Dear Kristen: Letters, A Disappearing Art

My niece—the only one I have—sent me a letter. Yes, a letter, with words in black ink that she packed tight on a card. Rarely will you receive letters like this, anymore. Or, at least, rarely have I. Emails are so much quicker. Quicker even is texting. Conveyed instantly. And usually erased just as instantaneously.kris016

Some of us are dedicated letter-writers. My mother was. I think letters were like therapy to her. Although she was quite articulate, she could communicate her innermost concerns only by writing letters. Things that made her sad or happy, that confused and frustrated her, that she was sorry for, regretted, or was grateful for. Things she probably would not have told you if you were right there, face-to-face.

Writing by hand takes time, time we can use to hash through ideas and feelings. And if we make mistakes as we write, we may feel compelled to start all over again. So, perhaps, we sit and mull over what we want to say before we actually commit it to paper. And this investment goes beyond the time it takes to write. We must also stuff that letter into an envelope, stamp it, and take it to a mailbox. In this age of lightning text messages, writing a letter is a small labor of love.

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Sadly, I’m not one of those letter writers. I was ecstatic when email was invented. You can think right there on the keyboard and if what comes out is not really what you wanted to say or how, hitting the delete or back button is easy.

I still did write the rare letter after the advent of email; when what I needed to say to someone was private enough that I only wanted that recipient to see it. But the more compelling reason was when what I had to say mattered an awful lot, to me at least, if not the recipient. A physical letter is like casting in concrete—it has substance and finality; and it endures.

Long ago, I also wrote a letter or two I never actually sent out. The type you tuck into other items as deeply as you can because it is that personal. Finding and rereading letters like that many, many years later is an unbelievable emotional experience.

So is receiving a letter you never expect—which is what this letter was, from my niece. In the first place, except during holidays and birthdays, I hardly ever get letters with my name handwritten on the envelope. So, when one did arrive a few days ago, I was more than usually curious. It surprised me to see who the letter came from because my nine nephews and one niece belong to a generation raised on those electronic handhelds that exercise your thumbs and forefingers many times a day. Those little machines dispense with their thoughts in tiny bytes that zoom through cyberspace.

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Writing a good letter is an art. Time was when women could give vent to their creativity only through letters (See Women letter writers). Now that all venues of expression are open to women, letters will still reveal our creative voices.

I’ll always want to keep the letter from my niece. I confess it brought tears to my eyes. To me, it’s also a small but precious work of art because it took love to write it.

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