We rarely write letters anymore. When was the last time you received a newsy, handwritten letter in the snail-mail from a dear friend or family member? (The only one who writes to me these days is the woman from the Tom Ford cosmetic counter at Bergdorf where I bought two lipsticks over a year ago. It’s nice that she still sends me the occasional note with color swatches and samples, but for once I would love an unexpected letter in the mail.) Do you remember the last time you were excited to retrieve the mail because you were anticipating correspondence from someone you had recently written to? On that note, when was the last time you actually wrote a letter?
A piece on All Things Considered that aired in September featured two women who had become pen pals in 1960, stayed in touch all these years, and just recently met. It was one of those stories that you stay in your car and finish listening to because it’s so touching. A month later, I’m still thinking about this story. It struck a chord.
As a kid and young teenager, I wrote letters all the time. I remember summer vacations at my dad’s, waiting for letters from my girlfriends back in Maine. Those letters were my connection to who broke up with whom, what new school clothes had been purchased, and all the happenings at the local mall. They sustained me. But more than that, they deepened our friendships.
I even had a pen pal from Austria. I don’t remember the details of how our correspondence came about, but her name was Elsa and she once sent me a Christmas tree ornament. I remember the delicate texture of the air mail paper and how European handwriting just looked different from American scrawl. We kept in touch all through high school and a little bit into college. Over the years I had other pen pals from distant lands. These relationships gave me insights into countries I had never visited and lives I could never imagine. Contrast that to today where I have close friends whose handwriting I could never even identify because we only communicate electronically.
Clearly letter writing (and notes… I’m sure kids don’t pass notes in study hall anymore) has been replaced by email and texts. Even my grandmother emails. I get the benefits email provides, such as instant gratification, but here’s the thing: would I ever let my kids email with some stranger in another country? Not on your life. While there is no way of knowing whether Elsa in Austria was really a 13-year old girl who liked the same music I did, a paper and ink relationship was safe. But more than that, it was profound.
Would the women profiled on NPR had remained lifelong friends if they casually emailed instead of letter writing? Will anyone ever write love letters again? Will my kids ever have a pen pal? Attention spans today may be short, but letters provide a chance for longevity. History needs letters.
So if you want to go old school, write me a letter. I promise to keep the letter (for posterity) and even to write back. You don’t even have to send me lipstick color swatches.
2 thoughts on “the long lost art of letter writing”
My uncle in Australia writes me long letters in near-illegible handwriting. He apologizes for their length–but I love getting them. I rarely write back (I email him), but I should.
You need to read the book, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The whole book is letters back and forth to various characters during WWII in England.