Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: The lost art of letter writing
Vail, CO, Colorado
Ironic, isn’t it? We write more, but communicate less.
In the past decade, text messages have shot up, while letters nosedived. Since 2000, text messages sent on cell phones are up a whopping 1,200,243 percent. The mail volume has plummeted — 19 percent during the last decade.
Not only is message delivery changing, its content has shifted dramatically. Formerly, people took time to write by hand, using elegant cursive script. Neat penmanship counted. It showed respect toward the letter’s recipient. Nouns and verbs agreed. Writers crafted letters, choosing specific thoughtful words and phrases.
Before electronic text messaging, letter writers penned notes they intentionally wrote for posterity. These authors possessed a sixth sense about history peering over their shoulders, preserving foibles and strengths letter writers exhibited.
Personal messages added rich detail to the historical record. For instance, Martha Washington sometimes felt as if her husband practiced bigamy, married to her and the nation. During his second term of office from 1792-96, Martha wrote a letter from the heart divulging why she didn’t enthusiastically embrace her role as first lady.
She expressed a wistful longing for time away from public life that pressed upon her and the president.
“With respect to myself,” Martha lamented, “I sometimes think the arrangement is not quite as it ought to have been; that I, who had much rather be at home, should occupy a place with which a great many younger and gayer women should be prodigiously pleased … I know too much of the vanity of human affairs to expect felicity from the splendid scenes of public life.”
Martha wrote text and infused it with texture. We hear her heart heave. Although she’s not complaining about her official duties, Martha doesn’t embrace them enthusiastically. We learn more about her than words tell, skimming the surface in text messaging.
Today, emails, Facebook and tweets replace letters. We use literary shortcuts to speedily text message. Literary elegance is sacrificed. Whole sentences are non-existent. Fat words are chopped into lean abbreviations. Missing are smooth transitions. Writing bounces with staccato beats. We write for immediate effect rather than deep meaning. Many text messages and emails exude a breathless quality, like a climber gasping for oxygen as he scales a tall peak.
Time Magazine (June 20, 2011, p.56) interviewed historian David McCullough about the dearth of accomplished letter writers. “We don’t write letters on paper anymore,” declares Time in the McCullough interview. “How will this affect the study of history?”
“The loss of people writing — writing a composition, a letter or a report — is not just the loss for the record,” answers McCullough. “It’s the loss of the process of working your thoughts out on paper, of having an idea that you would never have had if you weren’t (writing). And that’s a handicap. People (I research) were writing letters every day. That was calisthenics for the brain.”
Do our brains change because phones and computers don’t require us to express what’s worth keeping? We text message facts. We often e-mail inconsequential stray words that lack coherence, substance and what formerly was called gravitas.
That is, writing that’s important, lasting, and of noble resolve.
Without letter writing, we are infected with a cancer of trivial words to express deeper meaning, trite expression, and lazy logic that causes brain drains.
It’s like having a 7-foot, 150 pound center in the NBA. He gets out-muscled, out-rebounded, and pushed out from the basket. His slender frame can’t support his height.
Similarly, text messages and e-mails tend to be pencil thin. They lack dexterity for discussing things of import.
What’s the result? Historians who desire to trace our steps have little with which to work. A few slipshod emails. A fistful of text messages not worth keeping. Only ghostly imprints surface because a body of retrievable evidence isn’t preserved.
What’s left to sort through? Letters written tucked in stamped envelopes are rare. Stamp collectors find it tough to find used current postage. We have retired mailed letters in the same way fountain pens and typewriters were rendered obsolete.
The Postal Service carries advertising brochures and junk mail. First class letters are disappearing, replaced by tweeting, emailing, electronic billing and a flurry of text messaging.
Is the Postal Service headed for a dead-letter box? If so, we shall be deprived of mental calisthenics that keep brains nimble, hearts empathetic and spirits engaged.
With letter writing’s death, have we penned an epitaph to good grammar, and tributes in history when sound thinking and decision-making events were expressed on paper?
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.