The Art of Letter-Writing

The Letter (1906), by Pierre Bonnard

The Letter (1906), by Pierre Bonnard

E-mail is a whole new way of being friends with people: intimate but not, chatty but not, communicative but not; in short, friends but not. What a breakthrough. How did we ever live without it? I have more to say on this subject, but I have to answer an Instant Message from someone I almost know.–Nora Ephron, “The Six Stages of E-Mail”

According to a U.S. Postal Service Survey in 2011, the writing of personal letters is at an all-time low.  Americans say they receive one every eight weeks.

Twenty years ago, I received two letters a week.  Now I receive two a year.

Letters used to be my favorite form of writing. But even if we no longer write letters, we still enjoy poring over the letters of the Mitfords, Virginia Woolf, and Barbara Pym.

Letter-writing was much loved by my aunts. In my family women write the letters; men do not. Before the internet, letters were a Round Robin affair:  if you wrote a letter home, you could bet one of the aunts would make copies and include it in the next pack of letters sent out to all the women in the family!

Letters have been a part of my life since childhood.  It started as a school project:  the teacher found us penpals, and we were required to exchange information about our cultures.   I loved writing to Pam in Australia:  inscribing the date at the top, the polite little formulaic opening, providing the American culture data required for the letter exchange, and then writing a few creative paragraphs:  I’d enjoyed the book Berries Goodman! I’d come in third in a Chinese jumprope contest!   I had a new white faux fur coat!  I loved the Monkees! I bought stationery at Woolworth’s!   (Pink? Blue? Did it have a floral design?)  I loved addressing envelopes.  I loved the whole thing.

It wasn’t till after graduate school that I began to write long letters. Couldn’t we go back to school and study a new subject, we wondered?   We wrote about trying to find meaning through badly-paid teaching or proofreading jobs. We wrote about our feelings:  our boyfriends, our marriages, and the pressure to have children in our thirties (about half gave in).  Nowadays we have been through so much that we rarely mention feelings.  We write about them at our blogs before we do in letters.

Today, I certainly wish I’d received a letter.  I’ve been reading Barbara Pym’s letters in A Very Private Eye:  An Autobiography in Diaries & Letters).  Here is the opening of a letter she wrote to Bob Smith:

Such an ironical thing happened–I had started a letter to you last weekend on my typewriter, telling you that on Friday last, 1st Feb., we had a burglary and leaving the letter in the typewriter to finish later. But on Monday, 4th Feb., the thief or thieves broke in again, this time taking the typewriter with the letter in it! So I suppose you will never get that letter.

What a witty description of what must have been  traumatic.

You will not be surprised to learn that today in the mail I only received  catalogues. The Folio Society, Eddie Bauer, Talbots, the Vermont Store, and a bedding company called Cuddledown.

But Christmas is coming, and though we won’t get a letter from Barbara Pym, at least we’ll get a few cards signed with real handwriting.

12 thoughts on “The Art of Letter-Writing

  1. But even some of those Christmas cards have printed names on them. And over the years, there have been many who just write ‘Love, so and so.’ I almost prefer printed. I like notes on my cards, stories about the past year’s life. I have one cousin who still writes me letters, and she is nearly blind. Yet she perseveres. I do indeed miss letters. I loved your post.


    • Yes, Christmas should be a time to exchange notes. I even love the printed Christmas letters so many complain about! At least we do learn what has been going on. E-mail somehow killed personal correspondence. It’s really not the same at all as letters. I do enjoy e-mail, but I don’t print it out. I save letters!


  2. I used to exchange huge letters with my friends, but in these days of email and phones and everything they’ve gone by the by – which is a shame. My best BFF has done some very appealing alternatives, like keeping a notebook and writing daily messages and sending when it’s full. I think we need to revive the art of letter writing!


  3. I too had a pen-pal when I was a girl and wrote many letters when I was younger; now I don’t even send out Christmas cards. The internet has taken over, so we have email and blogs — thank God for that! I especially liked what you said about our having been through so much we rarely talk about our feelings. It seems too true.


    • I do miss getting cards and letters. It is wonderful to have our e- communication, but why did it have to cancel out the other? Yes, my friends and I are now less confiding than we used to be. The feelings are still there, but somehow it is (or we are in) a different age now.


  4. After I moved to Boston, my mother and I wrote to each other every Sunday for twenty years or so, until dementia took her words away. We both kept many of those letters, so I now have a record of that time. She was a brilliant letter writer, including gossip, news, and descriptions of what she saw as she sat at the dining room table writing.
    I wrote a note, not even a letter, to a friend who’s a professional storyteller. He responded with a note claiming that my ‘letter’ was so archaic, so unusual today, that it belonged in the Smithsonian! I still love stationery.


    • Oh, Joan, I’m sure your note was lovely, and so few people write them anymore. Your mother’s letters must be a treasure trove. I, too, have kept many letters, and one day should go through them again.


  5. I used to love writing letters. Last thing at night, when everything else that needed doing that day had been completed I would curl up in a chair and write to one of two great friends who were both hundreds of miles away, one in another land altogether. And now, as you say, I simply don’t do it any more and nor do I receive any. But I love reading literary letters. There is always a volume of Virginia Woolf’s epistles next to my bed.


  6. I adored stationery! i hoarded it! somewhere in my house there is a box with samples of my favorite stationery still unwritten on. My favorite was Eaton’s Scented Love Letters, thin like Bible paper, decked with tiny pink roses, palest robin’s egg blue, and scented with Estee Lauder’s youth dew perfume. I wrote letters to my cousins, every week. I especially remember my cousin Gwen who was obsessed with Donny Osmond for a time and would send me letters bedecked in cut-out photos from Tiger Beat magazine taped to the envelopes.


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