The Importance of Unwritten Postcards

May 17, 2011 | 11 8 min read

A former student interviewed me recently for an audio journalism project about the dangers of undergraduates being online, a perennial topic for faculty, students, and administrators alike, not to mention for newspapers and cultural hand-wringers at large. Her project arose in response to recent articles about social networking being harmful to student health and emotional well-being, and her questions to me concerned the impact of Facebook and Twitter on classwork and grades. It’s an important conversation, but one that too often stops at the level of panic, so I tried to go in another direction, toward an aspect of digital culture that seems as important as bad grades and lost sleep.

When I teach, I jump from YouTube to Delicious to Google docs on the classroom screen. I allow—even encourage—my students to use laptops in class, and I don’t worry if they’ve got Facebook in one tab while the day’s assigned reading is in another. They’re the ones getting graded, so I let them own the direction and degree of their attention along with the consequences. I let them work the way I work, or find their own way of working, without pretending these tools don’t exist. So it isn’t their use of Facebook that concerns me as much who they’re using it with, and I don’t mean the predators and creeps and assorted bogeyfolk 20/20 warns us about every sweeps week. To the contrary, I worry the web might be keeping them safe but stunted, because it’s so easy to continue the relationships and conversations they had in high school and carry along to college an entrenched identity built when they were younger. As I told my student, what concerns me about her peers and herself being online is the loss of isolation, of separation, of the ability for 18 year olds to live in their heads for a while. Or at least to own their own minds.

cover By the end of high school I’d had enough of classrooms and sitting still, and I had no interest in college. Sure, the only thing you take with you wherever you go is yourself and all that, but I needed some distance and some time to myself. So I set out with my backpack and passport and hostel card, full of romantic if well-trod notions. I went to Ireland because I’d read The Ginger Man and thought if I hung around Dublin I’d be embraced by a community of songwriters and poets and novelists and become one of those things myself. Never mind that J.P. Donleavy’s novel was set nearly half a century before my arrival. What I found instead was loneliness, isolation, the strain of starting up conversations with strangers and of making friends without the institutionalized encouragement of being stuck in school together all day. It was sink or swim because there was no option to stay in bed: hostel wardens kicked you out from morning until late afternoon. If you’ve read David Foster Wallace’s essay about steeling himself in his cruise ship cabin before venturing out to gather data for an article he was meant to be writing, then running back to his room to recover… let’s just say I could relate when I read it a few years later.

That grinding isolation shocked me, then shock became fascination and I suppose I kept traveling to test it like a loose tooth or sprained limb: to challenge myself to be bolder. There was no Facebook then, and mobile phones were rare and as big as our backpacks. Even if I’d had an email address there would have been no one to write. I had no choice but to decide who I wanted to be, without the crutch or cross of who I’d been, of who I’d been told I was and of who I’d become in response to a small school and small town and, perhaps most of all, a small sense of myself. I spent hours alone by necessity, whether hitching on a roadside or riding a bus or wandering the streets of new cities as alien to me as I was to them. And as alien as the inside of my head, until I learned the lay of it.

In The Guardian recently, Jennifer Egan said of her own teenage backpacking experience,

There was a kind of intensity to the isolation of travel at that time that’s completely gone now. You had to wait in line at a phone place, and then there weren’t even answering machines. That feeling of waiting in line, paying for the phone and then not only having no one answer, but not being able to leave a message so that they would never know you called. It’s hard to fathom what that disconnection felt like. But I’m actually very grateful for it. Because it was extreme. And that kind of extreme isolation showed me that I wanted to be a writer.

She goes on to describe the panic attacks and fear isolation brought on, and as I read I remembered a day spent hiking in Cornwall, of hours in the forest then emerging into a village in front of a pub. There were families heads-down over maps, a cricket team warming up on the green, two old men in identical gum boots and waxed canvas coats stopped to chat; ordinary lives going on in everyday ways, in other words, and there was me, ragged and woolly and stepping out of the woods where no one knew me from the Beast of Bodmin. I could have turned around and disappeared into the trees without being noticed, like another anonymous hiker whose body had recently turned up in the moors and was all over the news.

Another time in the Australian desert, a few days after I’d been shot at by drunk hunters who mistook my companions and I for overgrown possums, it occurred to me while hiking alone in dry heat and red sand that if I died there, if something happened, it would be a very long time until my family knew. I’d read something by Paul Theroux about a recurring nightmare of his children receiving postcards long after his death, because the places he’d traveled were so far away, and it stuck with me as simultaneously bleak and liberating (though now that I’m a father myself, and past my daughter’s colicky stage, it seems mostly bleak).

Postcards went in one direction, and offered so little room to say what I’d been doing they were merely an indication I was still alive. Hostels didn’t yet offer terminals for popping online and updating your friends, and you couldn’t upload your photos as fast as you took them nor could you see what folks were doing at home. Even after lining up as Egan describes, phone calls were expensive and brief, as compressed as postcards, and sometimes there weren’t any phone booths at all. I doubt I’m making any of this sound positive, but here’s the thing: all those experiences, the good and the bad, the everyday and inexplicably strange, were mine and mine alone.

There was no one to tell about the midnight train ride to Belfast when a brick smashed through the window over my head after a group of boys had already been hauled off by armored Garda for lighting strings of firecrackers at the end of the carriage. About the nun whose body tangled with mine when the sound of “gunshots” made us dive to the floor, or my arrival in Belfast between a cab driver’s shooting and a retaliatory bomb the next morning. No one knew I’d been fired on by those Australian hunters while camped in a billabong, or had carried a stranger’s dog off a mountain in Colorado only for it to die in my arms at the bottom, within sight of the ranger station. About a party with an Australian MP that, had phones been smarter and had there been a place to post photos, would have gotten us both into trouble, and camping by a desert hot spring the night of an Aboriginal corroboree then observing (for as long as I was allowed to) an outdoor meeting with a government minister the following day. Only I knew about watching and watching and watching an enormous brown snail crawl across my ground sheet when I woke by the Tasman Sea at sunrise, and standing with a German football team on a Galway street corner, each of us holding a lead-plugged axe handle, because a group of thugs had attacked and robbed the hostel warden the night before and were amassing again up the street.

If I’d been able to share those things quickly, if I’d been able to tweet them or make them my status or even speak them to someone I knew, I might not have hung onto them. If I’d been able to upload my photo of an apparently ancient stone wall on Inishmore that contained, near the bottom and bearing weight, a rock mysteriously stenciled with a bright yellow pedestrian crossing icon, and had someone commented with a quick explanation of why it was there, I might not be thinking about it almost two decades later. Instead it became a defining question for me, a question I’ve been trying to put into words ever since, in poems and stories and my failed first attempt at a novel (and probably the second and third novels, too, in some way). I might not have felt that “extreme isolation” Egan refers to, that uncrossable gulf between “home” and “away,” between “me” and “you” and between “me now” and “me then,” for that matter. I wouldn’t have been forced by circumstance and separation to redefine myself in my own awkward terms rather than rest comfortably uncomfortable in who I’d already been before setting off to “find myself,” as awfully much as that cliché rankles and rots.

Maybe there’s something healthy in telling our stories immediately and in making experience as ephemeral as a bird’s own tweeting is, so we can move on to something else. Maybe my students are better adjusted than I ever was, more aware of themselves because they’re able to share their lives quickly and widely and constantly. Some of my own closest, most meaningful friendships have grown out of blogging and being online; my sense of myself as a writer has come from engaging that wider world the internet offers as much as from engaging the world through more embodied travel—something I haven’t often had the luxury of after taking on college debts and degrees. So perhaps I’m projecting, and as much as I want to deny it all this is one more way of complaining things were better when we were young, blah blah blah. Besides, the whole notion of leaving home at 18 is so ethnocentric, a global rarity arrogantly normalized by a relatively small, relatively affluent part of the world. It’s like the internet, that way.

I know, though, for better or worse, I wouldn’t be the writer and person I am if I’d been online earlier. There’s a guy I run into on the subway sometimes, someone I played soccer with in junior high, and twenty-five years later he still thinks I’m not me but another kid we played with. When I moved to town, there were a few weeks at the start of sixth grade when the whole team had me confused with that other kid, a few weeks in which I was not only the new kid but a different new kid, a double disorientation. And now every few months I hear this guy shouting that other kid’s name down the train car and I’m turned back into someone I haven’t been in a very long time and never was, really. So when I worry about my students being online, it’s because I imagine their moments of discovery and reinvention and risk derailed by Facebook comments from people who remember them as they weren’t and won’t let them forget it, tying them down before they lift off. That worries me more, in a way, than the possibility of drunken college hijinks preserved online haunting them as they look for jobs—something I suspect we’ll grow more forgiving of, as a culture, the more inevitable it becomes. I worry there’s less room to try on and cast off new selves, as people and artists alike, but maybe that’s only an issue for someone who always finds himself writing about isolation one way or another, and for whom the most terrifying thing ever seen on TV is that eBay ad asking, “What if nothing was ever forgotten?”

Still, even if we move home after college or never go to college at all, even if we stay close to old friends our whole lives, I can’t help but think there’s a value in removing ourselves from all that for a while and in stockpiling experiences no one else knows about. Whether those are big, dramatic experiences or small, quiet ones I doubt makes much difference; the important thing is they’re ours, only ours, and we’ll have them to return to forever—not by Googling to remind ourselves what we wrote when they happened, or by looking at photos (I lost most of those when I mailed home a box of unprocessed film that never arrived). Not by having them pass into the collective memory of the people who know us and the stories that get swapped around campfires and dining room tables for so long it stops mattering who they happened to, but by tucking them away like a tweet left untweeted, in some private corner where 140 characters of pithy distillation might grow into something much more.

Image credit: Pexels/Miray Bostancı.

is author of the novels Fram and The Bee-Loud Glade, and editor of the webjournal Necessary Fiction. He teaches at Emerson College and has a website at