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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

When is the last time you wrote someone a letter? Not an e-mail or text message, a real, handwritten with pen and paper, mailed in a stamped envelope letter. That's what I thought. And while this may seem an odd question to pose on a blog about books and reading, I think that they actually go quite well together.

We have become so addicted to instant communication that the very idea of writing someone a letter seems as ancient as 8-track tapes (if you don't know what those are, ask your mom). Even the speed of text messages and e-mails isn't fast enough for some people, giving rise to a host of abbreviations that I can't even begin to keep up with. And whether we realize it or not, there is a great danger in the loss of the letter.

The danger is that we will become the first generation in history to leave no written record of ourselves. If George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Ernest Hemingway had only used e-mail, would we have the same record of them that we possess through their letters and journals today? If Jefferson had sent text messages to Adams, think what would have been lost to history.

I realize the irony of saying this as I type an article that people I have never met will read. But will anyone go to the trouble of printing the article and filing it away for posterity? Not likely. Because it's just one of possibly hundreds they'll at least scan over the course of the day. It may have good information, and they may even put some of it to use, but no one will keep the article.

Even if they did, it is still not the same as a letter. A letter is a personal thing, even more now because we receive so few of them. They matter because they are personal in an increasingly disconnected world, and because they take time and effort (just like reading a book...see, the two can go together).

Here are a few suggestions for getting your letter writing started, and at the same time leaving a tangible, personal record that you really existed:

1. Choose a few friends or family members who are most likely to agree to begin a written correspondence with you. While it is not critical that someone respond to your letters, it helps if you have an actual correspondence going. This worked quite well with a friend of mine until I moved to a house only a few blocks from hers. It makes more sense if there's a little distance involved.

2. Use good stationery and a quality pen. Don't just scribble off a note like you're making a grocery list. This has its place, of course, but not in this instance. Take the time to make your writing legible, something we have done less of since the proliferation of computers.

3. Write about what's happening in your life, but try to leave out the mundane things we often include in text messages, e-mails and tweets. Use this opportunity to delve into deeper things, either about the world, or your relationship with the person you're writing to, or just about yourself. If, for example, your great-grandson someday reads these letters, you wouldn't want him to think great-grandpa was nothing more than a boring complainer.

4. While many of your letters will go unanswered, keep writing them. You will ultimately derive as much pleasure from writing the letters as you will receiving one in return. Be prepared, however, to receive e-mails in response to your letters. It takes a while to change people's habits.

In the end, one of the greatest benefits of letter writing is that, like keeping a daily journal, it forces you to slow down and think about the events of the day and your part in them, and all of us can benefit from slowing down a little. So think of someone you care about, turn off your computer, and write them a letter. You'll both be glad you did.

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