The Lost Art of Letter Writing

A few weeks ago, my husband’s aunt sent me a handwritten letter.  I will be honest here – when I first received it, I opened it up, felt the thickness of the folded up yellow sheets, and inwardly groaned.  I wanted to have enough time to sit and read the entire thing without interruption, but when was I going to find that?  I carried the letter with me for several weeks shoved in my purse or my backpack, but I never got to it during the work week.

I finally found the time Saturday afternoon, and when I finished reading the letter, I felt a huge sense of loss for all the letters I haven’t received or written since email, texting, and facebook appeared in my life.

She had written a ten page thoughtful reflection on one of my blog posts.  She questioned some of my points, reflected on others, and shared several personal stories my words had inspired.  Though nothing sentimental existed in the letter, I almost cried when I finished reading it.  It was heartfelt and addressed to me.  It was more than just a blog comment or a status update.

Two years ago, I finished a giant project compiling all of the old family photos, letters, and memorabilia that my dad and all of his ancestors had saved since the late 1800’s.  In the boxes of stuff he  gave me were stacks of envelopes rubber banded together.  There was one faded and yellowed letter from Dutch Harbor, Alaska.   My pregnant great grandmother had written to her sister in law in Idaho after following her husband north where they sought their fortune in the Yukon gold rush.  She discusses the trials of living there while he worked out at the mine site.  She also lists all the prices of the fruit that had just come in on a boat and her excitement to have some fresh fruit.

Another letter came from my great grandfather to my grandfather congratulating him on his impending marriage to my grandma (the baby born in Alaska).  There were many letters documenting my father’s life from 1956 when he left home to go to college through the mid-eighties.   My grandmother, my Dad, and my mom all saved our family’s written correspondence, so there are letters my Dad wrote to his mother as well as  her responses.  In one series of letters, my grandmother was quite upset at his lack of correspondence.  I never knew that side of her, so they were funny to read.  There are also letters my grandmother had sent home during her travels with my grandfather, and letters my sister and cousins had sent to her.

As I organized them, I laid them all out in chronological order.  These letters provide a fascinating glimpse into all of our lives as well as our nation’s history.  Some of the letters included newspaper clippings with reflections on what was happening.  They are a treasure.  My kids won’t have such tangible evidence of our daily lives.  Perhaps in this technological era they won’t miss it, but the fact that they might not even be aware of their loss saddens me more than anything.

Gary’s aunt reminded me of all of this as I read the first true letter I have received in years. I plan on responding, hopefully sooner rather than later.  I will write my letter by hand on the stationery that I’ve had but neglected for years, address the envelope, and put an actual stamp on it.   And I will save her letter, the old fashioned way, in a shoe box or a drawer.  Maybe she will save mine and someday somebody can go back and read them.  Maybe they’ll learn something, or maybe they’ll throw them away.  But either way, a little piece of me and a little piece of her will be on an actual piece of paper somewhere and not a hard drive.  I like that idea.

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13 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Letter Writing

    1. I’ve actually written quite a bit of my fiction by hand, and I enjoy that. It is relaxing and sometimes easier for me to “get in the zone” that way too.

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  1. The gracefuly art of letter writing is not yet lost for those of us who appreciate this form of expression. Your efforts in preserving your family history in this manner are to be commended Amy. Your children will one day be grateful for the gift you are giving with your time, talent and attention as you create a legacy for them to carry forward to future generations. Do you think there might be a book in there somewhere?

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    1. I do think there might be a book in there somewhere, in fact, I was thinking about that this morning after I posted it. I’m not sure what or how, but there’s definitely the seed of something in the compost bin.

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  2. We have many letters and notes stashed away in a trunk at my parent’s home that we get out about once a year and read…again. I miss letters too, and haven’t sent or received one since my grandmother passed about 4 years ago now. I know there are letter writing networks online for people dedicated to keeping the art of letter writing alive. I’m thinking maybe it’s time for me to dive in.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I found you via She Writes.

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    1. That’s really interesting that your family does that so regularly, but I can understand why. There’s something about an old letter that has such a connection to real people, far more so than an email. I haven’t heard of or seen letter writing networks, but I might check them out. It reminds me of the pen-pals I had during elementary school. I just checked out your site. I love the ABC’s of freelance writing series you did – really creative and interesting.

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  3. Hello. Since I am the aunt who wrote the 10 page letter I will throw in my comments.

    First, this was the first letter I have written by hand in over 30 years. We aren’t counting christmas cards. About the time Amy started this blog of hers I was spending time thinking about my own writing and what I might write about if I were going to share it. Also about the same time I found a letter written by someone’s grandmother to her grandson. I was immediately taken back to my childhood remembering letters home from aunts and uncles and grandparents who were away from home. There was a definite difference in the content and emotions within letters from generations past. I had decided my writing will be letters. Maybe not on paper all the time but for now this will be my excercise.

    Second, I didn’t do an outline, I didn’t even sketch out points before writing it. Even though I am conscious of the fact that Amy is an English teacher, and sometimes that might have made me very self conscious of my writing to her. I just went with the flow and was certainly amazed at 10 pages of hand written communications. My handwriting fluctuates, my mind goes off on tangents,’ but free writing is still a wonderful experience.

    I wasn’t sure if Amy would respond…especially since I had given my opinion where it wasn’t asked for. Now since it was on paper – what did I say? I sure didn’t make a copy of it, scan it or retype it. But since I wrote from my heart I felt good about it.

    I cried when I read this post. She really got it! The real part about writing a letter. Whether it is on paper or on screen, letter writing can be wonderful. Perhaps now I will actually print out some of the letters I receive and write and keep the paper, too. Thank you so much Amy!, Will be watching for your letter in the mail too.

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    1. Thank you for sending the letter – I’m sorry it took me so long to respond to you. I still haven’t written my letter response, but I will. I think my favorite part was the fact that you didn’t outline it or sketch it out, you just wrote from your heart and that came through. I really enjoyed it.

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  4. I was excited to receive a ‘hand written’ envelope and note card from YOU Amy on Saturday. It was the first envelope, in a stack of mail, I opened…. It included a check for your Costco order, but you wrote on the card and signed it…. It wasn’t just a check in an envelope. Thank you for that special moment in time you shared with me.

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    1. I would agree that “I plan to . . . ” sounds a bit stronger than “I plan on . . .,” but I disagree that it is incorrect. It is an issue of style, not grammar. The verb “to plan” can take either an infinitive as in “I plan to respond,” or it can take a prepositional phrase with a gerund as in “I plan on responding.” Either version is grammatically correct.

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  5. Oh, I loved this! I used to write letters all the time. In fact, I was one of the last converts to email because I loved the feeling of nice paper and the flow of a fountain pen across it. Now, I almost never open the box of stationary or pull out the nice pens. I’d forgotten how much I missed it.

    Thank you for the reminder.

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