Monday, August 11, 2014

TCR Great Essays (#2): "How I Lost My Pen-Pal; or, Toward a Luddite Manifesto" by John Crutchfield

Writer and theater artist John Crutchfield
"In the age of e-mail and text-messaging, of Twitter and Facebook and their spin-offs, and of whatever has already come next that I don’t yet know about, hand-written letters have become a bit like dropping in on your neighbors unannounced: the idea sounds wholesome and warm and humane in a Leave It To Beaver kind of way, but the reality freaks people out," writes John Crutchfield in "How I Lost My Pen-Pal: or, Toward a Luddite Manifesto."

In this superb essay, Crutchfield recalls how his correspondence with a young woman he met at a theater festival abruptly ended after he shifted his side of the exchanges from e-mail to paper and pen. He uses this experience as a starting point from which he examines, with great insight and a generous amount of wit, the vast differences between communicating electronically and sending a letter.

"[I]f scary old Marshall McLuhan is right,and the medium really is the message, then writing someone a letter, regardless of its content, carries the meta-communicative meaning of: 'I am a real person, and you are a real person to me.' An email or text-message, by contrast, because of its digital and hence abstract form, says only, 'I am language,'" writes Crutchfield.

John Crutchfield is a writer and theater artist. His play Come Thick Night, a mash-up of Shakespeare, Ingmar Bergman, and Elvis, will be presented at the FringeNYC theater festival in New York later this month.

A long time resident of North Carolina, Crutchfield currently lives in Germany. The theme of "How I Lost My Pen-Pal" was on his mind for two decades, roughly since the internet began making inroads into his home turf in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He started writing the essay several years ago. "The real impetus to finish it came when I moved to Berlin toward the end of last year," Crutchfield explained to The Committee Room. "All at once the theme of correspondence gained a renewed importance for me, an existential importance, as it were, and I found myself with both the time and the peculiar state-of-mind necessary for thinking essay through to its end."        

Crutchfield's interest in books and writing began in childhood. "Even before I could write I used to fashion little books out of scraps of paper. When I was old enough, my parents gave me a stapler for Christmas, which made my bookbinding work much more efficient," Crutchfield recalls. An undergraduate creative writing course at the University of North Carolina got him writing in earnest. "I wasn't any good, but it felt good to write, and somehow I knew I had begun something I would give up only at my own grave spiritual peril--an even graver peril than if I didn't give it up, which I suppose is what makes one a writer," he says.  

When asked about working in so many different genres Crutchfield says that "all my 'public' writing (poems, plays, essays, stories) originates in trouble: something troubles me, upsets or disturbs me, something won't leave me alone. And while there may be an objective thing in the world that sets it off, really the trouble is on the inside, or rather, on the 'other' side. I write to try to open up a dialogue with it, invite it to come forth, give it objective form in language, turn it over, see if I can arrive at some kind of understanding, even if it's only the 'negative' understanding of the limits of my own understanding. Most things are, after all, pretty mysterious." 

Crutchfield cites James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as his favorite work of non-fiction. "It is simply the most preposterously beautiful, weird and devastating book I've ever read. It's the only book I've ever read cover-to-cover-to-cover-to-cover-to-cover-to-cover. (That's right: three times in a row)," he says. Other favorites when it comes to non-fiction are David Foster Wallace, the 18th century essayists Addison and Steele, Samuel Johnson, Walter Benjamin, Robert Walser, and Albert Camus. "You will rightly object: all men, all white, all dead, some more so than others. To which I have no adequate answer, but can only say that the wind bloweth where it listeth. But the simple fact remains that a couple of Camus' lyrical essays are enough to light one's way through a very dark time." 

To read Crutchfield's great essay "How I Lost My Pen-Pal; or, Toward a Luddite Manifesto," which was published in berfrois (April 4, 2014), click here

The Committee Room. Time Spent with TCR is Never Wasted.

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