Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Lost Art of Letter-Writing

When I was a young woman, I never even heard of e-mail until I took a "Computers in Business" course at UW-Madison. The instructor told us about this new thing called "electronic mail" that was meant to solve the persistent problem of phone tag (this was also in the era before affordable and truly portable cell phones). We all seemed skeptical that it would ever catch on.

I kept in touch with friends and relatives who had moved out of state by regularly writing letters, in cursive handwriting on decorated stationery with matching envelopes. My correspondents regularly sent me handwritten letters in return. I still have many of them packed away somewhere (a handful of them were deliberately destroyed, like Lord Byron's memoirs, out of concern for the reputation of the author).

In 1991, one of my reservist friends was called up and sent to Saudi Arabia for the duration of Operation Desert Storm. For several weeks, I did not have a mailing address for him. By this time, I had access to a computer with word processing software, so I began typing letters to him in one big document, with each entry clearly dated. I chronicled all the gossip about our mutual friends (mainly who hooked up with whom -- we were in our 20s at the time, and our social circle was full of drama).

When I got an APO address for him, I began printing and sending the letter(s) in manageable chunks, with two or three days' worth of entries at a time, mailed a few days apart. He seemed to really enjoy getting them, and he wrote back to me whenever he could. No, it was not the beginning of a romance between the two of us (I was already dating my future husband by then). Another sort of drama was gradually revealed in the letters I received from him. A woman whom he met at a New Year's Eve party (just a week or two before he shipped out) was also writing to him. As the weeks went on, her letters became increasingly romantic and possessive. He swore to me that he had done nothing to encourage her to think of him as her boyfriend, and he was at a loss over how to handle it. I believed him, because I knew the woman in question, and she had a history of that sort of self-escalating relationship behavior. Some of us had to hold an intervention with her, and he decided to transfer to a different campus when he returned stateside.

Nowadays, that whole drama would play out in less than a couple weeks on Facebook, with conflicting relationship statuses and comments from mutual friends. But once upon a time, not so very long ago, it was possible to remain in touch with someone, and even become a close confidante, via letters that took days or even weeks to reach their destinations. Maybe that's why I am fascinated by epistolary novels, and why I felt the urge to write one (a novella, actually) this summer. There have been a number of great contemporary epistolary novels that make use of emails and social media posts. I'm going old school, though, because as useful as I find email and social media, they don't quite have the same magic as a letter written on paper and sent through the mail.

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