I write letters I never send.
To people I have never met and to people I know intimately.
“L'esprit d'escalier”—literally translated as “staircase wit”—is a French phrase of which I have always been particularly fond. It describes the experience of thinking of the ideal retort too late: what you could have, should have said, would have said…if you weren’t such a bumbling clod.
The expression was coined by French Philosopher Denis Diderot, who was apparently so blindsided by a brutal remark directed towards him at a dinner party that he could only come up with the proper response as he reached the bottom of the stairs on his way out.
I, like Diderot, am at times fallible and feel comfortable admitting I suffer from this feeling of l’esprit d’escalier often. And I have found that I have a difficult time sitting with the unsaid, so I began writing letters that I never send.
I have rules
1. I write the letters by hand and in ink, so it is impossible to delete anything or change to whom I have addressed them. I make mistakes, I misspell things and sometimes I don’t mean what I say, but I write them anyway.
2. I write them in the morning. A wise person once told me never to send a letter in the evening and, although I am not sending these particular ones, I find that letters written at night tend to be overly sentimental, dramatic and too romantic.
3. Once the letter is finished and signed, I deal with it in some way. Each letter is different: some are burned or framed, some are placed in envelopes or ripped into tiny pieces and flushed down the toilet.
But, no matter what type, what I found as I started writing these letters more frequently was that my definition of the “unsaid” broadened. It was no longer limited to a brilliant remark thought of at the bottom of a staircase. The unsaid could also be quite literally what I was not saying that needed to be said. The letters began to range from vengeful threats to sincere apologies, from pleas for the truth to letters to the dead.
The structure of a letter is very helpful in solidifying thoughts or feelings that have not fully matured because the medium has a strong sense of audience (the recipient). Also, the quality of language in a letter is very active. A letter has a sense of occasion and will be less likely to wander off track. You write with intent: what do you need to say and to whom do you need to say it?
Then there were letters that begin differently; letters that are borne out of unrelenting affection or reverence. These letters are not to be burned or flushed. And, thus, my final rule was formed:
1. If I ever write a letter of gratitude to someone who is still alive, I force myself to send it.
*Note: The English equivalent of “L’esprit D’escalier” is “Tintiddle” and was coined by Gelett Burgess.
-- Hailey Gates. Hailey is a writer and an actor, living in New York City and working at The Paris Review. Her daily process is to focus on the “how” not the “what.”