The Dying Art of Writing…Letters

By John Ramsey Miller

I have a letter I keep in a lock box that my mother wrote to me thirty years ago just after she discovered that her breast cancer had returned in a big way. That letter arrived in the brand new lock box a few days after she died, handed to me by my father. In the letter she tells me how wonderful her life was and no regrets, and how much she loved me, and how everybody needs a lock box for important papers so here’s one I bought for you. That letter is still in that lock box under my bed––a prized possession. I like to read it. My mother’s penmanship was flawless. My own is quite good.

Thirty years ago people still wrote letters, but as long distance calls grew less expensive, it became easier to call and talk than to write a letter. With cell phones we are always near enough to a cell tower to talk whenever we feel like it. With the Internet, people send electronic messages. I get e-mails from friends almost every day, and I almost never print them out. Mostly the communications are short blurbs, and messaging on the cell phone means even briefer information passing.

Back when we wrote letters, we put a week’s or a month’s worth of news in the letter. We wrote our feelings and what life was doing to us. You’d sit with a pen imagining who we were writing to and thinking about the person who’d be reading it. You opened a letter, you unfolded it and you read the letter in your hand. The paper was in the hands of a under the pen belonging to the person who’d written it. You could fold it up and open it again later, as often as you wanted to for as long as the paper held up. Think of the archives filled with personal letters from the famous and not so famous. I think of Ken Burns’ Civil War series for PBS and what it would have been without the personal letters from the time. We are losing history. The e-mails are being deleted almost as fast as they are read, which probably goes to what they are worth. We don’t compose e-mails the same way we did letters. I officially name it “jit-jotting.”

Recently I sent my step-mother a letter. She is in an assisted living facility in Dallas, and I love her dearly. Her daughter told me that she reads that letter over and over again. That letter connects us in a way no telephone or e-mail on a screen can. After my father passed away my brother went through his papers and he gave me several letters I’d written to him over the years, along with pictures I’d sent in the envelopes. I could tell he’d read them over and over, and I found myself wishing I’d written him more of them.

My dead mother is alive in that letter. Like the letter from my mother, they only matter to me now––the living half of the communiqué. I suppose after I’m gone my children will dispose of them, and that’s okay with me since nobody else will feel the connection or its importance.

I think of the books written from the collected letters between two people, mostly famous, and I wonder how many will be written in the future from the collected e-mails or telephone conversations of famous people. There is a style in written letters that aren’t reflected in most e-mails and lost forever with telephone calls.

My wife and I do send text messages through the week days because they are less intrusive in her work place or to my writing time. We can just check our cell phones for them at our convenience. I also text with my sons.

Maybe part of the reason we authors write books is to leave something of ourselves behind. We are all jit-jotting our way through our days and our lives, and are leaving a thinner and thinner trail as we go. And I think it somehow diminishes us, and our importance to each other when we communicate through quickly typed electronic transmissions.