The Lost Art of Writing Letters

“In an age like ours, which is not given to letter-writing, we forget what an important part it used to play in people’s lives.”  — Anatole Broyard

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With my recent return to stamp collecting and exchanging postcards, I have found myself thinking a lot about the enjoyment of mail — receiving it, of course, but also of sending it.  In this current age of instant messaging, emails and social media it’s a rare thing indeed to give any thought to traditional, “snail”, mail.  And yet I have discovered that there are more than a few attempting to return to those simpler times.

Not only have I stumbled across numerous blogs dedicated to displaying sent and received postcards (something I’ve incorporated into my own blog), but I have found several devoted to letter-writing itself.  The most interesting of these is called the Letter Writers Alliance and there’s even an annual challenge to write a letter each day during the month of February.

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Now, I am sad to admit that I cannot even remember the last time that I’ve written a “real” letter.  I’m not even that great at sending email updates any more, tending to rely on Facebook and this blog as my main avenues for communication.  That’s a BIG change from long ago.

When I was young, I loved sending mail all the time.  I used to write regular letters to many of my far-flung relatives.  We lived in Kansas at the time and I would often send updates to cousins, aunts and uncles living in Maryland (later, New Jersey), California and Germany.  As I got older, those frequent missives eventually dwindled down to an annual — but ornate — update letter at Christmastime.  Later, these became a lengthy holiday email but I haven’t even sent one of those for a few years now.  Indeed, I don’t even send Christmas cards any longer although they are becoming easier to find here in Thailand (most cards tend to be Happy New Year cards picturing the king).

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In the late 1970’s and up to the mid-1980’s I had a couple of pen-pals and barely a month went by that I didn’t send a letter to each of them.  One was an inmate at the Arizona State Prison and the other was a noted author on transatlantic maritime history living on the island of Jersey in the English Channel. The author had a second home in Alicante, Spain, and it was always fun to see the stamps from wherever he sent his letters.  But I stopped writing either of these correspondents around the time I graduated from high school.  I guess I had “more important thing on my mind by then.

But I was probably just lazy, something that seems to continue to the present.

I always had a love for receiving mail as well and this rapidly overtook my motivation for writing letters.  I wanted “instant” gratification, a constantly full mail box with little effort involved.

First, I wrote to state tourism bureaus requesting brochures and highway maps — all 50 states one year.

I used to shake magazines at newsstands so the inserted postpaid reply cards would fall out.  I would send those in to receive a few sample issues of the different magazines.  When the bill came, I would just write “cancel” and send it back.

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Later, when I could afford it, I began actually paid subscriptions to a number of magazines several of which I maintained for many years.  I believe I subscribed to National Geographic longer than any others although Rolling Stone and Smithsonian are way up there as well.  My favorites also included American Heritage (history), The American Philatelist (I wish I could still afford APS membership as the benefits are many), Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and Linn’s Stamp News.  Oh, I can’t forget New Mexico Magazine either.  And I never could bear to throw out the old issues.  I was always a real packrat!

Of course, my hobby of stamp collecting brought a lot of mail as well.  I had free subscriptions to many of the world’s postal administration’s new-release bulletins.  I also would regularly receive dealer pricelists, lavishly-illustrated auction catalogs (although I never bid on anything), journals from the various philatelic societies I was a member of, and the occasional packet of stamps on approval.

Philately later gave way to musical endeavors and there were frequent deliveries of records (the 12-inch LP’s when I started collecting) and tapes (I began trading bootleg concert tapes during Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. tour).  Eventually, all of these became CD’s and I constantly had packages full of them delivered to my home.

Of course, none of this required any “real” letter writing.

And that is something I would like to return to.  A part of that is a desire to go back to a simpler life.

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I am a bit apprehensive about that mostly because my handwriting has deteriorated into an illegible scrawl.  It hasn’t been particularly readable in decades!  And how can I find the time to sit down and try to write a thoughtful letter when I haven’t done so in such a long time?

The hardest part of doing anything seems to be starting it.  I am going to give it a try now that letter-writing is on my mind.  It would be nice to rid myself of the guilt I sometimes feel for not “properly” keeping in touch with family members and friends.

Tomorrow I have a day off and nothing planned.  This will definitely give me an opportunity to write a nice long letter or two.  To prepare for this, I’ll soon go in search of a nice piece of stationery and, perhaps, even a new pen.  Like anything you want to do well, I feel letter-writing deserves to be done with the proper “equipment” — at least when doing it for the first time in many years.

Who knows?  Maybe the recipient will feel compelled to write a “real” letter in return.  But if they just want to send a “thank you” email that’s okay, too.  I’m not out to change the world after all…


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3 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Writing Letters”

  1. Hey Mark, I understand how you feel. It is nice to have the luxury of messaging people instantly, but the personal touch of a letter stands out. I have written a small piece on this:
    https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/37391502/880124072

    I suggest the best way to start is to just start. I dropped off a letter to a friend of mine on my way to work, and believe me, I feel that it’s one of the best things I’ve done in a while..

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