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