Museum of Letters & Manuscripts, Paris: Keepers of the Letters, Frail Histories of our Lives

Before electronic communication, we wrote letters. Now that most of our communication is online, we can access old letters, sent or received, anytime with a simple search. But what happened to those real, physical letters you sent to friends, family and maybe even a few pen pals or chain letter recipients pre-1996? Where are those pieces of paper, those little frail histories of our lives? 

I love letter writing and, in a few boxes in Chicago, all the cards and letters I’ve ever received rest. I wondered where the letters I wrote were. At first, I wished all of those letters that I sent were saved somewhere, in the dark corners of friends’ and lovers’ apartments. But it’s almost better that they existed like clouds, between only me and its sole reader – giving to him, and to him alone, a little shade, a little rain for the garden… And then, gone.

Luckily for history’s sake, I’m not alone in my letter hoarding.

Tucked away in a courtyard surprisingly quiet for its boulevard de Saint-Germain address, the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris features written relics from folk famous, infamous and unknown. Any writer, reader of literature, history geek, folk fond of tactile correspondence, stationery freak or handwriting analyst should go immediately upon arrival in Paris to the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts (Museé des Lettres et Manuscripts en français). Thanks to letter-and-manuscript experts, purveyors and philanthropists (the founders of the MLM), Aristophil, I don’t now know how the MLM acquires or finds its artifacts… With a team of authenticators and a network of collectors (booksellers and individuals) and auction houses, Aristophil acquires rare finds like the Einstein-Besso manuscript – a precursor to his Theory of Relativity – from the estate of Malcolm Forbes. I’m certainly happy to have visited, especially the incredible Jack Kerouac On the Road exhibit that features his 1951 original typewritten-then-corrected-in-the-margins draft scroll that measures over 119 feet long.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac: The Epic, Written for the Screen; Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, Paris, France.

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The Kerouac exhibit resonated strongly with me because of my own strange and beautiful writing adventure. It’s been a month and few odd days since I left Chicago. Precisely, at this moment, I am typing this blog post at a kitchen table in the French countryside. I’m in a house of friends who I didn’t know until a few days ago, in front of me, a notebook full of ideas for writing that need terribly to be fleshed out. I’m a writer – a travel writer – figuring out how to do what I’m doing as I’m doing it.

As I travel and tell friends old and new what I am doing, I often hear, “I wish I could do that.” I’ve said those same words myself as recently as last year, when thinking about someone like Anthony BourdainI wish I could do that.

This is how I started this journey. In the spirit of the incredible Jack Kerouac On the Road exhibit at the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts (practical info at the bottom of this post!), I’m sharing an email I sent in reply a few months ago to Joan, a friend from college. She asked me how I launched this career as a freelance writer. She confided that she, too, dreamed of starting a career as an entrepreneur/author/speaker, but wasn’t sure how to go about it. Thanks, Joan, for allowing me to share this.

From what you’ve written here, it sounds like your heart is already clearly telling you what direction to go in. That is a big, big, huge deal. Sometimes we (I mean, me~) can get so jaded and listen too much to negativity for so many years, we don’t know what to do. So that’s a good thing, you already know the direction you want to go in. I didn’t have that myself actually, it took a while for me to listen and clearly hear where my heart wanted to go.

When I visited my mom last Christmas, I was already feeling like something wasn’t right, and we talked about it. I was an independent marketing consultant, and had been for a few years. I liked the freedom of having my own business, but something about the work – while nothing was inherently wrong with it -, I could feel it wasn’t the right direction for me. Then in January, my one and only client said he wasn’t going to be able to use my services any more. So I was at a crossroads.

I knew this work wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but it was the only thing (I thought) that I knew how to do, and anyway, what did I want? What is work? What can it be? Can work – my work – be any better (satisfying, gratifying, useful to the world and to others) than this? Are these questions that can or should be asked in these times?

I could have taken the news really badly. I don’t know if you knew this, but I had a bout with depression a few years ago, and one of my triggers is things related to work. Has to do with an awful, passive-aggressive boss I had, a lot of negative talk I heard from an ex and then started telling myself, and getting fired once or twice. I can tell you more about that if you want, but that’s another, longer story. Knowing this about myself, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I talked and corresponded with friends. I started asking myself what I really enjoyed. I read a lot. I thought, it really didn’t matter if I didn’t know how to make money right now, I could figure that out along the way if only I knew what direction to go in. (I have to say that I’m very, very lucky indeed to have a family who supports me unconditionally in all ways, including financially.) It’s a difficult task to re-imagine your life.

In the midst of this, a very good friend, Elizabeth, called me up and asked what she should pack on to her trip to France. She hadn’t gone abroad in a long time. We had a long talk, I gave her a lot of tips on what to bring, what not to bring and other travel bits and pieces about passports, iPhone apps she could download, etc. I’d gone to France – as you read – and also on a trip to Asia last fall so that’s why she turned to me for that specific advice. Finally the conversation on the phone ended and spilled over into texts of things I forgot to mention and finally Liz said to me, “You know, you should really write all of this down, maybe blog about it or something, you really know a lot about travel.” So I did. That one blog post turned into a few. I didn’t really know what I was doing – the blogging – I just liked doing it. And the sense of accomplishment it gave me was so important, as you know, when you are between gigs (AKA unemployed) to feel valid and valuable and a contributing member of society, even in this small way, means a great deal.

But as I continued to blog and finally scrape up the courage to ask myself if I should be a writer, I had a lot of doubts to dismantle. Could I do this? How do I do this… like, earn a living? What about spending a crap-ton of money at Northwestern for grad school for a marketing degree? How’m I gonna pay that off? I know very few people doing this kind of work, how do I make contacts? What if it doesn’t work out?

There’s a lot of uncomfortable stuff/feelings that you need to get good with. At the end of the day, you can choose the path less traveled, or you can choose another, or many others. You can always change direction if you get too scared, it becomes too intense, etc. But at least you’ll have tried to follow your dreams, right? I heard a really good quote once that kinda went like this: Right now you’re the oldest and presumably wisest as you’ve ever been and you’re also the youngest and presumably the most energetic that you ever will be. So take advantage of the now, because that’s all we really have.

I always love when folks start their sentences, “What I’d really like to do…” Because the only person really in your way of what you’d really like to do is you. Joan, you are accomplished, talented, smart, kind and wonderful person. You have a family and friends who cheer you on! You can do this. Just because you haven’t done it yet, or maybe you don’t know anyone yet who has, those are just excuses. No one gets anything handed to them. You can figure it out, you can make a bunch of mistakes, you can cry when it doesn’t go your way. And you can even fail miserably and in epic fashion. But at the end of the day, you’ll be much, much happier doing the work you love all the time, rather than only some or none of the time.

I’d like to challenge you to read the book, “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coehlo. This is a book I tried to read 10 years ago, but I wasn’t ready for what it presents. I think, even if you just read the introduction – which I constantly re-read -, you will benefit greatly.

Ok, I’ll get off my soapbox.🙂 I hope some of this makes sense, and maybe inspires you a bit. I would be more than happy to help you sort out questions or doubts if you want to make this an ongoing conversation. I have mine too, all the time.

I’m so hopeful for all that lies ahead of you, Joan. Remember to always go confidently in the direction of your dreams, so said Thoreau. Ok, even if we are not-so confident, that’s fine. Just go!

The Museum of Letters and Manuscripts is at 222, boulevard Saint-Germain, Métro: Rue du Bac (line 12), Sèvres-Babylone (lines 12 and 10), Saint-Germain des Prés (line 4). Admission costs € 7 for one regular price adult. (Often Parisian museums like MLM offer free or reduced prices for children, adults over 60 years of age, journalists, students, teachers and more.) The Museum is closed on Mondays, but is open all other days of the week from 10 AM to 7 PM, and Thursdays until 9:30 PM.

Please click on a thumbnail below to enjoy a full-screen view.

6 thoughts on “Museum of Letters & Manuscripts, Paris: Keepers of the Letters, Frail Histories of our Lives

    • Wow, that is awesome! Thank you for getting in touch with me. I am completely fascinated! I’ll add the “how” link from your website🙂

      I’ll have to come back to see the permanent collection – I’m afraid the first time I was so engrossed with the Kerouac exhibit, I ran out of time for the rest!

      Before I forget – I should compliment the MLM staff, too. I asked for a guide in English, and in French, she said they didn’t have one, but I could borrow one of the sample guidebooks on sale in the gift shop and walk around with it. Even though I didn’t get to see the permanent collection, I thought that was a thoughtful gesture.

      • So much to see at the museum ! Really hope to see you back soon.
        Are you travelling a lot in France, in Paris ?
        I’ll forward compliment to the MLM staff.
        If you follow us on twitter http://www.twitter.com/aristophil or facebook http://www.facebook.com/aristophil (sorry, even more Link/promotion ^^) you’ll see all our news and see that’s its free to visit the mlm on the 15th and 16th of september (European Patrimony Days). Nevertheless, news are only available in French….

        • I’d hoped to make it over this morning before I left… alas, it proved not possible. I also wanted to go by a few calligraphy stores, too… But I guess I’ll have to leave something for the next trip! Happy to have spent five weeks in France, and glad to have made MLM part of my itinerary!

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