Please Mr. Postman

Reclaiming the lost art of letter writing

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Over the years, I have penned my fair share of letters: notebook pages filled with tales to childhood pen pals; homemade birthday cards for family and friends; love letters, which were by far the best legacy of a certain failed relationship; unsent letters, written simply for the sake of processing thoughts and later burned. Some of the most meaningful 'conversations' I've had--be it a brother's updates from college or personalized limericks from my dentist--are stowed in a shoe box. For me, those letters represent a very personal link to the past, and it's troublesome to think that the future may not hold a place for this romantic art form.

Once the mainstay of communication, the letter is now slowly fading away. The advent of e-mail has afforded folks the luxury of immediate responses and instant gratification. Simple queries can be answered in mere minutes, and communication has evolved into a more streamlined and efficient process. But what sort of charm and character can one infer from an e-mail filled with goofy emoticons and acronyms in 12-point Times New Roman? Are people really printing and preserving keepsakes from their inboxes? We've lost the sentiment in real letters, the idea that the sender cared enough to put in a little effort--at least 41 cents worth. There's no legwork involved in an e-mail, just a few keystrokes and a click of the button. It's doubtful that, years from now, relatives will uncover passwords and log in to e-mail accounts to riffle through sent items, nor would it have quite the same heft as a packet of handwritten letters.

The impact of the fading of this art reaches beyond personal relationships. Historians have uncovered and studied correspondence between great thinkers throughout history. In Physics World (Jan. 2007), Robert P. Crease identifies several important historical moments in science that would have been lost without the written documentation of informal letters exchanged among scientists. Crease worries that future historians of the e-mail era 'will be unable to use letters and telegrams to establish facts and gauge reactions to events.' He posits that clues regarding character, leadership style, and thought processes are more easily discerned from letters, and he notes the troubling subject of preservation. Even the National Archives is swamped in its self-described 'daunting' effort to preserve data--in both pre- and postelectronic formats.

But not everyone has abandoned the letter. Brandy Fedoruk and Rebecca Dolen are co-owners of the Regional Assembly of Text, a Vancouver stationery and gift shop that boasts a monthly letter-writing club.

Spurred by a joint love of writing and, especially, receiving letters, as well as a desire to make use of their typewriters, the two have hosted the events since the shop opened in August 2005. Fedoruk reports that the evenings draw anywhere from 10 to 30 people who enjoy the novelty of the typewriters and drum up quite a racket with them.

'It's nice to feel like we are helping the letter gain some momentum again, even if it is only a few more letters written each month,' Fedoruk says. 'I don't think it will ever be what it once was--but now it has become a way to show someone you really care.'

No one to write to? No problem. Plenty of pen pal exchanges exist for people with all sorts of interests. Women for Women International, reports Lisa Rogal in Bust (April/May 2007), is now 22,000 correspondents strong. The organization facilitates correspondence between women worldwide by connecting those whose lives have been altered by war with pen pals who also provide some financial support. The women 'have been known to sleep with [the letters] under their pillows at night,' Rogal writes.

Letters evoke nostalgia, achieving treasured status long after they are received. After my grandparents died, my mother and her twin brothers found the proverbial stash of handwritten love letters--tied with a pink ribbon--while they were sifting through their parents' effects. As they sat around the dining room table, poring over pages written by my grandfather in the late 1930s, they stumbled upon a paragraph that read: 'By gosh, I think I'll have a half a stick of gum. It's pretty good--here, I'll give you the other half.' Sure enough, affixed next to it was half a stick of Beeman's Pepsin Chewing Gum--still intact in its wrapper. Try to do that in an e-mail.


Former Utne intern Elizabeth Ryan lives and writes in western Wisconsin.