The Forgotten Art of Letter Writing


In the olden days, back in the time of hair metal and Reagonomics, before the Challenger explosion, in the era when computers were far less common, people were really good at letter writing. I was pretty good at it myself, once. Do you remember the last time you received a letter? An honest-to-goodness piece of handwritten correspondence, inside a sealed envelope, with a stamp on it? And I don’t mean from your kid’s orthodontist. I mean, from your kid! Or your cousin, or your mom. When did you send one? We communicate differently than we did thirty years ago. In the 90s our means of communication began to change, and now it’s almost complete. Letter writing is practically an artifact of a bygone era.

I’m reading the Doris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals. When she wrote the book, she must have read thousands of pages of personal correspondence. It’s amazing to me how people held onto their correspondence back then. I know writing to your friends and family was the primary form of distance communication before telegraphs existed. I’m just continually surprised at how much correspondence we have of some figures, and this stuff reveals quite intimate details about their lives. The private letters of William and Frances Seward (Lincoln’s Secretary of State) number in the millions of words.

Theodore Roosevelt was a remarkable letter writer. He wrote to just about anybody: friends, enemies, the press, colleagues, and of course his wife and children.

Ronald Reagan, I have heard, was the last great Letter writer-President. After that, the information age left the medium in the dust, as a communication technology from a bygone era.

What’s strange to me is they kept so many of the letters. Correspondence was held onto. Maybe it could be a person’s sole form of entertainment, in the long dull months when your loved ones are separated from you. I understand this sentiment. The last time I was truly prolific as a letter writer, I lived in France. I corresponded, all by hand, with dozens of people: classmates, fellow exchange students, and, of course, people back in the United States. I don’t remember what sorts of things I was telling folks. In general, I attended class, and some weekends, I went on short trips in the countryside with my host family. I had a considerable amount of stress and sadness because I didn’t always get along with them. But in all this, I wrote dozens and dozens of letters.

I was lonely. This is definitely one of the reasons I wrote so much that year. Every day the post office was open, I eagerly anticipated the phone call from my host parents’ office. Most days, I’d walk over, and browse the letters I got. I realized at some point that if I wanted to get mail, I’d have to actually send mail. It was the only way this sort of thing would work.

letter-writing

Sometimes I’d even get a package. My cousin Troy, and our fellow classmate Joe Mross, would send me audio cassette tapes of mock-radio programs (from KJOE-Troy of course). They would make these cassettes by sitting next to a boom box, talking about anything, sending popular American songs. This was the way I first heard the Violent Femmes (“Old Mother Reagan”), and Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”. Scott would also send cassettes. He’d talk and talk, and it would make me feel less lonely. They probably don’t know this but I would listen to their chummy talk and ridiculous banter for hours and hours. And I’d cry because I wanted to be there with them.

My mother would send me candy or cookies; sometimes beef, elk or deer jerky. That made me less lonely too, and maybe a bit more chubby. But in all those food and cassettes, I’d get 10-20 letters a week. Sometimes more, if I were assiduous with my writing habits.

I asked my Grandma and Grandpa Farmer to keep the letters I sent them, so I could look back and smile at the things I was doing. I think they returned these letters, but I have no idea where they are, or if I ever read them after they returned my correspondence. My friend Scott also said he kept the letters I mailed him. Recently he told me he would send them back so I could browse through them.

These days, I blog. That’s the primary source of my writing. But looking back, I sat and wrote every single day. Some days, I bet I’d write a few thousand words, between my journal–which I kept sporadically –and in correspondence with others. I could always find something new to say, occasionally with quick wit. But I would almost always respond to a letter I received. I wanted to hear from people.

Nowadays, I also use instant messaging and chat. It has some of the same qualities as writing a letter, but has the benefit of being immediate. Yet, like a book, a letter is something you can hold in your hand. It’s something you can read and re-read, on the beach or in bed, or just at your desk. You can stick it in a drawer and happily re-discover it months letter. It might smell like the lover who sent it to you. Or it might smell like elk jerky, which is almost as good.

I wonder what it would be like to use snail mail again. Would it be worth the hassle? From time to time, I actually think about going back and reviving the form. It’s a fantastic way to communicate, letter writing, if for no other reason than this: your heart pounds differently when you get a handwritten letter. It will beat a paradiddle instead of a flam. Don’t believe me? give me your address. Maybe I’ll send you a letter and you can find out for yourself.

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One thought on “The Forgotten Art of Letter Writing”

  1. My friend Becky famously (among my friends) collects stationery…more than she could ever use in her lifetime. The woman loves sending and receiving letters, and I’m happy to report that we still send each other snail mail. We did it even when we lived in the same town. Once, it took our small Northern California town’s post office a month to get her letter across the two mile gap between our houses. I still don’t know what that was about. I understand the longing for those olden days. I LOVE getting and sending snail mail. If you ever need someone to write to, I’ll be more than happy to provide my address. 🙂

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