The Lost Art of Letter-Writing

It’s the last weekend of August and in this part of the world, that means that the days are getting shorter and the evenings and mornings are getting cooler.  At the cabin, the wide branches of the trees keep the warm sun hidden.  A few more weekends and we’ll have to light the stove to get rid of the chill in the air.

I’m sitting at my new favourite table in front of the windows that look out over the marsh. My coffee is steaming beside me and I have pen in hand writing a letter in response to a friend who lives across the country.  I start the letter by describing the excitement and anticipation of getting a real hand-written letter in the mail – a feeling not often felt anymore in our world of email, text and social networking.

In my quest to live a life more intentioned, more reflective, more connected to those around me, I decided to start hand-writing letters to a couple of friends that I thought would be receptive to the idea. These friends live far away and so personal visits are very rare, if not non-existent. We are friends on Facebook but that just didn’t cut it. I wanted to connect with them again. I wanted to hear about what was going on in their lives. I wanted to be a real friend and not just a cyber “friend”.

I’m responding to the second letter I’ve received in the mail this summer and the excitement and anticipation of seeing the envelope, setting aside every other job so that I can sit and enjoy reading it, and then learning about so many different aspects of the writer’s life is such a welcome and long-forgotten joy.

I’ve often wondered why letters – real, hand-written letters – inspire such happiness and closeness between writer and reader.  In the last few months, I’ve begun to recognize the subtle, yet significant, differences between hand-written letters and other types of contemporary communication (including typed letters).  (I compare letters a lot to emails because emails have the potential to contain the most content but the arguments are sound for other electronic modes of communication.)

First of all, emails are often rushed, part of a list of a million things to do.  Whereas letters can only be properly written if time is carved out of a schedule specifically for the task of writing.  The letter writer must devote a substantial amount of time to compose a coherent and relevant letter that reflects the writer’s personality and honours the recipient’s character.

Emails can be typed at a much faster rate than a letter can be written.  But because of this, details, nuance, even social niceties are often absent.  How many emails have I written to friends or colleagues that consist of one or two lines, a simple question for which I am hurriedly looking for an answer (“Hi there, what time did you say the lecture started at?  Thanks.”) or a text throwing a piece of information at the recipient (“Pick up milk” or “On my way.”)?  How many emails, texts or Facebook messages have I received doing the exact same thing?

Or worse, receiving one of these messages from people who are upset, who have not only completely disregarded proofreading but have also thrown any sense of professionalism or propriety out the window.  These authors feel that they can hide behind their computer screen and say whatever they want, regardless of the harm they inflict.  Pressing the ‘send’ button makes it way too easy for people to be rude.

Emails lack decorum. They lack romance.  They lack mystery.  They serve a purpose, as do blogs, and other social networking means of communication, but deep connection is not one of them.  People do not bare their souls in email.  Throughout the difficult times in my life, I have never bared my soul via email or social networking.  I have always either written it in a letter or if it is of great importance and of a timely matter, I’ll call. The nature of brevity that is inherent in electronic means of communication make deep personal connection impossible.  Where is the magic in opening your inbox to find all your messages, their subjects and their first lines right in front of you, whether you are sitting at your office desk or cozy in your armchair?

With a letter, the reader is allowed the opportunity to settle into a comfy seat, cup of coffee or glass of wine in hand and imagine that they are about to have a wonderful conversation with the writer.  And before that happens, the writer can seat themselves somewhere reflective and inspiring (for me this morning, it was looking out through the birch trees over the foggy marsh), relax, and reflect deeply on what is important enough to write about.  (Having only received two letters so far this year, I have not been able to scrounge up the self-control to actually pour a glass of wine, find a comfy seat and inform the household that I am not to be interrupted until I am finished reading the letter.  I tend to run home from the mailbox, throw myself onto the sofa, rip open that envelope with a fervour resembling a kid at Christmas opening presents and completely ignore the fact that the dogs might have to go pee after having been locked in a room for eight hours.)

The content of a handwritten letter is always so much more meaningful than another method of communication.  Even on the phone, there is the need to fill empty space, when really, maybe the empty space is needed for someone to connect with and articulate their deeply personal feelings about a subject.  A letter feels more private, more inviting to share our feelings, worries and events in our lives.  As if by putting them on to paper, we are opening up our souls in the safety of a warm hug.  Knowing that someone is willing to take the time and care not only to write a letter but to write back is not a person who would treat your personal stories, opinions and emotions as fodder.

Why?  Why is writing a letter so much more personal, so much deeper than writing an email or even a typed letter?  I remember in one of my university courses years ago, we were required to keep a hand-written journal of our reflections on the material presented in class.  Having been a wanderer for many years, I found myself older than most of the other students and having grown up writing letters, journals and assignments by hand, this was not a problem for me.  Of course, it also helped that I have always found journal-writing to be very therapeutic so the task of organizing my thoughts this way was not new to me.

But the younger generations almost incited mutiny.  Seriously, they took that prof to town, harassed him, went to the head of the faculty, to the point where he finally allowed these students to type their reflections. His point through the entire fiasco was that there is a particularly reflective thought process that occurs when hand-writing something.  It’s like the difference between understanding the functions of a manual camera and creating thought-provoking and beautiful photographs through that medium and taking photos with your phone and manipulating them through Instagram.  In handwriting, there is skill and forethought involved, a sense of rhythm and flow and of course, a strong knowledge of the grammatical conventions of the English language.

A letter-writer must think about what they want to say.  They must form their thoughts BEFORE they write them down.  Unlike electronic means, in which you can easily go back and change or edit something you’ve said, when handwriting, your ideas need to have already been thought out and refined.  If not, you are going to end up with an ungodly mess on your paper.  I wrote a letter like this last month – just wrote whatever came into my head, added to it whenever I had a few minutes and after three pages of incoherence, scribbled corrections, interjected details and the mish-mash of different inks, I tossed it aside and started anew.  To send a letter that has not been well thought out is disrespectful of the relationship between reader and writer.  If you’re not actually going to care about doing a time-consuming and emotionally invested action as letter writing, then why do it at all?

Come to think of it…maybe when we wrote letters as a culture, we spoke to each other the same way.  We paid attention to what was being said to us, we reflected on what we wanted to say before we actually said it, we included details in an organized manner, we were polite, we treated our interlocutors as contributing members of the discussion and not just sounding boards for our own opinions.  Unlike today’s one-sided conversations which resemble competition more than conversation.

In my quest for a more authentic life, I’m going to continue to write letters to those whom I don’t see on a regular basis and with whom I wish to keep in close contact and who also appreciate the act of writing and receiving letters.  By no means can I afford to get rid of the other means of communication in my life nor do I feel that anyone else should – email, texts, good old-fashioned phone calls are absolutely necessary and highly effective for their purposes.  But writing letters keeps me focused on what’s important.  It grounds me.  It forces me to slow down and think about my life and the life of the person to whom I am writing.  It allows me to connect with friends on a level that can’t as easily be reached through other means, when face to face conversation is not an option.

I encourage you to try writing a letter to a long, lost friend and to reflect on whether it brings you to a more grounded, more peaceful place.

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