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The art and heart in letter-writing

December 21st, 2007 · 2 Comments

I have a friend who claims to not respond to e-mails, preferring to get letters or notes in the mail.  Because I have neither e-mailed or hand-written a letter to him, I do not know if he keeps to this personal rule, but a different friend from another state claims to have received two replies – through the mail – to two handwritten letters that she sent him through the Post.

His reasons for preferring postal letters to e-mails is simple and hard to argue with: letters sent through the mail, whether hand-written or typewritten, reflect a thoughtful process of action that e-mails – by their absolute ease of creation – do not represent.  To send someone an e-mail, you need do little more than power up the computer, call up the e-mail template (already prepared for you), fire off a few lines of abbreviated text…and, voila, U R done!  A traditional letter, especially when it is hand-written, requires setting aside some time, choosing the appropriate paper or card, making uncorrectable mistakes of spelling or grammar – in many ways it mimics what you might say to a person in conversation.  In its mixture of spontaneity and character, it more closely approximates the personality of the author than the hastily-dispatched e-mail bulletin.

In the centuries before our current computer age, letter-writing was one of the primary ways that people chose to communicate with one another – before every home had a telephone, it was the way – and letters could contain earth-shattering news, descriptions of a journey, professions of love, or the mundane details of one’s daily routine.  Or, a letter could be a parry in a jousting match, as in this colorfully written note from Noel Coward to Alexander Woollcott (taken from The Letters of Noel Coward):

August [?] 1934

Dear Mr. Woollcott,

I have undergone a serious operation and have been very seriously ill and I feel that I am impelled to inform you that your book, When Rome Something or Other has been largely instrumental in seducing me back to life from the valley of the shadow. I was lent this volume by the Earl Amherst, an insignificant blond of my acquaintance, and was grieved to note on the fly leaf an inscription from you. This forced me to two reluctant conclusions.

(A) That you are a crawling mean old snob obviously intent upon ingratiating yourself with titled people and callously disregarding your friends of the gutter who are naturally better equipped to understand and appreciate your work, and (B) – exactly the same as (A).

Don’t please imagine that I am angry or that I mind being neglected. I am only the teeniest bit hurt. I suggest that you remedy this unfortunate error in judgement by sending me a copy immediately, you saucy old sod.

Love and kisses, darling Acky Weesa.
Noelie Poelie

P.S. I noticed with delight that several of the pages were uncut.
P.P.S. I did not cut them.

What a great letter!  Ignore the fact that Coward was a sophisticate, wit and a renowned master of the English language, and this is a terrific note by any measure: it is funny, angry and nasty, yet also warm and affectionate, and it doesn’t feel like it was composed.  It is highly personal.  Most likely, it sparked an immediate response from Woollcott, as it probably would have from anyone.  I don’t remember the last time I received a letter from someone that fired up that sort of response in me, or the last time that I received a letter at all.  Not that I’m much of a letter-writer myself.

Thinking of that fact about a month ago, I decided to impose a minor change in my life by setting aside fifteen to twenty minutes in the morning to write one note, at the very least, to one person.  During that first week, I wrote three notes by hand, and mailed them using postage from my big box of old colorful stamps.  Imagine my surprise when, a week later, I had received responses to all of them: all e-mails, plus one phone call!  Even though none of the recipients of my letters actually wrote letters back to me, the feeling upon getting a response from them was exciting and warming, and they all took the time to mention what a treat it was to get a written note in the mail.

Well, predictably, I haven’t written any more letters since that week, not even any Christmas cards.  But the enjoyment of writing those three letters is still fresh in my mind, along with the thrill of the responses.  And, even though it is not yet the New Year, I resolve to put pen to paper again soon, and mail it – or, rather – them!

Tags: ideas · language

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Wendy // Jan 1, 2009 at 10:30 PM

    Please don’t give up on letter writing. You’re awesome for doing it!

    I hope you’ll drop by my site for inspiration. I run a letter writing web site and we’re having great fun over there!

  • 2 aro // Oct 15, 2011 at 3:11 AM

    when I first got an email, my sister was the only one to email me and as I eagerly opened the emails I was so insulted that it was not a letter to me but something she forwarded to me. I felt so insulted and wondered, why can’t she write me a note or two instead of sending me all this non sense . At first I would delete them and not read them, later I got the picture!!!!!

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