On the Dying Tradition of Letter-writing
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I've been working with letters as literary artifacts for just over a decade now. As a graduate student, my attraction to letters was instant. The very first time I sat down with stack of yellowing missives, I was hooked, and never looked back. I work with letters because I like the intimacy they afford. Piecing a story together through an unexamined correspondence is a way to tap into untold stories and to break new ground. Reading letters also gives me a glimpse into the ways in which people meld writing and life and make sense of their time on earth. And I'm interested in the ways the big and small combine in letters -- the way, for example, a letter can give a ground-level view of historical events. But as we increasingly eschew handwritten letters on paper for electronic correspondence, the materials I use for my research are becoming a bit of dinosaur. I myself have boxes of love letters written on lined notebook paper from when I was a teenager, but I may be one of the last generations to be able to say this. And as I embark on the writing of my third book -- my second to use letters as a primary resource --I realize that it's time to start reflecting not only on what letters say, but on what they are. I've never really cared all that much about physical objects in my work. Whether I read a second-hand copy, a library copy, or a first edition of Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, as long as all the pages are intact, it's all the same to me. It's why I could never be an art historian, because the value of objects that interest me have little to do with money, or physical uniqueness. But now I see that it is no longer enough simply to consider the content of the letters I work with. Because letters are on their way out as a cultural practice, I will inevitably have to start reflecting more seriously about their physical form, the way they travel from sender to recipient, and how the process of letter-writing differs from or ins some ways resembles the way we communicate today. National Public Radio has kick-started this thinking process for me. It's currently doing a series on the United States Postal System, which is apparently in deep crisis. As part of its Postal series, NPR has curated an on-line exhibit of interesting pieces of mail, called "Mailed Memories: Your Cherished Letters." The exhibit includes images of an annual cake-package sent by post, a posthumous birthday card, and a postcard sent to a kid by Allen Ginsburg that was originally addressed to John and Yoko. The last piece in the exhibit is my contribution: a 1947 postcard sent from Siberia to the US by my grandmother. It's tagline: "Finally, a letter from mom." It is indeed a cherished piece of mail, and I'm honored to have it used as part of the piece. You can find a link to the exhibit here: http://julijasukys.com/?p=1133 I rarely write letters anymore myself, and wonder if others do. Share your letter-writing and -receiving stories. I'm interested to know about your writing life.
  • Anna and Melanie,

    Thank you both for contributing to this. Anna: I've just bought a second-hand copy of A Woman of Independent Means. Thanks for the tip. For all my interest in epistles, epistolary novels have remained at the very edge of my radar. I've been toying with the idea of writing something long in the form of letters (though likely not a novel), so this will help my thinking on that front.


    Melanie, your comment is very poignant. I find it somehow devastating that even the letter -- the seemingly safest, most patient, and almost naive form of communication -- has become the occasion for a red flag in your life. Your story says something very profound about fear, privacy, mistrust, and a kind of collective loss of innocence.


    As for me, I still use the postal system a lot, but mostly to send manuscripts, receive books (like the one Anna recommended) and other things bought on line and of course, Christmas cards. I almost never write letters by hand (preferring to type, since this is how I've been composing texts for so long!), and apparently I'm not alone. I recently heard a young teacher claim that teaching handwriting was now a waste of time. The comment got my back up, but I did wonder later on if, like it or not, this teacher might have a point, or at least be making an accurate prediction.


    Well, I got my Christmas cards out into the mailbox this year, we'll see how many more years it lasts!

  • Thank you both, for the initial discussion post and the first reply. I'm amazed that I can plunk a stamp that costs less than 40 cents on a folded up piece of paper, drop it in a metal box, and know that someone hundreds of miles away will have it in her hands two days later. A letter is a made artifact. I like paper, even though I like living trees too. I hung the dozen holiday cards I've received, and they make me smile. And the USPS isn't funded by taxes--it must support itself 37 cents at a time.


    Yet even I have let letter-writing go by the wayside. Why? I'm not sure, and I'm trying to remember when the shift really took hold. It's difficult to imagine fitting it back into my regular life, now that I've added Facebook and blog-reading to my daily communication. But I let it go before these activities took hold in my life.


    I was just talking with my writing group about epistolary novels, because one of us is working on one. The epistle--the letter--is a historical mode now, isn't it? I recommend A Woman of Independent Means, a novel that captures the letter's relationship to a life.



  • Letters are definitely becoming a distant memory, and I too, find that I cherish anything written that appears in my mailbox these days, even if it'd disguised as a note of solicitation from a Realtor looking for new leads.

    I remember a time when it was considered very cool to have a pen-pal. They were easy to find: as a teenager growing up in the 60s, I had endless access to a bevvy of favorite magazines in which specific pages were dedicated to showcasing other young like-minded people seeking friends from various corners of the globe. My magazines of choice recruitment were Teen Beat magazine and Western Horsemanship. The funny thing was that I never had to get approval from my parents to have a pen-pal. The thought of anything  exploitative or threatening about having a pen-pal back in those days was non-existent. I simply read through the short bios and chose who I thought was a good match. Shortly thereafter I'd be impatiently checking the mail daily until it came: a hand-written letter, along with a photo, a card or handmade item from a new found 'pal' from somewhere else in the world.

    I recall a moment with my 12 year old daughter just a few weeks back, where, just like I did when I was 12, she lay contentedly on the living room rug, perusing her latest Horse Canada magazine, when she threw a question over her shoulder to me. "Mom, can I have a pen-pal?" Innocent enough, right? But why did her question, the very thought of receiving mail from someone I didn't know suddenly seem like such a risky thing to allow my young daughter to do?

    I struggled with my own inner turmoil that her innocent question raised as I caught her questioning eyes. "Let me see." is all I could say as I reached for her magazine and scanned the page that was oh-so-familiar in presenting the bios of prospective pen-pals.

    Suddenly they didn't sound so innocent; they were reading like a bad ploy of some sick individual seeking out the innocence of a girl too naive to know better.I fought with the urge to be over-reactive, but remembered with great vividness, the recent story I had heard about a young Alberta girl who had taken a bus to go visit a 'friend' she had met on MSN Messenger, and never returned.

    "You know, hunny, I don't think that's such a good idea.." is what I heard myself say as I handed back her magazine and caught her crest-fallen expression that had settled on her face. I waited with some anticipation for the next question that I knew was inevitable.

    "Why?" she asked, her emotions completely exposed on her sad little face.

    "Because, hunny, I love you and I want to keep you safe. It's not like it was when I was your age. Things have changed and we have to be careful of who we expose your information to,these days." There. I said it. And there began the litany into why a pen-pal was now deemed a possible threat.

    Did I do the right thing? Have I too, added another shovel full of dirt to the gaping hole that now houses the commonality of written correspondence between two humans? Sadly, yes, I believe so on both counts.

    I cherish those pen-pal memories now, as, indeed, the age of computers has taken over, replacing the organic feel of a hand-written letter appearing in one's mailbox with the the influx of mechanical emails into an inbox. I have a dear friend who, once a year during the holiday season, writes a beautifully composed letter on holiday stationery, highlighting the memories of the past year with her life and family. It was so befitting of the season, and for me, along with the straggle of Christmas cards received from the Dentist, Realtor and family doctor was a sort of 'tradition' that I looked forward to every year.

    Alas, however, the inevitable occurred when just this past week I received the Ross's annual letter in an email format instead of through the postal service. I was crushed! It weighed heavy in my heart as I realized that although the miles keep us apart , the distance seems ever greater now that our correspondence has become entrenched in the convenience of a computer. And peering into the mailbox daily through the month of December, we have received but two lonely Christmas cards that sit like foreigners on the mantle of my fireplace.

    My own stack of newly purchased Christmas cards still lay in their box on top of my fridge. I didn't get to them this year, and I'm really not even sure why that happened. I feel a little guilty in a sheepish kind of way, but have resolved to amend the situation by posting a hearty greeting to all my friends on Facebook this week.