Email can’t replace the magic of snipping out stories.
I’m lucky to have a room of my own, a tiny study with a door that shuts. (Though my husband is a quiet man, I prize solitude for writing — and sometimes talk aloud, channeling characters.) My desk is a dropleaf table. The light is good, my reference books are close at hand.
Still, sometimes a restless girl writing needs a change of scene. Pre-pandemic, I used to go out occasionally to write. Not coffeeshops — too much noise, distraction, glare on the screen — but a study room in the library, or a table in the garden of a small museum. This year, those options have not been available.
So, I discovered a writing getaway here at home.
We have a bureau in the dining room that my grandfather (shop teacher by day, woodworker by night) made for my mother on her 16th birthday. It’s walnut, with roomy drawers for napkins, placemats, and silverware. It also has a secret compartment hidden behind the pulls of the top drawer.
It’s a false drawer; the hinged top flips open to reveal a desk with pigeonholes and a retractable writing surface. The desktop had been stuck shut for years, too shallow to be practical. One housebound day last year, I pulled, and it slid out.
I filled the pigeonholes with stationery and cards and established the new workspace as my personal correspondence headquarters, a laptop-free zone. For it’s not only the desk that’s a bit antiquated — I am one of the last of the letter writers and have written more notes than ever this year, even as the postal service struggles and deteriorates. I email and text lots, too, but not at this rediscovered desk. Reaching out to my dearest ones, I write a letter and enclose a hand-picked, curated clipping.
Yes, I also read old-fashioned print newspapers. Two a day at breakfast. Magazines at lunch. I keep a red Sharpie by my coffee cup so I can mark an article for clipping later when my husband, a more thorough reader than I, finishes.
I clip the earmarked piece, tuck it in an envelope, and add a note. Right now, there’s a clipping about the Chincoteague Pony Run — canceled for a second year — on its way to my grandniece in Buffalo. One about dating apps in Japan and another about espresso in Sicily are en route to my son (just a few zip codes away, but who doesn’t like real mail instead of bills and circulars?).
A balloon carried a children’s list for Santa 500 miles; the man who recovered it fulfilled every wish on it. That story’s in the international post to my daughter in Sweden (it might arrive more quickly by balloon).
A piece about a controversial knitting website is addressed to my other daughter’s “Apartment 3K” in New York — the same apartment number as my former apartment in the same city, but in a different borough and a different century.
My enclosures are not usually big headline news. We all see those stories over and over again on many platforms. I clip quirky stories in back sections that might be overlooked, stories that don’t have an expiration date, the sort of topics that fueled conversation around our supper table in the kitchen when the kids were kids.
Of course, we Zoom. Yes, I copy links sometimes and send them for instantaneous arrival. But clippings tucked inside letters are different, less ephemeral. Books languish forgotten on my e-reader’s invisible library; links linger unopened in my inbox. A clipping in hand is like a book on the nightstand, a visible, tangible reminder: Read me!
Even though some clippings may go straight to the circular file upon arrival (don’t tell me), I like the process of reading, marking, clipping. It puts me in imagined conversation with the intended recipient. Usually, I start my writing day at the dining room desk, procrastinating before the real work begins in my study. But Edith Wharton wrote her morning letters in bed. At least I’m dressed!
A dry-point etching hangs above my rediscovered desk called “Girl Cutting.” My husband gave it to me last year. It’s by my favorite artist and shows his daughter, about age 3. Ensconced in an armchair, legs out straight, head bowed, she’s intent on her work with scissors and paper. She watches over me; we work in parallel. Two girls clipping.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song will be published later this month. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.