I’ve been writing letters of all kinds since I learned how to hold a pencil. My mom was a great enforcer of the thank-you note for Christmas and birthdays and any other kind of gift. I am so well drilled in thank you notes that when I got married we had every single note sent out within two weeks. I had international pen pals as a kid and when I went off to college I wrote to my parents and grandma and the friends I’d left back home. I still write my grandma and my freshman college roommate and I have a wonderful correspondence and my friend whom I have known since I was five sends a letter once or twice a year.
All this to say I have experience writing letters. They are not a new and unfamiliar thing for me. But when I recently began corresponding with three new pen pals I had a moment of panic. I want them all to like me and want them all to love getting letters from me and so there must be books on how to write interesting letters that will make other people want to write back because there are few things more sad than the death of a promising correspondence.
Of course after reading through Why Write Letters, For the Love of Letters, Just Write, and The Pleasures of Staying in Touch I know how silly I have been. I could be exchanging letters with the Unabomber and I would be happy. I don’t expect anything dazzling from the people who write me and I suspect they don’t expect anything dazzling from me either.
My grandma’s letters are about the most everyday things–going to Bible study, watering the fruit trees, and the nice thing the neighbor did for her the other day. I absolutely adore them. She told me several months ago that she loves it when I write about my cats, Waldo and Dickens. My college friend tells me she loves it when I write about gardening because she likes to picture me in the floppy gardening hat she gave me tending to the flowers or picking strawberries.
So why did I get anxious about writing letters? The best book among the four, The Pleasures of Staying in Touch turned on the lightbulb. Letter writing is about relationships. Letters hold an intimacy that is hard to match in any other way than being in the same room with the other person. When you receive a letter, you receive a handmade gift. It is an act of generosity and friendship. What I was really nervous about was not the letter writing but the forging of new friendships. After I realized that, everything made sense and the letter writing books became quite entertaining.
What I found most amusing was the progression of blame for why people no longer write letters. A book written in 1960 blamed the typewriter. A book from the early 1990s blames the telephone. The two books published after 2000 blame email. I’m sure these all played a contributing role, but I’ll bet that if anyone cared to look hard, there are other reasons that are more central and not quite as easy to name.
All of the books talk about why one would want to write a letter and how to go about writing different kinds of letters from love letters to condolence letters. Letter writing manuals have been around for as long as people have been writing letters so these books fit into an illustrious history. I think the best advice I gleaned from them is that writing a letter is like any other kind of writing, it is just a different form. And how does one get good at writing? Practice! And of course, along with practice one should also read good writing. In this case, read collections of letters from those famous for them:
- Jane Austen
- John Cheever
- Emily Dickinson
- Katherine Mansfield
- Rainer Maria Rilke and Magda von Hattingberg
- Madame de Sévigné
- Virginia Woolf
- Heloise and Abelard
There are many many more I am sure so if you’d like to make a recommendation, please do.
One more thing I enjoyed about these books, they are all sprinkled with quotes from famous people about the pleasures of letters, quips about letters, wishes for their letters, and the desire for the recipient to please write back soon.
Now that I have got through the letter writing books, I am on to the handwriting books. It appears that handwriting requires practice too.