Saturday, October 11, 2014

My Latest English Essay: The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Here's my latest essay (suggestions for revision are welcomed!):

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

     Most who have grown up in the “digital age” have missed out on an important and gratifying pleasure that had been used for generations to send greetings, news, or even declarations of undying love. I’m speaking of the venerable written letter. Since the advent of the internet, email, texting and tweeting, the use of the postal service has drastically declined. Most would say that “snail mail” is a thing of the past, a relic doomed for extinction, like the tyrannosaurus rex. I think that the current generation is missing out on the wonder and anticipation of receiving a real handwritten letter in the mail, and that the tradition should be restored.

     “Older” folks will remember the excitement of going to the mailbox in anticipation of receiving a letter. That feeling when you open the box and see an envelope with your name handwritten on it was akin to winning the lottery. Maybe it wasn’t quite as exciting as winning the jackpot, but at least as great as winning $20 on a scratch-off ticket. The delayed gratification of sending a letter to someone and waiting days or weeks for a response not only developed patience but also created an incredible sense of pleasurable anxiety and anticipation. Would today be the day that the reply showed up? Imagine having that to look forward to every day the mail service delivered!

     Receiving a letter was only half of the equation. Once you received such a special and solid proof of someone’s time and attention, it was only right that you sat down as soon as was convenient and wrote a reply. It was similar to today’s exchanging of emails, but much more personal and pleasurable. You could include more than just standard emoticons – nothing was off limits: drawings of hearts, smileys, doodles in the margins, bits of poems, and even a hint of perfume lightly scenting the pages. At Christmas it was customary to include a goofy picture of the family dressed in holiday sweaters or some other equally hideous matching outfits, and at other times of the year snapshots of vacations, celebrations, and yearly school photos could be included.

     To write a “real” letter, you’ll need some supplies. First, gather paper, pen, and an envelope. These can be as simple as a Bic pen, some computer paper and a plain #10 envelope, or as sophisticated as artistic stationery with matching paper and envelope and the latest and most innovative gel pen. In gathering supplies don’t forget the most important piece for getting it to the recipient: the humble postage stamp. These, too, can range from the commonplace USA flag stamp to the whimsical: Disney, flowers, or holiday designs.

     Once you have the supplies together, take a few moments to just sit and think. Ponder what you want to say. This will in a large part be affected by whom you are writing to. Will it be a letter to let Grandma know you loved the sweater she sent you for your birthday? Or a romantic missive to surprise your special someone? A letter can be used to update family or friends on what’s happening in your life, a way to express deep thoughts and emotions that are hard to say verbally, or even a way to let your elected representatives know exactly what you think of how they’re running the country. (Not all letters have to be nice or pleasant.)

     Although proper form is appreciated by those who recognize it, most letter recipients aren’t going to care as much about how you write as they will about the fact that you did write. A letter can say that you really care – enough to take the time to sit down, endure writer’s cramp, and go to the extra effort of sealing an envelope, carefully placing a stamp on it and physically placing it in a mailbox. It’s like an email that’s gone the extra mile. What could demonstrate how much you care more than that?!

     The next question may be: cursive or script? This will likely depend on how well you do either of these. If your cursive looks like a child’s drawing of curly hair on a stick figure (and is just as unclear), then it’s probably best to stick with script lettering. Under no circumstances should you use a printer. Okay, maybe sometimes. Especially for those with arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome. Then it can be fun to experiment with different fonts to find one that matches your personality and the tone of your letter. But for the greatest impact on the recipient, handwritten is best.

     Depending on how formal or informal your letter is, you may want to start it with “Dear So-and-So” and add the date (all historic events have their dates recorded – a letter should be no different!) You can start the letter with a simple “Hello, how have you been?” or jump right into the reason for the unusual communication, like “I have great news!” or “I couldn’t let another second pass without expressing my undying devotion to you.” (The latter is likely to produce gags from all but the most romantic, so know your audience and adjust it accordingly. It would not be recommended in a letter to your grandma, no matter how much you love her.)

     After you’ve gotten the letter started, write as much or as little as you like. Even a short “I’ve been thinking of you, hope you’re doing well” will produce a smile. Maybe not as big a smile as a 3 page letter describing the last month of your life, but a smile nonetheless. Unless you are writing in an official capacity, don’t worry about being formal. Be chatty, just like you would if you were having a conversation in person. Your friends and family will “hear” your voice if you write what you’re thinking instead of writing as if it’s a school assignment.

     Once you’ve come to the end of either your words or space on the page, you can end with a simple and impersonal “sincerely,” or opt for something a bit more grandiose like “From your greatest admirer,” or “With deepest appreciation.” It’s usual to then sign your name underneath the closing, although it’s best if you use your “better” signature – you know, the one that people can actually read.

     The last part of writing a letter is addressing the envelope. The postal service has fairly strict guidelines for this, and since they’re the ones you’re trusting to deliver it, it’s a good idea to follow them. Write your return address in the upper left hand corner of the envelope. You can include your name or just the address, or use an address label with cutesy designs. You will then print the recipient’s name near or at the center of the envelope. Make sure to print legibly. The name goes on the first line, then the house number and street name. Skip down one more line to write the city and the capitalized state abbreviation, separated by a comma, and then the zip code. Now’s the time to add the stamp – just place it in the upper right hand corner.

     Seal the envelope, place it in a mailbox, and then eagerly check the mailbox for the next week or two for your own letter. Enjoy the suspense and anticipation of the wait, and don’t forget to keep the process going by quickly sending out another letter in response. 


Helen & Bill said...

Dear Patty,
What a wonderful essay. I think you nailed all the great and personal aspects of writing and receiving "snail" mail. Well done!

Valerie said...

What a great essay!! You have always been great at letter writing and keeping in touch with friends and family! Great job!