From the Merriam Webster Dictionary online…
night letter (n): a telegram sent at night at a reduced rate for delivery the following morning
Back in the days when Western Union telegrams were a common method of communication across great distances, much of what needed to be said took more than the few words condensed and clipped into phrases that were applied to the text in order to save the sender money. The sender paid for the service at a rate of so many cents per word with a minimum, usually of nine to twelve words. These telegrams would be sent immediately and delivered by phone or by hand. When a customer wanted to send more than just a line or two, they could pay a cheaper rate per word, with a minimum of about 25 words. These longer, less expensive telegram were called Night Letters. They would be held overnight to be sent the following morning in the early hours when traffic on the wire was light and were delivered the following day.
Before I began writing full time and while I was working in the daytime, I wrote whenever I could, usually when my wife and children were sleeping, sometimes long into the night. It was difficult to write something like a novel and sometimes, when I was forced to work long hours in harsh physical conditions, I was too tired to take on a large project and wrote what could be called vignettes, short pieces that were complete and not reliant on sequential, periodic progression, not unlike the pieces we call flash or micro fiction today… vignettes that I sometimes referred to as night letters.
They kept me going, progressing as a writer, developing perspectives and a style that I would have lost had I entirely abandoned the idea of writing… the hope of becoming a writer… which is itself, these days, an abstract notion in terms of a profession. More of a calling now, than a career, since few can make a living at it, commercial success being no great measure of quality in literature, but of value beyond its artistic appeal. The art has taken a back seat to the value of writing as either a tool of influence in the marketing or political arena… or as one of many inputs to a cinematic product. Even literature for the sake of literature as art is ordered and licensed in a rigid, somewhat cloistered academic construct.
To be sure, I am glad that I kept the practice going throughout my life and, eventually, I enjoyed some small success in publishing shorter works in literary magazines worldwide and, today, in addition to ongoing efforts to succeed as a novelist, I have written many essays, composed in those hours while others are sleeping… night letters.
Beginning next week, I will attempt to produce one serious essay per week and post them on my web page. I’m calling them, Night Letters to America and invite you to read them and comment, as your feedback is helpful to me always. I will announce on both Facebook and Twitter when the series begins and whenever there is a new posting.
Night Letters to America by James Lloyd Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.