The Lost Art of Letter Writing

I’m a sentimental person. I can’t help it. And what do sentimental people do? Well, they hold onto everything. In my room I have an entire box filled with old letters. Other than birthday cards or Christmas notes, most of the letters in that box are from my elementary days. When I was nine, my family moved to Europe and I spent the fifth grade studying in southern France before moving to a mid-sized city outside Paris for sixth grade. When we moved, I continued to correspond with friends, but not via Facebook or MSN or text. Rather, we communicated through hand-written letters. While email had certainly existed for quite some time it didn’t hold the same allure. Letter writing, it seemed, invoked a sense of timelessness. The letters also acted as proof that people cared enough to sit down and share their thoughts and feelings with me. I rarely write letters nowadays and I have to admit, I feel quite grieved by the vanishing nature of this ancient practice. I miss opening my mailbox to find more than Enmax bills or flyers advertising handy services.

I revisited the concept of letter writing the other day, after stumbling upon an article that taught its readers “how to write a letter.” I was baffled. How to write a letter? Really? I kid you not, the article began by instructing its readers to begin with “Dear (name)” and to proceed by unveiling the on-goings defining one’s life in the letter’s body. Although I felt shocked to find such an article, I have also heard of many informal and lazy emails. A professor of mine recently expressed exasperation at the lack of care put into emails she and other professional staff were receiving. So perhaps people do need reminding that beginning a letter (or an email) by addressing the person at hand is not simply a formality, but an expression of care.

What I am most intrigued about is why letters seem to extract from every writer noticeable sensitivity. Letters often demonstrate an acute awareness in regards to physical and emotional worlds. My proposed answer is not because typed words are dull and hand-written words exude spellbinding charm, but rather because a letter’s journey is often long and weary. A letter journeys from its writer’s hands to a mailbox, eventually meets new hands, is transformed from one vehicle to another. Perhaps a letter will travel across the Pacific, through the Andes or across the Sahara. Perhaps it will get lost. Perhaps it will be burned or drowned. A letter endures great risk. Thus, the initial writer, knowing it could be weeks before further communication is facilitated, must be thoughtful and more importantly, generous.

The inability to communicate with immediacy, an immediacy to which we, in the modern day, are greatly accustomed to, encouraged individuals to consider their words. They could not send a Facebook message, look at the wording and decide to follow up with a second message to rephrase the first. Consider the opening lines of a letter written by a woman named Ivy to Private John Bateman Beer on the 24th of August 1917. She writes:

For the last month I have been endeavouring to pluck up sufficient courage to write and tell you that everything must be over between us.

No doubt you will think me awfully unkind and perhaps fickle to write this while you are away, but this matter has worried me a great deal, and I have been halting between two opinions, as to whether it would be kinder to let you know now, and let myself be called unfaithful, or to wait until you come home, although knowing all the time in my heart that I was untrue.

Now it would be wrong of me to claim that, in the age of computers, one does not consider his or her words. I am simply considering trends. I know of many who regret late night texts inspired by one too many glasses of wine or messages sent in moments of whirlwind panic. I know I am guilty of the above. The ability to send a message without “thinking” has led me to make choices I regret. Owning smartphones allows us to text, email or message at all hours. In a sense, messages reflect conversational patterns in a way that hand written letters do not. I believe that the short, colloquial nature of quick messages reveals how accustomed we’ve become to immediate answers. I often receive “???” from friends if I stall on replying to a text but rarely did I receive follow up letters upon taking an extra week to respond to a postcard. Letter writing requires more than a firm hand and a thoughtful mind, the ancient practice requires patience. So perhaps, in knowing that letter writing is unlikely to witness a revival anytime soon, we can attempt to incorporate patience, generosity and thoughtfulness into our modernized methods of communication.

Written by Emma Gammans


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