My year of newsletters and isolation

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It's catharsis by way of Substack. Illustration by JL JAVIER

In the bedroom shared by me and my sister is a rattan basket filled with old journals. On my phone, the Notes app overflows with half-formed musings and haphazardly chronicled dreams. Even on other people’s pages, I spill. In college, when we still had classes onsite, I used to doodle on my seatmates’ notebooks:

Let’s get ramen for lunch after this

P isn’t in class today

I’m so sleepy

I carry the habit of personal writing with me to this day. Over quarantine, I rediscovered my high school blog, which I excitedly revived. The now-private site houses over 80 entries written during lockdown alone — a direct result of writing solely for the pleasure of the act. The longhand practice is one I sustain too, evidenced by my second journal this year, which is already half full of entries.

This gravitation toward reflection carried over to what I read. Late last year, I fell into a subscribing spree, signing up for all kinds of newsletters with abandon. My inbox was filled to the brim with stories on food (From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy), hard-to-describe feelings (Maybe Baby), and to-do lists (brown sugar). Perusing letters regularly led to my finding resonance in the unlikeliest places, like a tale of insatiable hunger (Summers walking into rivers). Or a dispatch from a dark room (Photonastic Movements). Once, even in a painting of acceptance (Dust).

Well into my affair with newsletters, I wondered when, why, and how this shift in my reading preferences came to be. At the time, I couldn’t recall actively straying from articles or profiles, which I will forever enjoy reading. Three years ago, when I was still active on TinyLetter — a publishing platform that allows writers to directly send digital newsletters to their readers via email — I was only interested in my close friends’ publications. So how did I find myself venturing into what seemed like a completely different publication scene, one that Molly Fischer from The Cut presented as “a new literary genre?

Late last year, I fell into a subscribing spree, signing up for all kinds of newsletters with abandon. Photos courtesy of TICIA ALMAZAN

Newsletters have been around since the mid-15th century in Venice, Italy, where “subscribers would receive handwritten letters twice a week rounding up interesting events.” Unique to its time, the newsletter’s handwritten nature allowed for the collection of time-sensitive news from various sources, since clerks had the liberty of updating letters before they were mailed.

In present time, from my placid corner of Rizal, a year or so into isolation, I suspect that email newsletters assuage a collective yearning for others’ perspectives, if only to delude ourselves into believing that we are elsewhere. Rendered mostly immobile by health restrictions, I sought newsletters as a form of reprieve from my geographical and social media spaces. Others seemed to share the same sentiments. Over the pandemic, Substack — another online newsletter service, which launched after TinyLetter — saw its readership and writership double during its first three months.

Of course, personal writing isn’t always received with open arms. In 2018, Erica Buist published “The Personal Newsletter Fad Needs to End,” where she posits newsletters as a product of vanity. She writes:

I already update people on my life via Twitter. [...] You are already getting daily updates (half-hourly if I’m angry on a train). To add to that by also showing up in people’s inboxes with 30 tweets worth of stuff about me, me, me — that takes a level of self-confidence that, frankly, brings me right back to envy.

In present time, from my placid corner of Rizal, a year or so into isolation, I suspect that email newsletters assuage a collective yearning for others’ perspectives, if only to delude ourselves into believing that we are elsewhere.

Compared to Twitter and Instagram, newsletters are generally more thoughtful and substantial, as a result of exercising the long form. According to The Guardian, there exists a direct link between an individual’s number of Facebook friends and the prevalence of narcissism-associated traits. On Twitter, 500 million tweets are sent out each day, and the same figure accounts for the number of people who use Instagram Stories daily.

My thoughts on Buist’s article were eloquently put by the top commenter, who defended the format: “I find newsletters great. It’s a longer form of content. It’s unobtrusive, not in-your-face, convenient and flexible.” This couldn't be truer now. A scroll through Instagram will likely deliver scant captions, while a one-woman-run newsletter will probably lend you fresh insight.

The medium’s strength lies in its individuality, which Buist identifies as a flaw. Unlike social networking sites or periodicals, newsletters are without a voice to emulate or mold to fit into, because the focus lies in one’s distinct manner of shaping raw experiences and emotions. Just like my experience on my revived blog, where I used to write entries on: summer playlists, Valentine’s Day, boredom and now in quarantine: writing, yoga, coincidences; the personal newsletter is a blog, pushed. An honest, earnest connection with readers who have the power to respond, and even unsubscribe. I spill into my friend’s notebook, and pray they won’t pull away.

When I’d just started on TinyLetter in 2018, my prose was frequently birthed in the early hours of the morning, because I liked to remind myself that honesty is best nurtured in quietude. Each letter was an attempt to untangle my knots of emotions and thoughts, with the goal of producing something I could actually hold. I intended for TinyLetter to be a mode of self-exploration, but somewhere between that desire and the rise of my subscriber count, it instead evolved into a never-ending performance. Prioritizing my audience, I mostly wrote to get their praise in return.

And even when sending out letters floated my fear of my subscribers’ opinions to the back of my mind, it was replaced instead with a fear of producing clutter — something that was already said, or that didn’t need to be said.

The author's personal journal. Photo courtesy of TICIA ALMAZAN

The value of personal writing really crystallized for me when I fell into that rabbit hole of mindlessly subscribing to other people’s letters in the middle of the pandemic. The more I engaged with that kind of text, the more I grew appreciative of the writer’s insistence on her individuality. When one embraces her uniqueness, she becomes more attentive to the motions that inspire and inform the ways she digests the world; she deepens her relationship with herself and those around her. In the best times, one’s individuality can even illuminate that of another. I know this is true because that’s exactly what those Substack writers did for me.

These thoughts sat with me when I decided to migrate to Substack in early 2020. Even before switching, I already intended to adopt a more instinctive approach to my letters. The journey of course was nonlinear as ever, peppered with false starts, messy drafts, and endless back-and-forths. But at some point it just started to feel very organic, the act of collecting information (intimacies) from various sources (heart, mind, memory). When I click Send now, what comforts me is knowing that the act of delivering a letter to multiple inboxes, which I imagine happening one by one, is simultaneously an act of letting go.

I still love to write, but a goal of mine is to also read at least one letter a day. I know it sounds relatively easy, but reading is still an act of receiving, and receiving is an act of bearing weight, in multiple capacities. Each letter feels like a celebration and critique of modern life and its everyday complexities. They remind me that no matter how perfunctory these days get, someone, somewhere, is coming to a new conclusion.