12 October 2010

The Lost Art of Letter Writing


You're probably reading this post on a computer screen, right? Maybe a smartphone? But when's the last time you read an honest-to-goodness letter? One that someone sat down and wrote to you, then put in an envelope and mailed?

Now, when's the last time you wrote a letter?

*crickets chirping*

Uh huh, I thought so.

I'm not much better - I've written three cards in the last few months; those were tucked into packages, but the last real on-paper handwritten stamped-and-sealed (and not-in-a-package) letter I sent was probably a good four years ago. It's all email and IMs and Twitter and Facebook now, and though I admit I'm all over the outer two (I turned off the IM 'cause I really couldn't get anything done with that on... *ADD*), and it's fun to go back and forth in short little bursts like a conversation, sometimes I still miss the narrative of a good letter.

A bit of ancient history...

Like many kids, I went to camp far away from home, at least starting when I was 14. Being older than I look *cough* email wasn't really a viable option for keeping in touch with my friends back then when I was wandering around in California or British Columbia or Maine, or with the buddies I'd met there once I got back to Massachusetts. Soooo... we wrote letters. Back and forth, crisscrossing the continent, sharing news and random info and (in one notable instance) tufts of cat fur, as I was missing my kitties and a friend sent me some fluff (speaking of whom, Happy Birthday, Katie!). I kept in touch with my camp buddies for years this way, and in fact two of us managed to reunite at college 4 years later (and another one landed at Brown with Katie, come to think of it).

Where am I going with this?

Hands up, who's read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? How about Lady Susan? I love epistolary novels - characters know only as much as they reveal to each other, and we learn about things in "real time", as it were. A clever author can make each different writer have a distinct voice, even without endearing misspellings or turns of phrase to distinguish one from the other, and it's great fun to read between the lines or compare a character's telling of the same event to two different correspondents.

Now. Who's read ttyl? Or Entrapment? Somehow, IMs, texts and Tweets don't quite do it the same way for me - it's like an endless stream of dialogue, and we all know that's never a good thing ("show, don't tell", eh? {Besides, Entrapment is totally Cosi fan tutte all modernized, which is really mindwarping...}). Aside from the fact that it's a lot harder to distinguish personality (or even education) when you're looking at lines like "OMG show me 2mrw" (wow, that hurt), you don't get the chance to sink into any one character's personality or mindset before you're abruptly bounced into the next... and the next, and the next.

Erm, you know...

Yes, I do know. I'm a terrible snob, a Luddite, a backwards-looking slow-adapting left-behind. But try this experiment. Slow down. Think about how you'd tell an old friend about the latest news in your life. Now actually write the letter. Maybe you mail it, maybe you don't... but if you do, there will be a very pleased (and probably very surprised) recipient who just might write back. And you will have completed quite a nice little writing exercise.

I do get to the point eventually, y'know. :-)

Image: Public domain

9 comments:

Mary said...

I write to my grandson and his family all the time. Soon I'll be writing to his son. I used to love to write letters but the finger-locking thing has cut the list way back.

Rayna M. Iyer said...

I used to write to my mother till a few years back. Then she got on e-mail, and that was the end of physical letters.

My grandfather and I used to exchange letters every six months (or so)- he was in Maryland, me in India- but he passed away in 2004.

I don't remember writing a letter since.

You are right, writing a letter would be a great exercise for us now.

Cold As Heaven said...

Last time I wrote a real letter? Can't remember, but it's long time ago.

Letters have always been an important source in literature research. I'm wondering how that will be for those who are going to do research on our contemporary literature 100 years from now >:)

Cold As Heaven

Cruella Collett said...

I actually remember writing a letter on the computer, print it out, and send it by mail to a pen pal when I was 12-ish. My, I was cool!

It's been a while since I sent any proper letters now. Frankly I'm not to good with the proper emails either. The narrative suffers in my communication ex-blog in general these days...

Hart Johnson said...

I was a NUTSO pen pal until I was in my early 20s. Anymore, I really only write to my mom--she and my step-dad share email, so if I want anything personal, as opposed to informational... unfortunately, that has taken on a sort of negative tone--the good stuff I can share with both, the negative hand-written to her... I maybe should break that habit, because I agree with loving letters and the narrative that goes (then again, my IM is ALSO turned off)

Chary Johnson said...

I can't even remember the last time I wrote a letter. I used to have pen pals too when younger. However, after a while, I would just run out of things to write.

Now it's just email and texting.

ViolaNut said...

Mary - whoa, "finger-locking thing"? That sounds painful! :-(

Natasha - international letters rock! Bet your boys would love to see stamps from different countries... *nudge*

CaH - indeed. I own volumes of the letters of (to name just two) Jane Austen and W. A. Mozart. Emails may be harder to destroy, but... but... I've seen Händel's handwriting, for example! Now that is way cooler than his choice of font. :-P

Mari - I think we get credit for the weird stuff we stick in packages. And you've sent me postcards... granted, with giraffes on them, but... ;-)

Tami - yeah, I remember you saying you had pen pals. No cursed hats that made your ears shrivel up though, eh? ;-)

Chary - oh yeah right, like you could ever run out of things! It's only when we have to write something specific. Write random stuff and send it to somebody you usually email. Dare you. ;-)

Anu said...

I used to be such an avid letter writer, but now I cant remember when I last wrote one! as to my son, he doesnt even know what a letter is, even less what a post office is for. Which is why I recently started sending postcards to people... with a few lines written by my son... something is better than nothing, huh?

Shawn said...

I'm a letter-writing junkie myself and just discovered this site--www.thingsunsaidproject.wordpress.com. For those who enjoy letter writing, I'd pay it a visit. Interesting stuff.