller, Rainer Marie Rilke and Lou Salome. I am intrigued by these, not so much for the quality for the writing itself, though it is in parts better than any of the novels they produced, but for the same reason I love a good diary, the lack of form, the colloquial mishaps and the striving for an intimacy that is romanticized by distance and separation.

For the letter does not exist without its reply. The art form is not just the words on the page but the spaces between, the pauses, the inflections, the anxiety around how one might be received and the nail biting wait for a reply. The art form is the conversation. The chemistry of the mind that tangos in language and has a rhythm that one must tap into and pick up if the correspondence is going to remain alive and go the distance.

For Lou Salome and Anais Nin, the deep friendship established in the written conversation established a union that far outlived the passionate affairs they had with their mates, indeed the synastry of exchange of ideas and language cemented in both a lifelong love and connection.

And so this brings me to the text message. I am a post -modern woman. I no longer exchange with my more literary friends via letter or even email. No one does. For today we have been granted a far more immediate tool that whilst potentially hazardous in its demand for a fast and hurried efficiency that might seems at first to lack all semblance of poetry, it is within these restrictions that the subtly lives and the art of the writer still strives to reveal itself. We do what we can with the tools at our disposal.

I have recently re -entered the world of internet dating and I cant help but wince a little with disappointment and a reluctant swipe left when yet another man, if he bothers to write anything at all in his profile description, demands that he wants “no endless text messaging” as if it were an evil game preventing him from the goal of ‘sealing the deal’. But I must not judge for we are not all enamoured of the written word or of subtely or long meandering foreplay that once was sufficient in and of itself.

Virgina Woolf ironically mused in her essay entitled ‘Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown”, that;

On or about December 1910, human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910.

This most insightful and progressive of modern writers forsaw the great changes that would affect the ways we communicate. As though with blogs and Tumblrs and Facebook feeds in mind, Woolf writes:

Instead of letters posterity we will have confessions, diaries, notebooks… — hybrid books in which the writer talks in the dark to himself about himself for a generation yet to be born.

For the writer, any writing is better than nothing and to keep one’s voice alive eases the tension between bouts of more ‘serious’ forays into the written form. As Miller writes to Anais,

There is a danger, if one does not write habitually, that one will lose the habit. I am always in fear of that. And when you are thinking constantly, writing in your head, writing while you undress, wash your teeth, scrub the dishes etc, you get roiled and everything turns to mud.

So the text is our perfect convenience.

A way to keep the conversation alive, and an opportunity to practice our art. When it works and we are in the flow, I can barely keep up with the electricity of our exchange. At other times I am too fast for it and my responses hover waiting for the blue flashing ellipsis that tells me you are thinking and composing a reply to the last message or was it three messages back now?

For the mercurial mind this is an extreme mind sport, an adrenalin rush of ideas and thoughts that tumble forth as our spelling is incorrectly corrected and the blind frustration of all this makes the potential for misrepresentation so much the greater, but we are kept on our toes and called to find in an instant the correct word, or the essence of the thing we meant to say and, too late, cannot now, correct.

There is a rhthym here and the art is in figuring out it’s pace. When it speeds up and when it slows and when silence is the best response of all. What was true of Arthur Martine’s ‘Handbook of Etiquette’ in 1886 is still true today, albeit much tricker in the navigation of online messaging where finding silence and the natural conclusion to the exchange is an art in itself ;

The power of preserving silence is the very first requisite to all who wish to shine, or even please in discourse; and those who cannot preserve it, have really no business to speak. … The silence that, without any deferential air, listens with polite attention, is more flattering than compliments, and more frequently broken for the purpose of encouraging others to speak, than to display the listener’s own powers. This is the really eloquent silence. It requires great genius — more perhaps than speaking — and few are gifted with the talent…

For there is no etiquette to the text message. We have had it beaten out of us now in this modern age and we must resist the temptation to be offended for there is no offense, simply the never ending exchange that in its lack of salutations, creates the possibility that this conversation might go on indefinitely and never come to a definitive end. It is non-committal and lacks closure, like so much of our contemporary generation, but when we surrender to the dance we find the art.


Gunther Stuhlmann ed, ‘A Literate Passion’, Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Miller 1932–1953'.

Marjorie Spock; ‘The Art of Goethe Conversation’, 1983

Virginia Woolf; ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, 1924

Arthur Martine’s ‘Handbook of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness’, 1886.

Myth, Metaphor and the Symbolic Life