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Art of the Letter


It seems the more technology that gets invented, the less hard-copy communication we have. Mailboxes are now full of advertisements and bills, and sometimes not even that; everything is moving online. I am not saying this is a bad thing, not at all. The convenience that comes with the internet is unparalleled. I could never go back to living without it, but something is also lost with it.

I recently studied abroad in England for a semester and, while I was there, I decided I would write letters home. In total, I wrote fifteen postcards and seven letters; honest-to-God, pen-and-paper, with-a-stamp-and-an-envelope letters. It was interesting to do so when I also had immediate communication at my disposal. What could I say that could wait a week to reach its destination, that couldn’t be said in a text? When it finally reached home, I’d almost forgotten what I’d written, anyway. So what could I write?

I ended up treating the letters like a combination journal entry and one-sided conversation. All the things that felt too big for texting, all the stories and emotions that felt like they would best be said face to face, were put into the letter. I was allowed to contemplate what it was I wanted to say and say it as artistically as I pleased, something I couldn’t even do when speaking. It was at once formal and casual, and altogether personal. It felt a bit silly at first, but the more I wrote the more I wanted to say.

There is a reason that people find it so fascinating to read the letters of historical and literary figures. Vonnegut, Kafka, Orwell, all of them have had collections of their letters published to read. Sometimes we curate a picture of who these people were in our heads, usually based solely on their works and their reputations. Seeing the letters they wrote, whether to a friend or their family or a lover, is like pulling back the curtain of their lives, reminding us they were real people. This was the reason that Ernest Hemingway’s son, Patrick, published his father’s letters despite Hemingway wanting to keep them private:

“My principal motive for wanting it to happen was that I think it gives a much better picture of Hemingway’s life than any of his biographers to date…. [My father] was not a tragic figure. He had the misfortune to have mental troubles in old age. Up until that, he was a rather lighthearted and humorous person.”

Other letters can reveal that history was a lot more queer than we might’ve imagined. Emily Dickinson’s letters, for example, to her future sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert, portray emotions that, today, we might consider romantic. Whether that was the case we can’t know for sure, but we can learn almost as much from what family members chose to censor as what is actually written: “As anxious as Martha Dickinson Bianchi [Susan’s daughter] was to prove that Emily was dependent on Sue and they were the closest of friends,” writes Lillian Faderman, “she was even more anxious to prove that Emily and Sue were only friends.”

Revelations like this change how we view history, and even the way we might read or analyze these authors’ works. People can show a side of themselves in letters that the rest of the world may never see. Whether someone’s personal correspondence should be published against their will is another discussion. My point here is that letter writing is an art we shouldn’t let die. They are the extraordinary middle ground between public and private. You may write poetry or essays knowing they could be published and others may read them, and a diary is for you and you alone, but a letter can do something different, especially today.

Some people may scoff or roll their eyes at the idea, and that’s fine, but I think that letters are an art all their own that we shouldn’t let fall by the wayside. I encourage you to try writing a letter. It doesn’t matter if you’ll see the person you’re writing to tomorrow or you could call them up right now. Sit down and write to them; even the most mundane things take on a magical quality when they are written out. You enter a space of a conversation suspended in time, awaiting the response of the other person. It’s an underrated form of writing I think everyone should experience. Plus, everyone enjoys getting something in the mail.