[Podcast] The Vanishing Art of Letter Writing

06 June 2014 Podcast Cover

Listen now:

 

When was the last time your wrote a letter? Not an email, but a handwritten letter with pen, paper, envelope and postage. Learn about a legacy of letters from a WWII soldier discovered by his son. Also, a short story about poetry, jazz and a rainy afternoon.

This show is unofficially sponsored by Circa Celeste — a cafe located in historic downtown Racine, Wisconsin. Check them out at CircaCeleste.net.

Special thanks to John Hayes. He enjoys several musical incarnations from honky-tonk country to jazz to silent music scenes. His current incarnation involves old blues. Enjoy some of his music on his Bandpage.

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Letter writing, a vanishing art

A book is more than a collection of letters and pages.

The week before Fathers Day I completed a book design project that is a “legacy of letters from a decorated World War II hero…” Or so the back copy states.

Reading a manuscript like that, at times, seems voyeuristic. The compelling part of the book is the context of knowing that the author was three when his father passed away suddenly. He grew up hearing friends and family tell him “You sure look like your Daddy” or “I knew your Dad, he was one of the best.” The letters that the author collected for the book shares who is father was and what kind of man he was. But most importantly, for the author, it was the only way to hear the voice of a father he never knew.

At times, during the process of designing the cover and page layout, I glimpsed that boyish tenderness of the author (now in his sixties) as he ached for the presence his father. I cherished Fathers Day all the more as I thought of the author.

A couple of things come to mind as I wrap up this project and send it to press. First, the art of letter writing seems non-existent. The last letter I received was from my oldest child who placed it in my boot for me to find one morning. It was a simple note written in colored pencil. It is placed in my journal. I glance at it periodically.

Last time I received a hand-written letter was years ago. There are the seasonal holiday letters that begin filling my mail box every year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. They usually arrive as letters printed out on decorative stationary purchased at Kinkos or Office Depot. But hand-written letters? Do people still do that in our culture?

Secondly, the legacy left behind of those letters written prior to, during and after a major historical event impresses me. What kind of legacy might we leave our children and grandchildren with a mountain of un-memorable text messages. What will our tweets and status updates mean a half century from now? Will Twitter be obsolete by then? Or Facebook? Can you imagine your grandchildren asking you, “What’s Twitter?” After you explain the whole social media birth of micro blogging they giggle and say, “Twitter is so 2012. I can’t believe how primitive that seems.”

Emails may convey some of the gravitas as a written (or typed) letter. However, as Luddite as this sounds, I still have hand-written letters from family and friends placed in an old shoe box. Letters and notes from a woman who became my wife are stored in a similar fashion. A typed note from my grandfather, when age had crippled his hand-writing, is placed in a book of his poems as a reminder and memento. As a child, my grandmother wrote a brief letter to me each birthday and placed a stick of gum in between the folds. I looked forward to that letter each year. You can’t attach a stick of gum to an email.

Besides, I doubt anyone in our culture would wait, anticipate and enjoy a letter that arrives annually. Everything is so urgent… almost panicked. Why isn’t someone responding to my emails, texts, tweets? It’s been 30 seconds! (Place emoticons here.) In my own life, I notice how differently I process social media and online content. There lacks a linear stretch of the intellect when processing clusters of data points from Twitter, Facebook, HuffPo, etc. My attention span fatigues when I have to wade through a barrage of emails, updates and tweets.

Yet I enjoy the long articles in the Atlantic Monthly, London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books or the like. It stimulates my mind. 700-word news articles for the most part bore me. There’s nothing there but a nut graph. No context. No history. No personality or narrative trajectory. Just a Google-like, or Wikipedia-like, democratized collection of information. There’s nothing there to engage my mind. Nothing that challenges my mind, beliefs or values. A book on the Battle of Agincourt offers nuances that blog posts, tweets and texts don’t offer.

Reading through a legacy of letters, like the book I am ready to send to press, captures the exchange of ideas in a sustained, generational conversation between a father and a son. The more our culture engages in the scatterbrained conflagration of data items, I suspect civil, engaging conversation (like letter writing) may become obsolete.

I saw a man with a knife at a bus stop

This morning while waiting for a bus, I saw a man reach in his pocket, pull out a knife and slit open a stamped envelope. He carefully opened a three page, handwritten letter and slowly began to read. To avoid being any more a voyeur, I focused my attention elsewhere for the next twenty minutes until the bus arrived. As we boarded, I caught two words on the last page of the letter. Soon we were swallowed by the bus and deposited at our separate destinations.

The man, his knife and letter disappeared, but a thought remained and also a question, who still writes handwritten letters? The thought of a handwritten letter in a stamped envelope haunts me as I reflect on how smartphone usage, social media sites, and the endless barrage of emails has changed my thinking and in some regards my behavior (not to mention how my spelling and grammar have increasingly deteriorated).

Consider how much of emails, social media updates and smartphone use is not actionable (to use a David Allen GTD expression). Consider how to eliminate access data assault and focus on learning through connections the way many geniuses and polyglots learn. And unless these thoughts have actions they are but vain ponderings. So, beginning September 1, I plan to focus on the essence of handwritten letters: communication and connection. This means I will not access social media sites (apologies in advance if I have begun a conversation through Facebook or Twitter), and only post updates using my Tumblr and WordPress accounts (and maybe I’ll decide on one of those platforms as the best one for communication and connection). This is an experiment. I’m not retreating to a monastery hidden somewhere near Mount Athos (though, I must confess, I do find that an attractive idea). So we’ll see what happens. And maybe I’ll start writing handwritten letters.