The lost art of letter writing

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pengwenn
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The lost art of letter writing

Postby pengwenn » Wed Mar 03, 2010 6:05 pm

I was bored the other night and was flipping through the channels on the TV when I came across a program on PBS. It was a documentary about Dolly Madison where actors were hired to speak parts of the letters she and others wrote about her life interspersed with commentary from historians. Now normally this isn't a program I would be drawn to but I couldn't change the channel. I wanted to know more. It took me an hour or so before I realized WHY I was fascinated by this program.

It was the letters.

The way people wrote letters back then is totally different than the way we write letters today (or should I say emails and/or text messages). They did use a lot of big words where more simpler words would do but there was such an evocative air about those words that made them more direct and intimate than the "short" words we normally use today (which seems to run counter-intuitive to writing advice).

I went to bed thinking about the "history" of letter writing and communication. It seems as time has moved on our communication and choice of words gets shorter and shorter. If anyone in today's world used the kind of language Dolly Madison did in her time we would think that person is a loon, snobbish and "out of touch", among other things.

It also seems that changing our language from multi-syllable words to monosyllabic isn't enough. Now we cut out letters in words altogether. Like: "plz 2 met ya" and "WTF?" and "LOL" and "BTW" etc. What does that say about our ability to communicate and level of civilization? Will we get to the point where verbal/written words are no longer necessary? Will we revert back to grunts and gestures?

As a writer (or a writer-in-progress [which sounds better than writer-wannabe]) I lamented the decline of the richness of language. Yes, the language of colonial America was stuffy and roundabout. But the language of today makes me feel like people are throwing pins when they talk. Sharp and direct. And a more shatter shot approach to see "what sticks".

Back when it took weeks, or maybe months for a letter to get from one place to another it seems you had to think of the words you said (and the delay of decoding the message). Today we fire off an email/text in anger because we can immediately send another one to excuse ourself and explain our intentions. A letter written in anger in Colonial times could take months to be explained and apologized for.

Like I said, I lament the lost art of letter writing and feel guilty at the same time that I am not writing letters of my own to keep the tradition(?) alive. Who would I write to that wouldn't say "why didn't you just send me an email or test message?". I wrote letters to my Grandma when I was a little girl that, when she died, I got back. I didn't know she had kept them and I didn't remember writing them. But I was thrilled to relive the life of my past self, especially when memories of forgotten moments came to life on those faded pages. Those letters didn't have the eloquence of Dolly Madison's letters, but they had the history. A permanent recorded of a era in time. Can you get the same things from "c u 2nite"?
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Postby JillStar » Wed Mar 03, 2010 9:32 pm

I recently moved and looked through some old letters I kept in my "hope chest". There were some I tossed out because those people are not in my life any more and they were just "weird".

I did, however find some old letters I received growing up from my grandmother, my dad, my brother when he was in the army and even MSLOVER! Yup... we were best friends in high school and I still have tons of letters from her. THOSE I definitely kept!

Letters were so important to me back then; that and cards. I used to literally number my cards and letters with the year so as not to lose them. No wonder I'm so anal today.

The only written things I receive in the mail are birthday or Christmas cards... and those are getting to be less and less. My dad sent me an email this year to say happy birthday. I have to tell you that was just strange!!

All that being said... I "write" more today than I ever did when I had to do it long hand. If it weren't for email I would probably not tell people half of the stuff I tell them now because it would just take me too long to jot it down. One of the reasons it takes me so long to write it is because I end up doing one or two rough drafts and get frustrated. I have been writing more down however... just to make sure I remember how!!!
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Postby timberline » Thu Mar 04, 2010 2:29 pm

Should we go back to letter writing instead of e-mailing? And should we keep journals instead of blogsites? I think not. What was appropriate for those times don't work today. And, letters from many of my grandparents' and g-grandparents' generations were semi-literate.

The PBS special was swell, and I'm fascinated with Dolley Madison, but let's not get quicksanded by nostalgia.
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Postby pengwenn » Thu Mar 04, 2010 4:29 pm

Maybe I'm an old soul and relate better to the eloquence of yesterday. But it's all a pendulum swing anyway. It's gone from big words to in-your-face communication. Eventually we'll swing back . . . I hope. Besides, I'd rather be wooed by words than attacked.
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Postby timberline » Thu Mar 04, 2010 4:43 pm

I'm with you in being nostalgic. In fact, my brother wrote all his letters by hand using calligraphy. Works of art!

Someone said that the "netspeak" people use to text each other--LOL, UR gr8, and so forth--are a novelty that will disappear. I hope so. And there are at least a couple of people in my writing group that are sticklers for punctuation and grammar.
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Postby PaulG » Fri Mar 05, 2010 12:44 pm

I think another factor to take into consideration is the fact that back then there were less "distractions". There was no TV, Internet, iPods, etc. Writing reading and other forms of social interaction were it! Those letters were newsy, philosophical and expressions of feelings that people do not take the time to do anymore. Letters had a more significant purpose and impact on people's lives. It was an art form of a sort.
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Postby xcheck24 » Sun Mar 07, 2010 11:29 am

Someone told me recently a response to the "kids don't write" commentary today is that kids write more than ever. It's just hard to accept it as such.

It bugs me to see the netspeak and the lack of grammar skills, but there's truth to the "kids write more than ever" comment. But they're communicating through written word. We should help them work on that.

As for letters and emails, what bugs me more today is the loss of the spoken word. So often we choose to shoot off an email or a text message than speak to someone on the phone or face to face. I'm just as guilty of it as anyone else, but we need that interpersonal communication.
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Postby JillStar » Sun Mar 07, 2010 8:02 pm

It's just so easy to jot down an email or send a quick text. Sometimes you don't want to get on the phone just to say "How was your weekend" because you really don't want to get into a full blown conversation about it... you just want to hear it was good and them move on. Oh, I know that's not a good thing but there are moments when it's just a huge effort to discuss anything more than the weather. :)

For someone who doesn't use the phone much or see people they are living far away from now, email is a wonderful thing. I talk to my mom but I don't talk to her as much as I should. That is something I need to work on... however... if she would just get over this phobia she has about the internet then we could talk a lot more. I am almost always accessible by email... I have work email and personal email and during the week if you email me at work I will always see it. Her problem isn't really a fear of technology so much as having the wrong technology. It's hard to convince her that the computer she bought 6 years ago just can't keep up and that's why the internet sucks... not because it's hard to operate.

Okay... that was a tangent.

I would say that it's important for kids to learn how to write physically so they can do it... I also think it's important for them to learn how to use a keyboard since they are everywhere.

The text issue and the lack of using the spoken word does bother me. I know how to have a conversation face to face... but I didn't grow up with cell phones or computers or email. So clearly I already know how to deal with people without those devices. If you grow up having them and texting all the time... you become dependent on them. We don't NEED any of it... we WANT it.

Now I just remembered something. I was at a pizza place a few weeks ago and right behind me was a family of 5. Mom, dad and 3 daughters. ALL OF THEM were using their cell phones or other devices while waiting for their pizza. Every once in a while they would look up and talk to each other. The mom clearly thought it was fantastic and the dad seemed indifferent. Is this their way of making their kids tech savvy or just having them entertained by someone/thing other then them?
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