The Lost Art of Writing a Letter
© 2013 B.L. Bierley
I love writing letters. No, not in an email—though I will do that in an emergency or when expediency is the key. No, what I mean is an actual stationary-and-pen letter. And believe me they are a dying breed. Only a handful of people I know still take the time to find paper, use a pen, and write a longhand letter to anyone these days. It makes me quite sad.
I started thinking about this the other day when I was waiting for my daughter in the doctor’s office. I was using my iPad as a portable surface for my paper as I wrote a handwritten letter to my pen pal of twenty-five years. A woman looked at me like I was using sticks and dry grass to make a fire.
After I explained my activity, the woman asked, “Why don’t you just use your tablet to email her?”
I was upset by this. Emails, however useful and expedient in an emergency, aren’t as warm and friendly. And you don’t get a cute little envelope or a stamp! But more importantly emails are so quick they take the thoughts and the sentiments right out of a letter. Emails are, to me, the equivalent of shouting over a cubicle wall at work to keep from having to walk to my desk and say what you need to say to my face. It’s a little obnoxious to send a good friend an email instead of writing them a heart-felt dialogue on paper.
Letters: The First Social Networking Devices!
Evidence shows that letters were, in their day, sometimes the only means of socializing with friends. Anyone who was too far away for a daily meeting would rely on hearing from their friends in a letter to know that they were safe or to hear what had been going on in their area of the world. Sharing news in kind was expected in return.
We have only to look at literature from a couple of centuries ago to see that this was sometimes the only way to find out what people were up to or share your news.
‘``Tell your sister I am delighted to hear of her improvement on the harp, and pray let her know that I am quite in raptures with her beautiful little design for a table, and I think it infinitely superior to Miss Grantley's.''
``Will you give me leave to defer your raptures till I write again? -- At present I have not room to do them justice.''
``Oh! it is of no consequence. I shall see her in January. But do you always write such charming long letters to her, Mr. Darcy?''
``They are generally long; but whether always charming, it is not for me to determine.''
``It is a rule with me, that a person who can write a long letter, with ease, cannot write ill.''’— an excerpt from Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 10, during an exchange between Miss Bingley and Mr. Darcy.
Letters were for many the only means of entertainment during the months when travel for most people would be inconceivable. Receiving a long letter was more meaningful than a quick note for many reasons. It was more than a mark of friendship and effort. It also conveyed to the recipient that the sender was in good standing financially, especially if they could send a long letter by post!
Of course it was expected that if a friend was going in the direction of other friends or relations, they would offer to convey a lengthy letter to save their friend the cost of posting the letter!
“I kept my letter open, that I might send you word how Louisa bore her journey, and now I am extremely glad I did, having a great deal to add. In the first place, I had a note from Mrs. Croft yesterday, offering to convey anything to you; a very kind, friendly note indeed, addressed to me, just as it ought; I shall therefore be able to make my letter as long as I like.”—Persuasion, Chapter 18, a letter from Mary Musgrove to her sister Anne Elliot.
This was especially important when the cost of posting a letter was based on the weight of the item. Often the postage price could be more than the cost of an entire family meal! The heavier the letter, the more it would cost to send. You might think this absurd as most letters then and now weigh only a few ounces at most. But considering the rest of the population did all of its correspondence and a great deal of business through the mail, the ounces added up quickly and the heavier the load, the slower the coach!
Entrusting letters to a friend was considered a high favor of the day. I equate it to the act of sharing or “liking” someone’s post or marking a post as a “favorite” or “re-tweeting” in the social media outlets today. It’s was such a compliment!
Think for a moment how often you get a private message from a friend these days that isn’t shared with ten or twenty others in the address line? Is there anything sacred between friends anymore? That’s why I appreciate a letter or even a card sent through the “snail mail” directly to my door.
I know when I open a letter that what I will find inside was written for me to read and enjoy. I don’t have to forward it onward or expect anyone else to have knowledge of it. It’s just my friend sharing bits of her world with me through the art of language. It’s original and personal, and I appreciate it ever so much more than an email that fifty people and I must equally share.
Likewise when I write to my friend she gets the whole of me in return. She sees my mistakes and corrections. She knows that I took time out of my life to write to her personally as well. I love finding a new stationary and a unique pen to spell out my thoughts and developments for her in longhand. Something I love more than most things in life is an ink pen that writes beautifully without skips or leaks marring the lines of my letters and words. That’s one of the best gifts anyone can give to me … a really good pen!
One of my best friends always gives me pens and paper with every gift-giving holiday. It might seem old-fashioned, but I actually anticipate Georgia’s gifts because of the peculiar knack she has for finding notebooks and journals and pens that she knows I will love. And I reciprocate by sending her a handwritten thank you, using some of her gifts!
Missing Love Letters
Email is green. It’s convenient, and it’s usually free. But in a typed note or letter it’s harder to get the tone of a person’s feelings. In handwritten notes the slant of the letters or the haste and pressure of the writing tells you a lot. The choice of stationary or the neatness and legibility give hints to the person’s mood or sentiments, too. Emotions show in handwriting, and you cannot get that so easily in an email.
In fact, who wouldn’t love to get a handwritten love letter from an admirer or even someone you have secretly loved for years?
“`I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of thatvoice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in
—Persuasion, Chapter 23, the handwritten letter given to Anne Elliot
by Captain Frederick Wentworth
To me, there was always something about seeing a letter written just for me by a loved one that made me feel fantastic. I’ve never gotten that rush of emotion from a cool email. Letters are much more trustworthy. Back when I was a girl if you got a handwritten note from a boy you knew that it was written for you and only you.
Nowadays you have no way to know the person sending you a well-typed email didn’t use keyboard shortcuts to copy the entire business, paste it into another new email composing screen and send it to a dozen other females with the blind courtesy copy function! It’s no wonder people of my generation have a tough time trusting anything these days. Today people can take the writing of others and pass it off as their own with a simple cut and paste, or they will repeat what they have seen by re-manufacturing the excerpt for others thus killing the creative genius of originality again and again. We have removed the proof entirely! You only see the blood, sweat and tears of love in a handwritten letter.
I still to this day have the very first note Cap ever wrote to me, the slip of paper with his home and work phone numbers (since I wouldn’t give mine out to a guy I just met, he gave me his). I still have the first note he wrote to me after we got married telling me that what I’d made for dinner the previous evening was delicious and that he loved me and didn’t want to wake me as he was going in to work early. These are treasured memories for me. They’re evidence that I was important to a man I met, enough for him to be the brave one and share his personal numbers with a strange woman he just met. And I know I am loved by this man because he took the time at a very early hour to tell me so in writing.
One surefire proof of the genuine validity of handwritten letters is handwriting! Everyone’s style of writing was unique in a way that typing, even with the hundreds of different fonts, can never achieve. When the mail arrived, I knew when I saw my mother’s handwriting on the envelope that the letter was just for me! And I could recognize the handwriting of any rival for a favored boy’s affection in the slanted lettering of covert correspondence and the smell of perfume sprayed on the pages to give them her signature scent as an extra olfactory temptation. But I also knew my best friends’ cursive upon sight as well. Unfortunately, teachers always knew who wrote the sentences in an assignment—even if it was copied! They could tell by the syntax of a sentence whose it was in those days!
I remember getting a letter from my boy just minutes before we’d leave school for the day. He would ask me to read it and then write him back. I remember turning on my stereo and reading the letter out loud in my room and hearing his voice in every word, even though it was my own voice saying each line.
I remember my girlfriends’ gossip coming to me in the little rectangles that we girls learned to fold to keep the contents a secret from passing nosy folks who would always want to know what we were talking about to one another. My friends and I would save letters in shoeboxes beneath our beds to re-read when we were lonely or just wanted to see the proof again of someone’s words.
I also remember how short my boyfriends’ letters always were compared to mine. Still, I loved to read the hard-won words of a quiet male immortalized forever on wide-ruled notebook paper! I knew the difficulty of their handwritten love letters because I’d heard my male friends lamenting about writing letters to their girlfriends. I also remember telling them to suck it up and just say what they felt and quit worrying about it.
I think how much easier the boys had it back then. At least if a boy wrote a silly, mushy letter, it was usually only one girl who would see it. And even if she shared the letter’s contents with a few close friends, it was nowhere near as damning it would be today. In those days if he demanded to have the letter back he could just toss it in the coal furnace behind the school auditorium or maybe ask one of the older boys who smoked to light the shredded letter on fire for him in a metal garbage can (the seventies and eighties were a different time, folks).
Nowadays an email can be forwarded around the globe to ridicule him on an international level for his goofy poem or his rampant misspellings! No, give me a paper letter any day for that reason alone! At least with paper a person could try to deny having written it! Email has an IP nightmare to trace the origin back to the original sender every time!
Where History is Made
Literature is full of examples of how important letters were to people in the time the work was written. Letters told the reader the importance of things that happened outside of the narrator or the protagonists’ world. Letters were plot devices when they ran afoul or told of misdeeds or good fortunes. Many a memoir has been built by someone using old correspondence to remind them of what they were about when they made decisions or changes in their past.
If you study history at all as a subject, you will find that were it not for letters much of what we know about the personal and intimate details of our leaders would be unknown to us. Letters were written not only by those leaders but also by their servants, their supporters and their enemies and their friends. We owe a lot of our knowledge to the courier who documented his employers’ going and coming to his family back home. We owe what we know about the fate of our nation in letters that were written telling of historic events as they happened.
Now you can argue that email can do this today, and you’d be correct. But think how much more we get when the message is personal and detailed like a note or letter written from one friend to another. We take the time to give intimate details the regular masses might overlook. It’s sad to think that what we see in the personal world of historical letters will be virtually non-existent to most people in the future, unless they’ve got good hacking skills and can break old email accounts to find deleted emails in the web of nothingness that will have passed by that time.
Will the email data remain in the ether for our children and grandchildren to learn what really happened in the world of their youth? Will anyone nine generations forward of our lives be able to discover anything worth a darn in a file of old emails? Will there be anything left for them that will benefit their knowledge of the past? Maybe I’m an old fogey for not seeing the value of that type of correspondence just yet. But discovering a letter that can be verified and authenticated just seems more believable than an email that could have been fabricated with ease by anyone with a keyboard. Just saying.
A Dying Breed
I recently took up my pen and wrote some letters to a few family members I hadn’t written to in a while. It was refreshing to sit and use my handwritten skills to tell them what has been going on with me and my family. Most of them were surprised by such effort on my part. A few even commented that it was nice to see something in their mailbox besides a bill or junk mail. That made me smile.
I only know that when my children are away at college or moving out to start families of their own someday I will continue my handwritten letter campaign as long as the U.S. Postal Service continues to allow private mail! I want my kids to know that I love them enough to sit down with a pen and paper and share a piece of my mind with them, tell them I love them using neat penmanship to show how much I mean it. I want them to know the excitement of feeling a full envelope bursting with pages of what they’ve missed from their childhood home.
Letter writing will not die with me, I hope. I will write to my grandchildren and maybe if I’m lucky my great-grandchildren, too. I will share the art of written affection with them, and reminisce about the good old days when letters used to be more important than a quick, half-spelled text message. They were physical proof that love existed. Sometimes they were delayed, sometimes misdirected too, but when you received a letter you knew that someone loved you enough to take the trouble to tell you personally. Letters are shared experiences with others! And that, my friends, should never be allowed to perish.