Until recently, I hadn’t written a real letter in at least 20 years. And when I say a "real letter,” you know I’m referring to the kind written in ink on pieces of paper, folded neatly and placed into an addressed envelope, and posted in a mailbox to wend its way to the recipient.
A couple of months ago, a fellow writer and I decided to engage in just such a written correspondence. We are familiar with each other's writing through online connections, and though we’ve never met in person we’ve spoken to one another on the phone. But I think both of us have felt the need to pull back from the instant gratification offered by internet connections, and try to recapture some of the mindfulness that arises from slower paced forms of communication.
What a revelation this letter writing project has been! Writing with pen on paper encourages the writer to be thoughtful, to consider what’s to be said - there is, after all, no backspacing, and I for one don’t want to send a letter filled with crossed out words and sentences!
It also requires patience: when I send a letter in the mail, I know my friend won’t receive it for a least two days. When will she answer it? I have no way of knowing. I must wait and be patient. And checking my email every hour won’t do any good.
This letter writing venture recalls a period of my life when there was no internet or cell phone, no instant means of communication. Because of these letters, I’m fondly remembering the last time I wrote letters so consistently - in the fall of 1973, when my boyfriend went away to college. The phone company regarded the 35 mile distance between my house and his dorm as “long distance,” and so we embarked on a letter writing campaign to share our daily news, along with our professions of undying love and devotion. Letters flew back and forth between Detroit and Ann Arbor every day, and these were no short love notes - most of the letters were between eight and ten pages of handwritten stationary.
Even though I’ve not written lengthy letters in many years, like most people I’ve written many a birthday greeting, thank-you card, or letter of condolence note. But even those seem to be going by the wayside, as people offer their “”happy birthdays!”, “thank you’s” and “with deepest sympathies” on Facebook or via e-mail or digital greeting card. And since the mid-1990’s, I’ve written hundreds of emails.
I have always loved READING letters, though, especially collections of letters written by other writers. My battered edition of Letters Home, the collection of letters Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother beginning at the age of 13 until just before her suicide in 1963, has been devoured numerous times since I first read it in 1982. Likewise a much-underlined copy of Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrain in Letters, circa 1986. (Apparently I had my own Dead Poet’s Society going on in the 80’s.)
I also thoroughly enjoy epistolary novels, and their close cousins, novels written in the form of journal entries: The Guerney Literary and Potato Peel Society, 84 Charing Cross Road, A Woman of Independent Means, Dangerous Liaisons, The Diary of Anne Frank - only a few of the many such books I’ve enjoyed over the years.
Since this renewed interest in letter writing, I’ve found there are a wealth of books on the subject. Thanks to our wonderful inter-library loan system, I was able to snag five such interesting volumes this week. Right now I’m reading Signed, Sealed, Delivered, Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, by Nina Sankovitch, a lovely book that explores letter writing through the ages combined with a look at the author’s own personal epistolary history.
One of the things I most appreciate about real letters (similar to what I love most about real print books) is the permanence and tangibility of them. Not an amorphous collection of words floating in the ether of the world-wide-web or stored on my cell phone providers humongous cloud server, each letter is a personal connection between the one who wrote it and the one who receives it. It’s a real communion between two minds and hearts, one to have and hold throughout time.
“Time passes,” writes Sankovitch, “and ever more rapidly as I grow older. But letters remain. Most of us won’t make it into the history book...But we can leave a part of ourselves behind in the letters we write, as proof that we were here."
In case you’re wondering: I did keep every one of the letters my then boyfriend and I wrote back and forth to one another when we were all of 17 and 19 years old - the letters he wrote to me, but also the letters I wrote to him. The letters reside side-by-side in separate boxes on the top shelf of my closet.
For you see, Dear Reader - I married him 40 years ago. And occasionally, when times have been hard or we’ve felt distant from one another, as happens in any long term relationship, I can take out any one of those letters and instantly recall the power of young love, immediately feel the connection that drew us together all those years ago. In his familiar handwriting I see the carefully thought out sentences that express emotions so new to him. In my small, elegant cursive, I connect with a tenderness that was only just beginning to grow. Those letters are tangible proof of the faith we had in our future.
I hope letter writing never disappears completely. Letters are tangible representation of a relationship and offer a personal connection that is unavailable through digital communications. They offer both reader and writer a flexible give and take that allows for space and time and thought. There is not the urgency we feel with an email or text message, not the sense that we must read-and-respond this minute.
When I receive a letter from my friend, I usually don’t read it right away. I like to put it aside until I have time and space, time to make a cup of tea, time to sit in a quiet place and put my feet up, time when I won’t likely be interrupted by dogs needing a walk or the “ping” of my phone. I will read it once through, and then read it again more slowly, perhaps make a note of two of how I might wish to respond to something she’s written. Then I put the letter back in its envelope and place it in a special tray on my desk. I like to wait a day or two, to consider, to let some life happen to me in the space between reading her words and returning my own.
Then, preferably on a quiet morning after I’ve had my first cup of coffee, I’ll read her letter once more before gathering my own paper and pen to write. There, curled in the comfortable chair in my study, my lap desk propped on my legs, I write my reply, trying not to let my thoughts get ahead of my ability to write legibly!
A handwritten letter begs a thoughtful, rich reply. As with so much of modern life, that kind of response is harder and harder to come by.
It’s why I’m learning to love letters all over again.
With love and pen in hand,