The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Post officeIn this time of quarantine, when I cannot see my family or friends unless I sign onto some form of technology, I find myself taking pen to paper. My good friends know I have no fear of stamps nor pens, as I often send random postcards with quotes or cards for no good reason other than I recall the joy of getting something pretty and well-composed in the mail once upon a time. I am a rare species, though. Perhaps one day I will be wiped out, totally extinct. Children on school trips will discover my letters, my cards inked in blue or black, and stare upon my cursive as if looking upon ancient hieroglyphics. The wall text will explain that prior to phones, text, emails, blogs, and discussion forums, that prior to Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Zoom, or Tik-Tok, people used pens, (an instrument for writing or drawing with ink, typically consisting of a metal nib or ball, or a nylon tip, fitted into a metal or plastic holder) and wrote (the activity or skill of marking coherent words on paper and composing text) letters (a written, typed, or printed communication, especially one sent in an envelope by mail or messenger) to each other, and sent them via the mail (letters and packages conveyed by the postal system). It all sounds so old-fashioned, huh?

My stepson sent a Mother’s Day card to his bio-mom this week, and I assumed he knew how to fill out the address. First, he wrote MOMMA in great big letters across the front even though I explained it was going via snail mail, and I had already put a stamp on it. Then, he wrote her address in the top left-hand corner (not centered in the middle, slightly leaning towards the right). Finally, I took over and wrote her address under MOMMA with a C/O inserted. I’m not making fun of him. He was never taught. This was a revelation for me. Perhaps, it was a failure on our part for not teaching him how to address a letter earlier. I recall practicing this ancient craft in school. I challenge you parents out there to have you teenager or child compose and send a letter, and please share your comments on the exercise here.

This is by no means an attack on schools, teachers, or curriculums, but along with the lost art of letter writing, cursive is no longer taught, or at least in the schools my son attends. It’s not necessary. In fact, most of the time kids simply type; it has become outmoded. I realized that it was my job as a parent (not the teachers) to teach longhand. One summer—being the wicked stepmother I am—I bought poor Harry a cursive workbook so he could at least learn to write his signature. I cannot tell you how many times I wrote my name over and over as a teenager imagining the time I would be a famous author and could sign something loopy and extravagant (this was typically during Algebra class). I’m still waiting on that fantasy to come true, but at least I have conquered the signature. My point is, I think part of the issue here is the physical act of writing. Yes, it takes effort to write. Hell, it hurts when you are out of practice. Even when you write “Happy Holidays, Love (Insert Family Name)” fifty times during the holiday season, your hand cramps up and you lament. It’s still fun to put stamps on, though. That part feels like playing with stickers. It’s during these times I grumble and protest, “Why am I responsible for the Christmas cards? It’s sexist. Next year, it’s your turn, boys.” I wouldn’t have it any other way. I even have a special Christmas pen I use to write my cards, which I caught my husband casually using, taking notes on a work call the other day. At these times, I reminisce about Sister Evil–the principal from my middle school who more than once made me write an entire dictionary page. When I put letter writing into that context (an entire dictionary page!), how hard is it really to compose a few kind words about your life to send to your family and friends?

This brings me to the part where I honor those great letter writers that inspired my reflection on letter writing. My favorite letter writer is Uncle Jeff, who is famous for his Christmas cards. Year after year, my family await the pages of travels and tragedies, and snicker at the great detail he puts into stomach maladies. Oh, he goes there, folks. And then, out of the blue, two Christmases ago, Uncle Jeff sent out the standard holiday greeting. No synopsis of the year they had. No dodgy stomach ailments. The whole family complained, “We have been cheated! Uncle Jeff, where is our annual holiday letter?” He explained, “No one else puts any time into writing letters, why should I?” He was absolutely right, of course. We’re all guilty of factory line cards with only our signature to connect us to the recipient. Don’t be this person who simply stamps their name under Happy Birthday, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanza, or Happy Whatever, but say something. Something quirky about your week, heck, tell them about the bad sushi you ate two months ago. I assure you the reader will find it amusing. It worked for Uncle Jeff, it’ll work for you. Uncle Jeff did bring the letter back the following year, but an abridged version and less candid.

Along with the the exercise of torturing your children with letter writing, I have one final thought and challenge for my readers. Flashback: In an effort to expose students to different cultures and to help kids in other countries practice writing in English, in the seventh grade my teacher told us to select a country and gender; we were getting pen pals. I always went for the Italian boys, by the way. I couldn’t wait to get airmail envelopes, with exotic stamps, filled with the thinnest, sheerest, most delicate paper on earth. You can actually still get a pen pal, but if you go that route, do be careful giving out personal information and certainly don’t wire your pen pal any money. Nowadays, most sites offer cyber pen pals. I’d list the sites I found, but I’m not going to be liable for when your not so “pally” pen pal hacks your email. My years working in financial crime have tainted me. So, to avoid that (sorry pen pal sites), treat your friends and family like your new pen pal and send a card, letter, or postcard. No typing allowed. Just you, your quill (how romantic), and your words. It is time to resurrect the letter writing!

Live the story you want to write!

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  1. malinmarie63

    This is great Dawn, really great points. I had to teach my kids how to address a letter, and although they are learning cursive, they hate it. I loved your thoughts about my dads letters, and will make sure to write to you more too! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dawn

      Thanks for the comments. I really appreciated the postcard and Aleea did as well. Cursive and kids. I know. It was like I had created a new type of torture. I really do love you dad’s letters. We all do!


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