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.