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Dept. of Letter Writing

An Old Skill, An Ancient Art Fading Into the Past

I've been writing a letter to a friend for the past two days, and I'm annoyed with myself at how difficult, how truly difficult it seems to be for me to write a letter.

I used to write a great many letters. I look into my computer files and see scores of them, to relatives, to friends. And those are just the ones I've saved since having a computer, in the 1990s and certainly not all of them. I once wrote letters regularly. I used to love writing them, and I used to love receiving them.* But all those things they say, all those things the old folks says, about telephones and emails and posts and the fast-fast-fast life we lead must be right, because I find myself incapable of sticking to it.

It's hard to know how to begin without sounding puerile or pretentious. It's hard to know what to say - what will be interesting to the person at the other end, what will they want to hear about vs. what they'd pull out their eyes rather than see ... should it be light, should it be full of surface news that's fun to read, should it be some vast and deep invitation to weighty long-term communication? Should it be some mix of these things, and if so, what ratios should I use?

I must write more letters, because I suspect I'll only become adept at them again with practice.

*here's the asterisk. It's because these lyrics from Arcade Fire's "We Used to Wait" speak to me about letters: 
It seems strange
How we used to wait for letters to arrive
But what's stranger still
Is how something so small can keep you alive

And because I love the song, I think I'll let you see it, here:

This entry was originally posted at http://kaffyr.dreamwidth.org/226645.html?mode=reply, where there are currently comment count unavailable comments. You can comment there or here; I watch both.


( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 24th, 2012 08:24 pm (UTC)
I write a lot of letters. It started when I was a kid and my best friend moved away, because email was just starting to get big and I didn't spend much time online. It's just sort of become a habit to send mail to people when I miss them, and a few of my friends also send mail to me. I feel like I'm rambling about boring stuff a lot, but I think people like to know you're thinking of them, even if you don't have a lot to say.

Part of the reason I spend so much mail is that I always seem to end up in lecture/discussion classes where taking notes isn't all that important. I get bored, so I write letters in my notebooks and then mail them when I get out of class.
Jun. 25th, 2012 02:19 am (UTC)
Whether it's a boring lecture or loss of wi-fi/LAN connection, I heartily endorse anything that encourages writing actual letters. Heh. And I'm glad to hear there are people out there who still write letters!
Jun. 24th, 2012 10:54 pm (UTC)
Ahh, it has been a long, long time since I have written letters myself. But I will say, I've never been good with them. Rambling tangents, lines and sentences caught up in themselves leading nowhere. Very intimidating to me, even to this day.

But it is a skill we should all hone.

Jun. 25th, 2012 02:29 am (UTC)
I remember my brother and I being sat down at a writing desk moments after the last of our Christmas presents were opened, and given our marching orders; to write thank-you notes to everyone who gave us gifts. That, plus pen pals while I was in elementary and junior high school, helped develop my early letter-writing habits. I just wish I'd kept them up!

*hugs back*
Jun. 25th, 2012 12:33 am (UTC)
I loved getting letters but I was terrible at returning them then I would feel guilty about not responding which made it even more difficult to respond.

Email and blog comments work much better for me.
Jun. 25th, 2012 02:37 am (UTC)
then I would feel guilty about not responding which made it even more difficult to respond.

I can relate. It makes writing something every day, the way our foreparents did, much more understandable. If you wrote a few paragraphs every day or so, it became a lot easier just to talk about a couple of things each time.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 25th, 2012 02:35 am (UTC)
I am trying very hard to hold onto bits of the analog world. I like reading paper books and writing paper letters.
Jun. 25th, 2012 02:40 am (UTC)
I desperately want to combine the best of the digital and analog world - I want to be an "and" type of person, rather than an "either/or" one. Surely that's possible? *sigh*
Jun. 25th, 2012 04:44 am (UTC)
Man, I've only sent a few letters in my life - many of them were to France, to my penpal with whom I now correspond only by Facebook. It's easier, but it's really not the same at all! I hand-write thank you cards now (oh... well, I mean, I did when I lived in a place with more than one post office in the entire capitol city), and that does feel more meaningful somehow.

Also, I <3 Arcade Fire and that entire album so much. It is by far my top-listened-to album.
Jun. 25th, 2012 06:44 am (UTC)
I did when I lived in a place with more than one post office in the entire capitol city

The mind boggles. Really? How does mail get around?

And hurrah! Another Arcade Fire fan! The Suburbs may be the most lyrically and musically brilliant of all their lyrically and musically brilliant albums. *stands in awe*
Jun. 27th, 2012 10:55 am (UTC)
I'm pretty sure no one really sends mail. I'm not sure it's 'officially' a 'developing country', but it basically is.
Jun. 25th, 2012 08:41 am (UTC)
Oh I know - we have a round robin letter that goes round the famile (albeit veeerrrrry slowly these days) and when it gets here I can never think of anything I haven't emailed them about...

Edited at 2012-06-25 08:41 am (UTC)
Jun. 26th, 2012 01:16 am (UTC)
OK, I'm officially intrigued with the idea of a round-robin letter. Can you tell me what that entails?
Jun. 26th, 2012 11:40 am (UTC)
It's pretty simple :) The eight of us (siblings in Australia) send a package of letters around in order - when we each get it, we can read everyone else's, write our own update and take off the old one from the last time, and send it on.

It's a way to catch up on little details... when there's a lot of us we forget who told who stuff on the phone or email, and this way we may hear little things or stories late, but we all do hear them...
Jun. 25th, 2012 10:10 am (UTC)
I still remember a long and fascinating letter of comment you sent me.
Jun. 26th, 2012 01:21 am (UTC)
This is the wonderful thing about letters: your comment made me dive back into my files. I found three letters I sent to you, two in the 1990s and one in 2006. I noted, with amusement, how formal my first letter to you sounded, and how long and rambling my last one was. That may be the "fascinating" letter you reference. I nod in grateful acknowledgment, while being aware that "fascinating" can cover a multitude of sins. Heh.
Jun. 25th, 2012 12:32 pm (UTC)
Aw, yes, letters... My best friend and I used to write each other letters (it came mostly from me being off ill for a long time, but it got to be a Thing). We found it was the easiest way for us to talk about serious things. But also much nonsense, code and/or competed about how many 'PSes' we could get in one letter, and strange addresses to put on the envelopes (we generally delivered them by hand, either directly or via our two younger sisters - part of the reason for code and complicated things on the envelopes!). When we were doing our GCSEs, we wrote letters in between each exam - there was an 18 page epic I got from her after the Physics one. So, even though both of us use more modern tech, and have health issues that sometimes make letters (and everything) difficult, every now and then one of us sits down and writes one, for tradition's sake. (It has to have at least some of the above ingredient, and possibly random quotes in it, too. The tradition also requires it to be waffly and incomprehensible, and, at her end, also written on odd scraps of things and containing 'presents' like a personalised tissue. That you really can't do by email... ;-D)

So I still write some letters - to a couple of my friends (who are into texting, which I'm not, but not so much online), thank you letters, and so on. But it's hard for me at the moment, and, of course, emails, phones and everything do mean there's not such need. But letters - I have a big box of letters people have sent me since I was about 15 or so, and re-reading them occasionally is really amazing. It's not only the content, but the handwriting, everything.

They can feel weirdly formal now, though, but I tend not to think about that so much, unless I'm writing to a new person.
Jun. 27th, 2012 02:31 am (UTC)
I love the story of how you and your friend communicated! It seems so natural for friends to develop little codes and in-jokes, and to be able to maintain that communication does, as you say, allow for far more than just the words.

I, too, have had friends where letters take a certain form, or where it seems fun (or almost necessary) to add little things: pictures, or stickers, or hand-decorated pages, things written in the margin, or long PSs that may be longer than the original body of the letter.
But letters - I have a big box of letters people have sent me since I was about 15 or so, and re-reading them occasionally is really amazing. It's not only the content, but the handwriting, everything.

This. So very much this. I have a packet of letters, given to me by my mother, written by my great grandfather, back in about 1895 or so. He wrote them to my great-grandmother when they were courting, and he was a young minister in training. During the space of one year, he wrote her several times a week; I don't have nearly all of them, and I still have more than 50 of them. The language he uses is ardent, articulate, poetic, funny and, ultimately, moving. And if he had not written them, all of that would have been lost. Even handling those old letters, looking at his lovely penmanship, and the fading colors of the paper helps bring me closer to a man who died long before I was born.
Jun. 29th, 2012 07:22 pm (UTC)
I have a packet of letters, given to me by my mother, written by my great grandfather, back in about 1895 or so.

As a bit of a family historian, I am now dead jealous... ;-)
Jun. 29th, 2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
Heh. My mother has said to me more than once that I should put my fiction writing skills to work on behalf of our family history and turn those letters into a story. I've told her that I would need a long time to think about that, since they are intensely personal.
Jun. 30th, 2012 07:11 am (UTC)
Just to have them in the family is a lovely thing, though! My Dad has a lettercard (it's like several postcards all joined together) from his Nan to his Grandad, sent during WWII when they went to visit their future daughter-in-law (my Granny) in Devon for the first time - and even though it's short, it's a lovely little picture of the time (they aren't allowed to say train times in it, because of the war) and also of her reaction, as a Londoner, getting to stay in Devonshire, and go to the sea. But apart from that my family either didn't write letters, or they were much too prone to throwing them out!

And turning fact into fiction, especially in a context like that is hard - although I can see why your Mum would want you to try. ;-) I'm meaning to try some writing up of what I have at some point, but only as non-fiction. (Although, I confess, I have been known to use occasional instances in DW historical fic! And family history names get put in my stories quite frequently.)
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )

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