Friday, August 26, 2011

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

There's a terrible rumor going around that the United States Postal Service is soon to become just an entry in history books. The USPS has been losing its foothold in the market of necessities since the advent of the internet. As mail's successor, email, becomes a side note in correspondence -usurped by social media and text- the postman is nearing full-on extinction. A recent report noted that 3,700 offices were slated to be closed in the coming months. There are whispers that the 236 year-old independent government agency will breath its last breaths in 2012. I am not sure of the reality of this threat, but the prospect makes my heart very heavy.

Recently, after a lapse in friendship for almost 10 years, I began a letter correspondence with a high school friend. We had one catch-up phone call in which we shared the readers digest versions of the last decade and then determined that we we'd try the pen pal route. The letters come and go about monthly and cover topics like Bach, beer, philosophy and family. We don't spend much time reminiscing, rather sharing whatever is on our minds at the time and answering the open-ended questions from the others last letter. We spend 7 hand written pages just "talking" uninterrupted. What conversation gets that kind of attention? After the first exchange, I started checking the mailbox more regularly -sometimes greeting the postman on the front steps- just hoping for a hand-addressed letter. It's romantic, even though it's not. I'm in love with the correspondence.

I'm reminded of the pen pals I used to keep as a kid. Somewhere in my attic is a box of letters from my cousin, Carie, signed with hearts over the "i"s and multiple post scripts. We lived thousands of miles apart -she in Montana and I in Kentucky. We never spoke on the phone and saw each other only a handful of times over 15 years. In these letters we wrote about school, broken bones, and most importantly, boys. (Significantly, it was in our letters that I first heard wind of her now husband. Of course, the first mention of him was when we were probably 13! Gosh that's cute.) We never said much of any depth, really, but through only the occasional letter we built a friendship close enough that I was a bridesmaid in her wedding in 2005.

There's just a difference in potency between an internet correspondence and "snail mail" (But seriously, what snail could travel cross country in 3 days?!). I think one part of it is self-editing. I don't know how other people do it, but I prefer to hand-write letters. Even if it's chicken scratch. Honestly, I think the charm of deciphering someone's personal font is half of the fun. So there's only one "draft" of the letter. After I lick the envelope, I never read it again. The only remnants of the words I write are my pen pal's return letter. Then, I see myself through the lens of his response. 

Gmail has backlogged 10 years of instant messages for me that I can search and peruse. I don't have to remember a thing. But, a letter that doesn't leave you isn't a letter. A letter is a gift, it has to be given away. (What's that Michael W. Smith song? "Love isn't love- til you give it away..."

Anyways. I'm trying to get back into the swing of using the USPS more frequently. It shouldn't be just for delivering sweepstakes and bills. Maybe we can start a new trend? Bring back pen pals. (Hipsters should dig it. They're into vintage, right? Nothing's more American Vintage than the USPS- Ben Franklin was the first postmaster!)

Start by writing your grandma. She misses you. So does your postman.

If you're looking for a way to utilize an even more antiquated means of communication, check this telegram service: I received a surprise telegram from a dear friend last year and it made my month. The look and feel of the package is legit. (They have a package for wedding announcements, too, with little RSVP tags. It might be just a little too hokey and impersonal for me, but it's still pretty sweet.) Overall, still more expensive than a regular letter.


  1. Thanks Sarah! Your post made my morning... I miss actually looking forward to the mail. I have a dear friend who moved a few hours away that is in the process of surviving breast cancer and we talk more through mail than anything else. It's my way of "being there" when I can't be there. And a letter is something she can hold and reread and "feel" me more. I totally agree with you. I'm sure your letters are somewhere in one of my memory boxes at mom's. I will try to start writing you more snail mail. It's always a pleasure to give as well as receive. I sure hope the USPS sticks around. How unromantic would it be for future generations to peruse their parents - what - email? texts? BLECH. I treasure the few letters I have that Ryan actually wrote with his own hand. They're real pieces of him that I'll have forever, long after he may be gone... and they are something my kids can keep too.

  2. Either I'm on a roll or you are... I can't believe that about the USPS! Impossible!!! What would happen to the card industry if we could no longer send cards. But letters... ah! The letters I have from your Dad... the letters I found from the years before my folks got hitched and during those early years... so precious. Going through your grandparents boxes has emphasized how important letter writing is. It truly opens the door to the soul and transcends time. Thank you Sarah for these wonderful escapes and journeys. They are all delightful and a treasure.

  3. Thank you Sarah. Going through your grandparents' boxes of "stuff" and finding generations of letters reminds me of how much of our souls and memories are captured on those pieces of paper. I treasure your father's letters from before our wedding and the notes, letters, and cards you girls have written me through the years. Being a keeper can be a good thing... a very good thing. As for the USPS, it will be a sad day for the human race of this nation if we allow our mail service to die. When the electricity was out, and I used up my battery... I could still write a letter or read a good book by candle light. Maybe we don't have it as good as we think we do today, hmmmm ?!?! Love you more than meat loves salt...

  4. Just listened to a great story on the local Christian radio station about a teacher from a small private school who started hand writing personal letters to each of his students on their birthdays, and continued writing each of his students every year after that... He now sends about 2,500 birthday letters a year. Talk about an impact that the written word can make, and how even one little "thinking of you" can change a person's day, maybe even their life!


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