Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Lost Art Of Letterwriting

This morning I was writing an email to someone I knew from college but hadn’t spoken to in more than 15 years. In the course of attempting to catch him up on my personal history, I thought back to when we knew each other on freshman hall and what was going on at that point. His immediate recollections were of my addiction to Swedish Fish and my fascination with the Beatles. In turn, I associate him with Bruce Springsteen, imaginary girlfriends, going to the Caf for dinner and splitting pizzas late at night. As I responded to the email, I tried to decide whether it was a good or a bad thing that email has replaced letter writing. During freshman year, I was in a long distance relationship so I spent a lot of time writing letters and now I was writing about that period to someone fifteen years later using a technology that was almost non-existent back then. Composing my reply, I happened to digress from the topic at hand (as I often do, hence the title of this blog site) into a comparison of the merits of email versus old fashioned pen and paper letters. I’m pretty qualified to compare them because I’ve done massive amounts of both in my time. At first, I thought email would be the clear favorite but the more I thought about, the less certain I became.

On the plus side, you can write an email and get it to someone quickly. As soon as you have written your message (or before if you aren’t careful with your Send button), you click one or two buttons and it gets dispatched. A few seconds later, it is in that person’s inbox regardless of whether they are in the next cubicle, the next state or across an ocean. Ding! They have mail. There is no wait for the mailman to slog through rain, sleet, snow or dark of night on his appointed rounds. An email doesn’t get delivered to the next door neighbor or mixed up with the junk mail circulars or returned for insufficient postage. Yeah, maybe you want to argue about how a bad email address bounces something back or that spam filters zap it before it gets to you, but that’s beside the point. A vast majority of the time, it’s there. Right away. Almost as soon as you think a thought, it gets shared with someone else. Even if it takes a few days for them to get around to reading it, it’s waiting for them when they do. Of course that means when I take three weeks to respond to an email, I feel much guiltier about it now. If it arrives instantaneously, why did I take so long to respond? I can't even pretend that the mail was slow. In the old days I would pretend there was a delay in receiving a letter, like the post office messed up somewhere along the line, which wasn’t hard to believe. I would blithely condemn my mailman and just hope no one checked the postmark on the letter.

Also, with email you have the text right in front of you and you can append your thought onto theirs. You don’t have to flip through the pages of the letter to find a particular passage, write a summary of what it says and then make a response to that. You just follow the commentary thread and insert your comment after theirs. There is no such thing as sloppy handwriting and Spell Check will take care of your spelling errors (as long as you know what the error is and that the correct correction is being made.) You can excise the irrelevant stuff, insert pictures, use colors and highlights. You can send the exact same letter to multiple people and have a copy for yourself without involving carbon paper or Xerox machines in the process. If it gets lost or deleted, it is easy to resend it, verbatim. You don’t pay any postage, you don’t have to find pretty stationary at the store and you don’t have to walk to the mailbox in the rain or worry that you missed the pickup time for that day. It is a very efficient and versatile method of delivery. These are just some of the many reasons why email is a wonderful innovation.

On the negative side, email can't replace the physical and psychological sensations of sending and receiving an actual letter through the mail. As a kid, one of my favorite noises was the sound of gravel crunching underneath a tire. That meant one of two things- that the mailman had pulled alongside the road to deliver the mail or that my parents were home and I needed to turn off the TV since I was most likely restricted from watching it due to my report card. If it was the mailman, I would dash outside to get the mail because I loved to sort through and see what I got. Did my grandmother send me a letter? Was there something from a pen pal or an old friend? Were there birthday cards or Christmas cards or Easter cards for me? Did I get a catalog of some sort? An email can’t compare to the full engagement of the senses that occurs when you receive a letter. First, you feel the texture of the envelope and your fingers gauge the thickness of it. If it is from a grandparent, is it thick enough to maybe have some money in it? If it’s from a friend, does it feel like they wrote several pages? Your eyes take over as you look at the handwriting , check out the return address to confirm who it came from and then peer at the stamps. That’s something I’ve always liked about Mormor’s (my maternal grandmother) envelopes- the stamps are always interesting and colorful. I’m not sure she ever used the same kind of stamp twice. If the letter was from a friend, did they write something on the back of the envelope? Julie would often jot one last thought on an envelope before sending it to me. Sometimes it was affectionate, sometimes it was embarrassing and sometimes it was just a P.S. With email, there really isn’t anything like a P.S. anymore. If you remember something later on, you go back up into the body of the letter and add it in where ever it belongs. The need for a post script is gone.

Once you’ve run your fingers over the envelope, absorbed the beauty of the stamps and seen everything on the outside of the envelope, it is time to run your finger underneath the seal and tear open the envelope. You ears drink in the slow, lazy sound of paper tearing and separating and the rustling as a sheaf of papers is withdrawn. You start scanning the pages and reading what they contain. Maybe the pages were scented if it is from a girl, so your nose gets in on the act as a floral smell wafts up. Maybe there is a lipstick imprint and you feel the waxy or creamy texture of the imprint. You observe the beauty of the handwriting (or the lack thereof), check out any pictures, newspaper clippings, cartoons or drawings that were enclosed. Michelle always sticks in something extra, like a catalog page for those colorful and/or patterned plastic rainboots that seem to be a big fashion trend right now. Despite what John thinks, Michelle and I have seen evidence that people wear them as a fashion statement and not just "because it’s raining.” Michelle is also the only letter writer to engage my fifth sense. Sometimes she will send me a big envelope that contains Peeps or Red Vines so I can taste something as well as see, touch, smell and hear the letter being perused. So it is kind of hard to have a comparable full-sensory experience with email, unless you are sniffing the keyboard and licking the monitor and if you are, I don’t want to know about it.

Writing a letter evokes the same psychological pleasure for me. I pull out some nice stationary, grab a pen and start writing. No matter where I am doing this, I imagine myself as Jane Austen sitting in the parlor amidst a bustling family, composing her thoughts and committing them to paper. Don’t ask me why I don’t imagine myself as a male letter writer like Abraham Lincoln or Oscar Wilde. I just don’t- I’m Jane Austen for whatever reason, which is odd since I’ve yet to read one of her books. Earlier, I mentioned a long-distance relationship and that involved lots of letters and they were often quite lengthy- six to eight pages on average. During the summer after my sophomore year of college, I was corresponding with more than half a dozen people because I had nothing else to do. All the people from school were scattered around the state and country but none were near me. I couldn’t drive around to visit them because I was busy working at my summer job so letters were the only things reliving my boredom. I wrote and wrote and wrote and when I heard the sound of crunching gravel I ran out to the mailbox to see if I had a response. With email, there is no sense of anticipation- if it’s there, you know it. You see it onscreen or your mail system dings you, letting you know “You have mail!” So that summer and the one after that, I wrote a lot to people from my dorm or that I talked with on Parti because I hated to not get a letter in the mail. As soon as I read it, I would write one back. When I was done with a letter, I would put stickers on the envelope or find some cool stamps to use although now I use the self-adhesive stamps so I don’t engage my sense of taste when writing a letter. Nor have I lately included a gift or a clipping like Michelle does because I’m a lazy, selfish jerk but that’s a subject for another time.

Since that time, I’ve tapered off on my letter writing. After school, my group of friends narrowed, people stopped writing back as often, life got busier, and I got more jaded about mail. As a kid, mail was always exiting to get. As an adult, mail now means bills and donation solicitations and junk mail and advertising flyers and pizza coupons (Wait, I actually enjoy those even if I rarely use them. It’s fun to imagine eating the pizza in the picture.) The boxes of stationary in my drawer are the same ones I had ten years ago. Email has almost totally replaced letter writing for me for the reasons I mentioned above. To be honest though, I don’t really hear from many people by U.S. mail these days either. At best, I’ll get a Christmas card with a few lines scrawled inside the card. Not that I want that to stop, mind you. I appreciated the cards I did get. Mike’s card was a river scene from the Alexandria waterfront, John and Vicky did a picture postcard of their kid as did my sister and the Bondis usually do the same although I think I got dropped from their list this year. A couple people at work handed me cards and Kevin, Millie and George were nice enough to get me something personal too. My aunt sent a card that was created from one of her own paintings which was really fun to see. (As always, this does not apply to Michelle. She does fantastic letters.) So I did get some nice cards but not much personal information. Again, not that I don’t appreciate the cards. To be fair, I no longer send out Christmas cards either or letters in general. If you aren’t Mormor, you aren’t likely to get a letter from me. Again, that selfish jerk thing. I admit contributing to the death of letter writing although I do send out postcards. That is something I pride myself on. If I go on a trip, I’m very adamant about sending people a postcard, whether they want it or not, and I usually write pretty small so it is like a mini-letter rather than a generic sentiment of two sentences like on the stereotypical vacation postcard. It’s my compromise to the desire to write to people and the realization that I’m not likely to get a response. I won’t get depressed about no replies in the mail if I delude myself with the thought that it wasn’t really a letter, just a vacation postcard.

Lately though, I’ve been pleased with all the substitutes for letters. Of course, there is the phone but that’s a complex issue and it requires advance planning to avoid being a nuisance to people. I’m thinking more along the lines of email, blogs, cell-phone texting, websites like Facebook and all the other new media. With Facebook, you can post a few thoughts or some quick updates and they go to numerous people. It eliminates the amount of time required to correspond with numerous people and therefore makes it easier to manage. I equate it with William & Mary’s Parti computer program which was a precursor to the current deluge of social networking sites. The concept of blogs implies a more fully-developed, personalized statement. I would equate it to keeping a journal, just one that lots of people see (unless you’re me and having been posting for awhile but not letting anyone know about it. If you blog and no one reads it, do your thoughts exist?) Email is, of course, the natural successor to letter writing. It has many advantages to physical letters although it lacks some of the mystique or the romance of a handwritten missive. You have the practical, efficient, almost robotic tool of email versus the sentimental, old-fashioned, time-delayed system of letter writing. I’m almost afraid to say what my conclusion is- that I prefer email- because it may make me appear more heartless than I already do. At the start of this post, I thought I was undecided about a preference but by the end I’ve concluded that whatever “romance” is lost by using a new medium doesn’t outweigh the benefits. The whole idea of letter writing is to communicate with other people. Even though the old method of pen and paper, mailboxes and anticipation, may be gone, there are new ways to accomplish the same thing and they can be even better. I’m no longer going to get a package of Red Vines licorice in the mail or see a lipstick kiss on the back of an envelope, but right now I’m typing at my computer at work after everyone has left for the day and darned if I don’t still feel like Jane Austen.

1 comment:

Mimi Nowland said...

I have often thought the same thing. But you probably could have guessed that! I love to receive mail and like sending mail. I feel so old-fashioned, but I love the excitement over the whole thing. You described it perfectly. I think that email and snail mail each have their purpose. And I will tell you this, when you are in college or have roommates no one knows how much email you get, but people might notice you getting a lot of personal regular mail and that shows that people care about you!