03 May 2012

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Vincent Van Gogh was not only a great artist, he was also an accomplished writer. We know this because of the many letters he wrote to family and friends. Some writers of significant renown say his writings qualify as literature.

I recently read a blog post, The Beauty of Handwritten Letters by Guilie Castillo and it inspired me to write this piece.

Once Upon a Time
Anyone who has posted or received a scented, handwritten letter knows the joy that such a missive can carry. Today, there are so many ways to stay in touch—and they’re so much more efficient and immediate—it isn’t fashionable to write a personal letter any more. What’s the point of writing a letter when its contents won’t be read for a week or more?

Letter writing is a lost art. Once upon a time, letters were the most efficient method for individuals to stay in touch over a long distance. Nowadays, letters are used primarily for formal communications associated with a business purpose. The immediacy of mobile phones, email and text messaging have relegated letter writing to the status of a quaint and frivolous exercise.

Art Is a Painstaking Enterprise
Preparing a personal, handwritten letter requires the writer to put her heart into the task. The letter writer also needs time to choose her words carefully and to fashion her thoughts with deliberation.

All art is a painstaking enterprise and writing a letter is no different. Letter writers of bygone eras did not have the luxury of spell-checking software and couldn’t easily go back to rephrase sentences. They certainly had the option of preparing a first draft if they were so inclined, but all last minute corrections showed on the page.

What some might consider insignificant details like the choice of stationery, the writing implement used and the writer’s penmanship are all an inherent part of what makes a letter special. Because of its relative permanence as a tangible object, the final piece is literally a work of art.

The Contents of a Letter
The very essence of a letter limits it to conveying written information. But, very often, a personal letter serves purposes other than communicating essential pieces of information.

A typical letter starts off with the dateline (like a news article) and the salutation. If appropriate, at the outset, you make reference to prior correspondence and acknowledge its receipt. Aside from these basics, the contents of a letter are limited only by the writer's imagination.

A letter is also a way for the writer and the recipient to affirm their relationship and reinforce the bond they share. To this day, the salutation (dear) and the closing (very truly yours) reflect this erstwhile function. Love letters are a specialized form of this type of written interaction. If the writer is so inclined, the parchment can be scented as a way to add a personal touch of intimacy and to highlight an ethereal presence.

An Inspiration for Creativity
The act of writing a letter might encourage the writer to mention pleasant memories and portray them in the best possible light. It can compel the writer to be imaginative so as to tell an interesting anecdote. Under particular circumstances, it can require the writer to be careful in framing a delicate situation.

As with all writing, composing a letter requires the writer to narrow his focus and organize his thoughts. Today, we share more information with more people than ever, but it’s mostly in bits and pieces. Many of the stories and sentiments we share online are reduced to a few sentences on social media websites with the benefit of digital photo albums.

A Sense of Mystery
At best, a posted letter can take a few days to reach its recipient and, depending on the destination, can take several weeks to arrive. The recipient, very often, doesn't know for sure a letter is on its way or when one will arrive. The physical distance that a letter has to travel and the lapse of time until its delivery gives each letter its own aura of mystery.

It could very well be that when the letter arrives, and is read, some of the circumstances it describes have changed or that perhaps—because of the change in circumstances—an argument that it convincingly lays out is now invalid or has become irrelevant.

Have you ever had occasion to write a personal, handwritten letter?

Painting: Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait


22 comments:

  1. A fine post! I love to write letters by hand, and to receive them. And thank-you letters should always be handwritten.

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    1. Thanks for the reminder Deborah. Your point on thank-you letters is a good rule to follow.

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  2. gr8 post... I don't remember the last letter I wrote (or received). But after reading your post, I can certainly appreciate the "mystery" associated with receiving one!

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    1. Thanks for visiting TJ. A little mystery every now and then keeps life interesting.

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  3. It would be nice if people began corresponding through letters again; some people still do, I guess. Having a beautiful handwriting is something special, and schools no longer teach penmanship, as far as I know. But all your points are true.

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    1. Hi Richard! I don't get a chance to write longhand anymore. It seems like there's always have a keyboard around with a word-processor attached. It's a strange world we live in.

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  4. Truly a lost art. A lovely post.

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    1. Thanks MJ. Nice to see you, I appreciate the visit.

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  5. I miss getting letters in the mail. I still send out letters and little postcards. Most of my regular letters go to older family members who don't use a computer, but I still send note cards to friends just to give them something physical to connect to. They greatly appreciate it.

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    1. Hi Christine! There is certainly something special about receiving a letter from someone you care about, even in the age of instantaneous communication. The art may be lost, but the magic is still there.

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  6. I treasure handwritten letters. I save them in stacks tied with colored ribbon. On rainy days or cold ones I lavish in reading letters from friends that have passed on. Thanks for remembering a forgotten art.

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    1. Debra, you are very lucky to have so many letters that you can store them in stacks. I've received a few over the years but I couldn't produce a single one if my life depended on it.

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  7. I agree with those who say Van Gogh's letters qualify as literature. Years ago my husband and I saw movie called "Letters to Theo" (Vincent's brother), and the visual story unfolded entirely through Van Gogh's paintings and drawings while the aural was a narration of his letters in order as his life progressed. It was mesmerizing. I'm kinda sorry handwritten letters have gone out. I love cyberspace, but there's something about a handwritten letter that's special.

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    1. I have to conduct a little research and try to find the movie, Elizabeth. I love cyberspace also, but alas, there's nothing like the thrill of receiving a letter from a far-away friend.

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  8. I still write letters 'the old fashioned way' as my 14 year old son would say! I try to send a hand written note or letter to my daughters at least once a month. ;o) I still write to my mother even though she lives just an hour away. And I still write the occasional love letter to my husband. ;o) Thanks for posting on this topic Gary!

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    1. It goes to show, Suzan, that you are a very special person! Thanks for the visit.

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  9. Hi, Gary! I enjoyed this article very much. I think it's beneficial to adapt to the convenience of technology, but to also uphold traditional, old-fashioned practices. I purchased a red Korean letterbox over a decade ago, and keep all of the cards and letters that loved ones have given me.

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    1. Thanks for the visit, Zoey. I enjoy all the changes, but it's a challenge to keep up with them. I'm waiting to see if the Google glasses take off.

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    2. It's my pleasure, Gary. I agree that it's a challenge. I'm glad that I'm addicted, but not a slave to technology! ;) I look forward to seeing how those Google glasses turn out as well.

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  10. I exchange letters and notes with a old family friend (she doesn't have a computer) who is a thousand miles away. I love to get her letters, and I hope she loves to get my newsy updates on the family and grandchildren. I also make it a habit to write "grateful" notes to friends. Hand-written notes that simply say that I'm grateful to have them in my life.

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    1. Hi Karen, I see you found me over here. I think people still appreciate the personal touch of a hand-written letter or a thank-you note. They make anyone feel special.

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  11. Hello everyone, I am an artist working in London and I am looking for people to take part in my social art project, it is all about writing letters. I saw this thread and couldn't resist leaving a comment. Below is a link to my group where you can download the brief:

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/482550538445298/

    I do hope you can take a look, perhaps you can even take part yourselves and tell your friends, it would mean a lot. Thank you for your time, kindest regards.
    Harrison Moore

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