Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

In my on-going effort to declutter, I decided to start going through an old shoebox of letters. I thought it would be quick and easy. I’m not sure why I was that naïve. It’s proven to be anything but.

For starters, even though everyone appreciates a hand-written note over something typed, the older you get (or rather, the older your eyes get), the harder it is to decipher handwriting. The few typed letters I came across were so much quicker and easier to read, but I digress. The childhood letters written in pencil were probably the worst since they were written lightly to start off with and have just faded into oblivion.

I find myself wanting to discard so many of these once touching notes that I am starting to feel guilty. Am I no longer a sentimental old fool? Am I trying to bury a part of my past by getting rid of these? (honestly, yes!) Will I be sorry later for tossing these? (doubtful since I haven’t bothered to read any of these letters in probably 20 years). If the person who wrote me these letters passed away would I suddenly want to reread their letters? (probably not, but the possibility exists, so I am weighing that in my decision).

So many of the letters and miscellaneous ephemera I found in the box I am really surprised I saved (like notes from a creepy guy who once liked me in college of whom I never returned the affections).

It was kind of funny rereading letters I received as a young teenager when the most popular topic of conversation seemed to be “boys” (not surprisingly) followed by what classes we were taking and our grades.

Among other things, I came across a letter I received from a boy who had sent a balloon from his home in Michigan (I think). We wrote to him to let him know it ended up in our yard, and he sent back a short handwritten letter with a photo. That, apparently, was the end of our correspondence since I couldn’t find any further letters. I also found a letter from a one-off pen pal who must have either changed her mind or discovered we didn’t have much in common since I only found one letter from her. Incidentally, these are items that will go into the recycling pile since I don’t see any reason to save these singular items.

While reading these letters the thought occurred to me that the generations following mine will probably never have such things to look back on since the majority of their correspondence will have been in e-mails. Even I have a long past of e-mails too and shudder to think how many I’ve written in the last 20 years or so.

Douglas Coupland, author of such best sellers as Generation X, J-Pod, and Hey Nostradamus, had this to say about letter writing:

“I sent one a while back, just because I was in another country and wanted to, and the person I sent it to was like, ‘Why did you write that? You scared the shit out of me!’ Now a letter is like a telegram saying your kid’s dead. She opened it expecting melodrama. It’s amazing that well within a decade e-mail has so completely changed all of that.”

I just typed a letter and sent it to my friend with the same thought, but decided to go ahead and send it anyway figuring maybe she won’t be as shocked as I think (as she isn’t reachable by e-mail these days).

Although I like the instant gratification of e-mail, there’s still nothing like sitting down with a drink while enjoying a long letter from an old friend or significant other who is far away.

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