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Kamloops News

THOMPSON: The, almost, lost art of letter writing

June 29, 2020 - 12:00 PM



I miss correspondence...writing letters...and receiving them. There is something gloriously special about the entire process. Sitting in a comfortable chair...real fountain pen in hand...its nib gliding colourful ink across stationery whose look and feel define luxury...and permanence.

Letter writing isn’t a lost art...not completely...not yet. Rather, we have put aside this most personal way of conveying our thoughts in favour of the immediacy of email and texting. Even more than speaking with someone face-to-face, hand-written words carry our intents and subtleties with unequaled precision.

In my lifetime, it was the telephone that delivered the first body blow to letter writing. No, not that device we call a Smart Phone that provides us with capabilities we could only dream of 60 years ago. I’m talking about the home telephone...the land expensive most families had only one...not so conveniently located in a hallway or foyer or kitchen.

You could lease that black, rotary-dial phone for what today would be $50 a month...including local service. You could get a baby blue, avocado green, pink or cream phone for another $1.50 each month...about $10 in today’s dollars. Long-distance calls were extra....and expensive...$12 for a three-minute coast-to-coast call.

But...the phone was that era’s new technology, and increasingly, what once was written - often in wonderful cursive writing - folded, sealed, stamped and sent along its merry way for reading in a few days by the recipient...was now spoken. Sadly, you cannot re-read a phone conversation.

Art had not died...still, it seemed the Mona Lisa was now available in a paint-by-numbers kit. No one speaks of the charm and intimacy of a phone call....and certainly not an email or text. A letter on the other hand carries the full weight of the writer’s emotions.

Whether by fragrance...the smell of your favourite aunt’s perfume from her hand moving across the page...or the writer’s mood betrayed by the heavier ink in a given sentence. Emails and texts rely so little on words that we use Emojis...a variety of smiley faces to convey what we say is actually witty or funny.

I long for days that include letters...even those imperfect...with scratched out words after a better word comes to mind...or one with a question mark in parentheses that challenges the writer’s spelling...but not the intent. Have you ever received a letter smudged with the writer’s dry? What email or text have you ever sent or received that comes close to the writer’s - yours or another’s - true feelings?

Letters were once essays...the equivalent of my column...only to the smallest of audiences...a single person...a friend, lover, rival. I sometimes write a column...hold it for a time...and on occasion never publish it.

People used to do that...write letters and never send them...hold them...sometimes destroying them with only the writer’s knowledge they ever existed...or leave them for friends and relatives after the letter writer dies. Are these the most honest and intimate thoughts and feelings of any person? Perhaps.

I’m not sure letter writing will ever make a comeback. The romantic in me pulls for the return of a literate letter-writing culture. But the realist in me counters that desire with the full awareness that cursive writing is now the domain of middle-aged folks and older. Would Emily Dickinson’s or Sir Winston Churchill’s words have the same power on stationery in block print?

Ernest Hemingway - on whether he liked letter writing - said, “I do because it's such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you've done something.”

Most novelists and poets and artists were...and continue to be...great letter writers. Perhaps it serves as a conversation with yourself...a missive to an alter ego. The personal letters of those famous serve not only as tiny memorials to their genius...but windows into their souls.

You need not be famous though. If you’re lucky enough to have letters from ancestors...parents, grandparents and beyond...take them out and read them. Think of the and why they were written...and the meaning of the words on the pages. It is the most personal history you’ll ever study. And if you’re not so fortunate to have those treasures, read the letters of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Emily Dickinson, George Sand and so many more.

Then, regardless of your age, look in the bottom of your desk drawer, pull out some old stationery, and a nice ink pen...and write a letter to someone that’s important to you...someone you love. Fold it, put it in an envelope, stamp and mail it. Then, simply wait. What happens next will rarely happen with a phone call, email or text.

Journalist Phyllis Theroux wrote this simple truth, “To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart.”

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