I am an only child, and when I was growing up there were only a couple of other kids my age in my neighbourhood, so I spent a great deal of time playing on my own. One of my odder games was to sit down with one of my mother’s old fountain pens and pretend I was writing letters, immensely long sermons of letters in copperplate, the way I saw people doing in the costume dramas my parents watched on Sunday nights. The only problem was I couldn’t write in cursive at that point, let alone copperplate, so I mostly just scrawled loose lines of spikes and loops over good printer paper that I probably hadn’t bothered asking permission to use. I’d like to say I was three or four years old during these escapades but I was probably old enough to know better.
When I was in second grade my teachers announced that my class would be doing a pen-pal project with another second-grade class in Burkina Faso. I was captivated. Not only would I finally get to write a real letter–not just a Christmas card to a family member–I loved the idea that something I was going to write would be sent to someone on the other side of the globe, whom I’d never met. (I had it in my head that we would each be paired off with one other student in the other class–it didn’t occur to me that the other class full of students was likely much bigger than ours, and whatever we wrote and received would be shared by all the students.) When the planned exchange fell through due to political events, I was terribly disappointed–I’d been practicing my penmanship and studying Africa on the globe for weeks. I still wanted a penpal.
I got one eventually, later the following summer, although we only managed one letter each. I remember that her name was Chrissy, but not much else–I have entirely forgotten how I made contact with her, what state she lived in, and who found her address for me, but I still have her letter.
After that, letters were the part of summer I most looked forward to. I gave up attempting to make my handwriting look like copperplate, at least for the time being, but I wrote as much as I could. One stretch of two or three weeks was spent writing tortuously long recaps of All My Children episodes to one friend spending the summer in New York, because I was certain she wasn’t able to watch it where she was. I don’t know where I got this idea. Another summer was the year of a postman in Florida assuming that I was my best friend’s “little boyfriend” because I had taken to plastering stickers all over the back of the envelopes.
I started collecting volumes of letters by my favourite writers and artists. One Christmas my mother gave me the Oxford Book of Letters, still a favourite possession, to which I started adding hand copies of letters from other volumes when I found that it didn’t include Sullivan Ballou’s last letter to his wife. I was about sixteen, and took this as an almost personal affront, being convinced that it was the loveliest letter ever written.
I met Margaret by chance at my senior prom, and we hit it off instantly. I was due to leave for Scotland in a few months: transatlantic phone calls being both impractical and prohibitively expensive, and email being a thing but Internet access being unpredictable, letters were our only reasonable means of keeping in touch and getting to know one another better. So I started writing more letters. Lots and lots of letters.
I don’t imagine they were particularly good, my imaginative life at this point being dominated by equal parts Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Matchbox 20, and Sarah McLachlan. There were tearful letters and homesick letters and plenty of angst about boys, in between being breathlessly enchanted by living in such close proximity to the North Sea and plenty of Mediaeval ruins. There were also, later, drunken letters, which must have been dreadful to read. Sometimes I still want to go back and read these; the rest of the time I think it’s much better for my present and future state of mind that I never do. I’d probably die of embarrassment.
I lost a great part of my will to write at the end of 2001, so addled by anemia that I usually lacked the energy to concentrate. I started relying on email and phone calls more, and lost the discipline to make it to the post office when I did manage to finish a real letter. I made sporadic attempts and recovering my old drive to write letters over the next several years, but it didn’t come back properly, not like it was.
After my mother died I lost most of my interest in writing any sort of personal document at all; whatever inspiration I had went into fiction, where I didn’t have to think about my actual situation and surroundings. I still haven’t resumed my journal, but a couple of months ago my itch write letters came back with a vengeance. I took possession of my parents’ old escritoire–it had been used for storing excess stationery and dried-up pens for most of my life–and all the good writing paper my mother collected but never used, and returned it to the purpose it was designed for. The hutch is still home to some of my mother’s favourite china, but the desk is all mine now, one place to keep my pens, journals, and letter paper and nothing else. It is the nicest place I’ve ever had dedicated solely to writing, and has done a great deal to re-ignite the joy I once found in focusing on what to say to another person.
We are in danger of losing letters as an art form, but I don’t think the rise of email and social media is the culprit. It started to decline at the same time that reading challenging novels and poetry for enjoyment did, which occurred long before we all got access to the Internet. Letters are so much more than a means of transmitting information; for the writer, they can be exercises in introspection, a means of illuminating how we feel about an event or another person, for ourselves as much as for our correspondent; for the reader, they capture something of the writer’s spirit that can’t be communicated over the telephone.
They are also invaluable documents of the past, both in the sense of our shared cultural and national histories and our own personal and family histories. Even the most trivial of comments shed light on the personalities that wrote them. In going through my family’s collection of photos and letters, I found a postcard that my grandfather wrote to his mother when he was away on a scouting trip, aged perhaps 13 or 14, about a century ago now. I never got the chance to know my grandfather well, and fragments like this are invaluable to me.
There’s a great trend these days for devoting all one’s disposable income and time to experiences rather than things, but it bothers me that along with the laudable impulse to be less materialistic we’re forgetting all sense of permanence. One tenet of the anti-immigration argument is that a high number of immigrants inexorably and irretrievably changes our culture (as though time and innovations in technology don’t alter anything). We inexorably and irretrievably lose our culture and our past because we don’t read enough of it, not just recent commentary on previous centuries but the letters and records that have survived. One of the Internet’s greatest blessings is how easy it has made it for us to rediscover and access those documents. Letters are one of our richest resources for learning about where we came for and growing as individuals, and I still continue to hope that it never quite goes out of style. So write a letter. Write to your family the next time you go out of town, in addition to the necessary emails that you’re alive and well. Write to loved ones who live out of state or across the country. If you are so moved, you can take part in awesome projects like this and write to random strangers. Also, there’s nothing quite like finding a handwritten letter in the post, amongst all the sales catalogues and bills.