The Lost Art of the Written Word

Recently, a Facebook friend wrote a post about penpals, and how it would be great to correspond with others through handwritten letters as you did when you were a child.  Before too long, she had comments back from several people who stated that they would love to correspond with her via snail mail- one woman was particularly excited about going out and purchasing stationery.  (The fact that they still sell stationery is reassuring; someone must still be writing handwritten letters!)   I haven’t sent an actual handwritten letter to anyone in years, but her post made me reminisce with fondness about the penpals I had as a child, the longest correspondence being with a girl from Finland.  Back in those days, there were ads in children’s magazines (such as National Geographic World) for organizations that would pair you with penpals from around the world.

Though I’m not a Luddite (I do work in Virtual Services after all!) and I love Twitter and Facebook, they’re just not the same as laying thoughts to paper.  In terms of Twitter, not everything can be said in 140 characters or less!  I also think that electronic correspondence is more superficial and trite.  Are you going to pair deep thoughts with LOLs and smiley faces?  I took some comfort in the fact that a Google search yielded sites devoted to pairing individuals with penpals, although many of them are geared to teenagers and students, and some charge a fee for this service.   The Pen Pal Project  contains posts written by teens and young adults who write about their interests and what their criteria are for a suitable penpal.  In addition to writing letters, several teens promised handmade goodies, mixed tapes and crocheted items.  Of geography, one teen wrote, “Distance does not matter, unless you live in another dimension, then some delivery issues might arise”.

What about that most intimate of letter, the love letter.  Does anyone actually write love letters anymore?  The idea of love letters recently gained popularity when Carrie from the TV show Sex and the City read to her sweetie Big from a book of love letters written by famous men.  There are 2 books in this series, Love Letters of Great Men and Love Letters of Great Women, and both are worth a read.  Do you know who wrote “I would never see anything but Pleasure in your eyes, love on your lips, and Happiness in your steps”?  If you guessed my husband you’d be wrong, but if you guessed John Keats you’d be correct!

There are also many books of authors’ correspondence.  Whether you like Carol Shields, Charles Bukowski or Charles Dickens you can get to know your favorite authors intimately through the letters they wrote.  In Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, Jack Kerouac wrote a letter to Ginsberg in 1950 which included the following: “Tonight while walking on the waterfront in the angelic streets I suddenly wanted to tell you how wonderful I think you are. Please don’t dislike me. What is the mystery of the world? Nobody knows they’re angels.”  Definitely interesting to get another perspective on an author through his letters.

What about epistolary novels?  Epistolary is just a fancy way of saying that the story in the novel is told primarily through a series of letters.  And yes, epistolary is now my word of the week!  One epistolary novel I loved was The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which is now being made into a movie.  This novel is told through a series of letter written to an anonymous stranger, and in it, 15 year old Charlie must deal with first love, a friend’s suicide and mental illness.  Another epistolary novel is Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin which was also made into a movie.  In this novel, Eva writes a series of letters to her husband about her volatile and dysfunctional relationship with her seemingly sociopathic son.  This one isn’t for the faint of heart!

There have also been a few charming movies made about the art of letter writing.  84, Charing Cross Road is both a book and a movie, about the 20 year correspondence between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, the owner of an antiquarian bookseller in England.  Helene would contact Frank to locate rare volumes for her, and they then forged an enduring friendship.  Of course, many know about the Meg Ryan/ Tom Hanks movie You’ve Got Mail in which an independent bookstore owner doesn’t realize she is writing to the owner of her competition, but what about the classic it was based on, Shop Around the Corner?  Starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, 2 shop employees in Budapest (who detest each other) don’t realize that they’re writing letters to each other and falling in love.  An absolutely charming and delightful movie!

In case I’ve inspired you to take up the lost art of letter writing, you can even make your own stationery if you’re so inclined.  Self-Made Stationery, Paperie for Inspired Living and 1,000 Handmade Greetings: Creative Cards and Clever Correspondence offer ideas for making stationery for everyone from the novice crafter to those with more advanced skills.  But really, to take up the lost art of letter writing, you don’t require anything fancy.  A pen and a piece of paper is all you need to get started!


One response to “The Lost Art of the Written Word

  1. Hi Theresa Just looking at the various “tags” and really liked yours. The latest you posted on letters is great–I too am a great fan of Letters, especially those that doucment periods of history like the Southern US during the Civil War period–go figure!

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