You’ve got (snail) mail

Carol's letter up close.Imagine you open your mailbox, and inside, among the coupons and bills and glossy fliers is an envelope addressed to you. Not only is your name front and center, it’s written in trailing ink, with the subtle flaws of actual handwriting. The envelope is thin, but weighty enough, and you recognize the return address instantly: a friend, maybe a lover, or maybe an enemy. The rest of your mail suddenly can wait—the rest of the world can wait, for you’ve just gotten a letter, and nothing is more important than tearing it open to read it.

Dying art

I love letters, even if, in this digital age, they’re a dying art. What could be more personal and heartfelt, than a beautifully-crafted handwritten letter? I love the thought of them, the look of them, the feel and even the smell of them, not unlike the smell of a book. Which is probably why I chose letters as a vehicle for my first novel, The God of Sno Cone Blue. (The second novel is coming along well, by the way, though never as fast as I’d like.) Those of you who’ve read my first book know that my main character Grace receives letters written by her mother before she died. I guess I always knew the mother’s story would be a source of mystery and interest, but I never anticipated just how much. The main comment I get from readers? “I can’t wait to read the next letter!” And yes, I get it.

Dracula book cover.

 

Oddly, letters aren’t as common in literary fiction as you might expect. Epistolary novels that come to mind include: Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897), The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis, 1942), Up the Down Staircase (Bel Kaufman, 1965), The Color Purple (Alice Walker, 1982), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, 1999), and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, 2008) to name a few.

 

Modern conveniences

text messaging on a smart phone.

Few of us bother with handwritten letters anymore. I’m as guilty as anyone. The most I write by hand these days is a list of to-do’s, a phone message or a miles-long grocery list. Today we use laptops, phones, email and text, which hardly come close. Scant effort in, brings scant reward: What time you off work? Five—you? Five-thirty. K, what’s for dinner? I thawed a chicken. K, see you then.

Sigh.

Yet we know there’s no turning back. We’re out of practice—and patience. And we love the convenience technology brings. Even now, if I’m sending a letter the “snail mail” way by US post, I type it up, to spare my fingers, and print it out. Did I just admit that? Yes, I did.

For posterity

Letters spread out on a table.But I’d like the think there’s still a place for handwritten letters, where the effort we put in truly counts. What if, as in my novel, we wrote missives to the people especially dear to us, to be opened after we’re gone? What better way to say I love you than I cared enough to put pen to paper, recount these memories, express these sentiments, in my very own handwriting, just for you?

It sure beats an email.

 

–As always, please feel free to comment below–

 

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16 thoughts on “You’ve got (snail) mail

  1. My husband and I will both be 70 this fall. We started dating in high school and went to different colleges after graduation. We wrote to each other often and he still has all the letters that I sent him during the three years before we got married. I consider them a legacy for our children and grandchildren to see how I communicated and fell in love with their Dad.

    • Hi Jeanne,
      Ah–a man who gets it! Those letters are absolutely a legacy and how romantic that he kept them! Not only are they a testament to your love, they’ll help illustrate history and how life and language has changed. Thanks for writing!

  2. I totally agree. I exchanged letters with my husband for years before we got married because we lived apart. My Father and Mother still write to me. I had certain close friends that I always shared my thoughts and dreams with via the written word. Then it became less frequent. Which is sad. The less you express yourself in writing the more you keep to ourself.

    • Hi Beth,
      I’m not sure I can think of any better therapy for a marriage than to read old love letters they wrote, right? And how sweet that your parents still write to you! I can’t image you’re doing anything other than keeping those letters. As the years go by, they’ll become more and more precious.

  3. I really miss the fine art of handwriting letters. I would write my Grandmother every week but she’s been gone for 20+ years. I was privileged to have met my biological Mom in 2009 and wrote long letters to her to get caught up on 50+ years of life. She passed away in 2010. I’ve often thought there should be a network of pen pals for shut ins. It would bless so many people. I’d have 3 or 4 ladies receiving letters from me! 😀

    • Hi Pam,
      I love the idea of pen pals for shut ins! Now I’m wondering if there is such an organization. You are fantastic to be writing to several people–I’ll bet they treasure your letters (and getting them!) far more than you know.

  4. Hi, Marcia, Keaton’s grandmother here.
    Regarding letters: When I was a young bride, in 1962, I moved away with husband. These were the days when very few long distance phone calls were made due to the expense. Therefore, it was common practice to send letters and my mother and I wrote many back and forth. I saved each one by gluing them in a scrapbook. One day at about age 24 or so, I happened to say how I was saving them. In a critical tone, my dad said, “Well, THAT’s kind of stupid.”. At the time, I had not yet developed the confidence to be me. I pondered what he said and decided maybe he was right so I threw them all away.

    When I was 29, one morning, at 10 am, I spoke to my mother on the phone and we talked about canning fruit that week. Suddenly, at 10 pm that same day, she was dead due to an unknown cerebral aneurysm at age 54. As I sought to deal with her sudden, unexpected, early death, I so longed to have her letters to read. I was so regretful that I allowed my father’s mean spirit to influence me.

    From that day forward, since 1971, I saved everybody’s letters. Periodically, I sorted them by the writer’s name and stored them in a box in the garage. That practice continued for another three decades until long distance calls were more affordable. Then emails were invented and the practice of letter writing basically dried up.

    After years of forgetting about those old letters, I rediscovered them in the garage in about 2005. I glanced through some of them and realized that I now possessed treasures of memories, some of people long passed. I packaged them up and sent them to now grown children of my friends and relatives and to widowed spouses and others. Each letter had really become a snapshot of the times of their families and a kind of diary. I always received surprised, positive responses from grateful recipients. They were thrilled to possess the letters.

    Another practice I developed over 75 years is writing personal notes of commendation or appreciation to various strangers and celebrities in the news. I never expected a response nor was I certain if the recipient even received or read my letters but I was stunned so many times when a very nice thank you letter was sent back to me ~ even a handwritten card from a super star in Paris!

    I believe it is still essential to hand write thank you notes. That is the least I can do to express appreciation for another’s kindness, efforts or gift.

    As always, I am enjoying reading what you say, especially since I am acquainted with you and I know you are truly and sincerely a person of quality and integrity.
    Please remember our loved one. Remember the Memorial Marathon.
    Jeanne

    PS: Does the public see these comments? Could have written more but was reluctant because of that question.

    • Hello Jean and thanks for writing. I can understand why people would save your letters. Your comments are always heartfelt and honest! On this site I have editorial control, so feel free to reply and if there’s ever any portion of what you leave you don’t want made public just ask and I can edit those for my eyes only. How heartbreaking about your mother’s letters! On the other hand, it’s wonderful how you responded–that’s truly an example of learning from life’s experiences, right? And thank you for the reminder of the Memorial Marathon–I need to make sure it’s on my calendar!!!

  5. Hi Marcia,
    This topic is one of great interest to me as I have always been a letter writer and a letter saver. Some of my earliest childhood memories include letter writing, and I have my mother to thank for those. I agree that letters are a memory guarantee, in a way, because every time I pull out an old handwritten letter from my file, memory floods back – memory that would otherwise have been lost, I’m sure. I have sent copies of some of my letters to old friends, and I’ve brought some along to a get-together to read aloud, and the response is always shock (that I still have them) and joy at being brought back to the time of their writing. I have fallen into the “type and print out” habit, as well, but you have inspired me to put pen to paper. Thank you!
    Kim

    • Hi Kim. You were so wise to keep all your letters–and so right that they bring memories that surely would have been lost! I have very few letters, but one in particular is even a relationship I would have forgotten without the letter (a short-lived romance–ha!) We probably don’t realize it when we’re writing them, but letters are a chronicle of time and place and how we were in that moment. I just had a thought–maybe we should also write them to ourselves!

  6. You are so right about the lost art of letter writing. I have some treasured letters that I have kept over the years and they mean so much more to me after the authors have passed. Your book inspired me to write to my kids to make sure if I was taken suddenly that they would know how I felt about them. Thank you for reminding us of this Marcia. I enjoy these posts from you, you have a way of writing about things that really touch my heart.

  7. HELLO MARCIA,

    Great Post as usual. Great Subject too. There are certain levels of irony to your post because you are writing as you are talking about writing, and yet, writing in a post is a little different than writing a hand written letter or note.

    Because you are writing about hand written letters in your post, the post is a bit more personal than one might expect from most blog posts, and yet it is still a blog post. If we were to list types of writing from most personal to least personal it might go like this: hand written letter, e-mail, blog post, text message. I object to our society’s tendency to make hierarchies, but it must be admitted each genre generates its own conventions.

    I still use hand written notes regularly, as I believe it imparts a sense of purpose and sincerity on the part of the writer. For example, when faxing correspondence between myself and my medical insurance company, I always include a hand written note (faxed of course) along with whatever documents I am faxing to 1) show that this is really important to me, and 2) remove some of the impersonality of faxing.

    A clear example recently was that I wrote a hand written letter to (O.K. word processed, but is a word processed letter the same as a hand written letter delivered by snail mail? I don’t know. Do we need to put “word processed letter” between “hand written letter” and “e-mail?”) Neil McFarlane, the General Manager of Tri Met, it was word processed but with my (hand written) signature at the end. Apparently this pleased him as he wrote a hand written letter back (not word processed) expressing how pleased he was that I took the time to single out one his drivers for exemplary work.

    Sorry, don’t mean to blather on about this, but I think you’ve hit on a great topic when you talk about hand written letters. Please continue to do so!!!! Your blog is interesting as usual!!!!

    Sincerely, Your Cousin, Bill

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