The Lost Art of Letter Writing by David Stone

While the crowds are searching online and in the big box stores for the thinnest, fastest electronic devices with the most power and memory, I will be leisurely selecting traditional stationery and pens for novel gifts. I believe letter writing helps family and friends to slow down and reconnect.

My mother stopped writing me this past summer after thirty-one years of faithful correspondence. We have communicated through letters since I went away to a boarding high school when I was fourteen. Weekly she had sent me at least two news filled sheets with a healthy portion of motherly advice, always closed with “Love, Mom.” Through high school and college and again when I was in graduate school, her letters almost always included a check—money I knew she had literally earned on her hands and knees, scrubbing someone else’s floor as a housekeeper. Her letters were truly gifts of love.

Headlines from Beijing to Boston have heralded letter writing as a lost art. Not including greeting cards or invitations, the US Postal Service reported in 2011 that a typical home received a personal letter every seven weeks, more than three times less frequently than in 1987 when it was once every two weeks. According to the numbers of the 2014 Postal Facts report, first-class single piece mail volume declined an additional 3.2 billion pieces or 12% in the past two years, down more than fifty percent in the last decade.

In 1922 Emily Post wrote, “the art of general letter writing in the present day is shrinking until the letter threatens to become a telegram, a telephone message, a postcard.” What would she say about digital communication? Texts, tweets, and Instagrams have virtually replaced that art; indeed, we live in an era of digital fragments. That’s why traditional letter writing gifts stand out.

Compared to the 140 characters of a tweet, receiving a letter is like getting a full-sized car rather than a matchbox; compared to an email, a handwritten letter is like a hand-sewn patchwork quilt rather than a Walmart blanket. The quality comes from the unique combination of stationary, writing instrument, and manuscript form or font.

In other words, letter writing is an art form, a product of a complex craft. Letters are creations, appreciated for their beauty and emotional power. You might find buried in your desk, closet or attic, a letter or two that deserves to be framed and fittingly displayed in your home along side family photos.

Most importantly, letters connect us in a way other communications do not. A friend of mine recently discovered a letter by her grandfather who died when she was only three months old. The letter was written to her grandmother on the day after she and her grandfather got engaged. “My darling little Lily,” he began. His letter connects her to the grandfather she never met.

Letters are relational from the salutation to the closing—two elements absent in tweets, texts, and even in many emails that read more like memos. The slow process of writing the body of a letter therapeutically brings us deeper insight to our lives as we organize our personal experiences and construct the self we choose to share through our words.

A number of recently published books would make excellent gifts for those wishing to hone their letter writing skills or learn more about letter writing. Nina Sankovitch’s new book “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” begins with her discovery of letters in an old steamer trunk written by a college student over a hundred years earlier. Sankovitch shares the insights she learns as she attempts to pass on her love for letter writing to her own son who is headed to Harvard.

Simon Garfield’s “To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing” just came out in paperback. In over 400 pages, this best-selling writer retells the history of letters and provides practical how-to instruction with numerous examples.

To see a colorful and creative collection of letters, read Ivan Cash’s “Snail My E-mail: Handwritten Letters in a Digital World.” Cash shares some of the most creative letters of the more than 10,000 he and other volunteers created when they set out to handwrite and mail letters for others for free.

For a practical guide to personal letter writing that focuses on its social qualities, consider Margaret Shepherd’s “The Art of the Personal Letter: A Guide to Connecting through the Written Word.”

After three months of disappointingly walking to the mailbox, I found a fat envelope late this September addressed to me in my mother’s cursive that I had worked so hard to imitate as a child, preparing for a forgery I don’t remember ever actually committing. Stuffed in the envelope were six sheets. Multiple unfinished pages and a full letter beginning, “Maybe (someday) you will get an email from me. I now have a book titled ‘Computers for Dummies.’”

I’m sending her some stationary. I’m praying she misplaces her book.

David Stone is a poet who teaches English at Loma Linda Academy.