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ColoradoGuy
04-19-2011, 07:50 AM
"The art of letter writing is like the art of acting in that it is the impression of spontaneity which usually makes a performance convincing. Great letter writers, like great actors, have a gift for immediacy, for the here and now, the depth of expression depending on its closeness to the actual processes of thought. Even when we are not the addressee but a later reader, they make us feel that we are members of a fortunate audience. With the very best letters of all it is as if we are reading along with the original recipient yet hearing the voice of the writer at the moment of composition, occupying some theatricalized realm where the usual rules of time and space are in abeyance."

So begins a wonderful review (http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article7173621.ece) in a recent Times Literary Supplement of the collected letters of Ellen Terry. I had no idea who Ellen Terry was, and am not really that interested in her, but the essay made me think about how the computer age has altered (or even done away with) the centuries-old literary form of letter writing.

I think the reviewer makes an excellent point about what a letter often was: " . . . the impression of spontaneity which . . . makes the performance convincing." Letters were once often meant not just for the person to whom they were sent, but rather meant to be passed around, shared, and read aloud. They were performance art; they were popular literature.

Of course this makes me think of what email (and Twitter, and Facebook, and . . . ) have done to the art form. Forty years ago I was a diligent letter writer. I enjoyed writing them, and those who got them wrote back. I wrote in longhand, using a pen. Now I dash off emails, and these do not have the same authorial voice that my letters did. They're less interesting, I think.

My wife and I wrote letters back and forth across the continent for five years before we got married. Long-distance calls then were expensive. Besides, the letters were more than love letters; they were full of news, impressions, opinions, observations. The other reason the TLS essay struck a chord with me was that, while moving stuff around several months ago, we found a box full of them. They still make interesting reading for both of us -- far more interesting than any email I've sent anybody in the past decade.

I wonder if other folks have had a similar experience.

kwils
04-23-2011, 09:48 AM
Traditional letter writing served a very different purpose than email and other modern forms of quick communication. There was no quick communication back then. Even when long distance calls were an option, they weren't cheap and they weren't available anywhere and any time. Unlike the way we live now.

Now we feel comfortable jotting off quick emails because we know our recipients and are confident that our recipients know us. After all, don't we keep in close touch with our emails, texts, posts, and twitter?

Letters had to stand on their own, sometimes for days before the next one arrived. They had to stand in for the personality of the writer and recreate their closeness to the recipient.

I don't think the difference is that letters were intended for a wider audience; I think the difference is in intent- communication vs communion.

If you look at the amalgam of emails and tweets and texts you might get close to the same understanding of the writer that you do from a traditional letter, but it won't be as rich and it won't be as clear.

ColoradoGuy
04-23-2011, 10:49 PM
So you agree that the authorial voice is necessarily different between emails and traditional letters? Is this because they serve different functions?

Either way, it seems to me that the characteristic voice of traditional letters has nowhere to go, and thus may be lost.

Medievalist
04-23-2011, 11:50 PM
Either way, it seems to me that the characteristic voice of traditional letters has nowhere to go, and thus may be lost.

I'm not sure about that. I think it's been dispersed and diluted, and much of it is in the form of private blogs, especially on LiveJournal and Dreamwidth, which have fine-tuned privacy controls and long comment threads.

There are people I email that I used to write to; our letters haven't changed very much.

ColoradoGuy
04-24-2011, 05:37 AM
You make a good point about blogs. The performance art quality of traditional letters of decades ago, an aspect discussed in the link I put in my OP, may well have gone there.

TerzaRima
04-27-2011, 07:59 AM
The physical presence of a letter provided something, I think, that Livejournal doesn't--the pleasing heft of the envelope in one's hand, a thrill of anticipation before opening it, pleasure at a friend's familiar handwriting. Sometimes there would be little sketches in the margins to illustrate a particular point.

What I recall most about the letters I wrote and received is the scene setting. "Dear Terza, I am writing this from my dorm room in the quad as I am procrastinating studying for organic. Snow is beginning to fall outside and it's getting dark.."

I don't write this way in an email as a rule.

I was reorganizing papers last year in an attempt to purge and came across dozens of these-- from friends, family. It made me a little sad for a time when people lavished that kind of language on one another.

CNmoon
05-12-2011, 10:17 PM
Dear members of Absolute write,
I cannot say I have much experience in the medium of letter writing. I seldom have people to write to and spend more times on message boards as a form of correspondance.
The art of letter writing, the art of spontaneous is a lie. I've written love emails, though not really, which required a second read through and some editing before they were sent off to that imaginary person on the other end.
Rather the idea of corresponadance was to inform of events personal or familial. It is my belief that though faster, the medium hasn't changed by a great degree. We merely see that many people make lousy writers.
Mispelled words, grammarical errors, not everyone cares about what they write(looking around, I see a few errors of my own, ha!).
To surmise I believe it is a moot point. Honestly, do you really believe people wrote letter like in say "Lady Susan"? I'm more willing to believe letters were like this post: Poorly thought out, littered with errors, and just as a way to keep ourselves busy.


With Love,
CNMoon

Bubastes
05-12-2011, 10:27 PM
Oh, I miss longhand letter writing! I was a compulsive note and letter writer from middle school through college. I had lots of friends who lived out-of-state, so most days I'd have at least one, if not more, letters. I remember searching for the perfect stationery and stickers and doodling in the margins of my letters. I think that the tone of letters, as opposed to e-mail, is influenced by the additional time and thought that letters require. Writing longhand necessarily slows you down.

You've inspired me to consider writing more longhand letters again.

Curious, do teenagers write notes and fold them up like this (http://twitpic.com/3xawxp)anymore? In this age of texting and Facebook, I doubt it, and it makes me a little sad.

Jamesaritchie
05-14-2011, 05:48 AM
Letter writing is not a lost art, it's just not practiced by as many as it was a generation or three back.

But thousands still write letters. I try to write at least one per week. And a simply Google search shows I'm far from alone.

And someone is still keeping all the stationery shops and fountain pen makers in business.

Medievalist
05-14-2011, 07:37 AM
Curious, do teenagers write notes and fold them up like this (http://twitpic.com/3xawxp)anymore? In this age of texting and Facebook, I doubt it, and it makes me a little sad.

Maybe not in school, but in church they do . . .

parumpdragon
05-19-2011, 09:21 AM
Letter writing is not a lost art, it's just not practiced by as many as it was a generation or three back.

But thousands still write letters. I try to write at least one per week. And a simply Google search shows I'm far from alone.

And someone is still keeping all the stationery shops and fountain pen makers in business.

This is true, but stationary and all the glorious accessories have become harder and harder to find of late. Now it is the age or notecard, or small cards to jot a quick greeting or note. I have a hard time finding my stationary supplies in this day and age without paying an arm and a leg for such items at B&N or the craft store. :)

Purple Rose
05-19-2011, 09:46 AM
Nothing like receiving a letter written with a fountain pen on wood-free paper. I write every couple of months to my daughters at university, using local note cards (I haven't stocked up on Crane or Smythe) and a roller pen (can't buy fountain pen cartridges where I live). In between it's email and Skype.

I feel my thoughts and sentiments are expressed more eloquently when i put pen to paper.

PrincessofPersia
05-22-2011, 12:38 PM
I used to write letters all the time. I haven't in a few months, but I enjoy it. It really is its own art form, and I like hearing from the letters' recipients and what they thought.

austen
05-31-2011, 03:49 AM
I think what I like about letters is saving them. I still have one friend who refuses to use email and so we still write letters. We've known each other since we were kids, so looking back, I have a sort of biography of her life in letters--when she got engaged, had her kids, etc. Although I love email, I think the aspect of having something to treasure and save is missing.

talkwrite
06-15-2011, 12:42 AM
I also save letters. I turned one collection from a friend into a Christmas gift for her- The letters covered almost 20 years and such milestones as her divorce, her new job, dating, buying her first house and her father's eath. She told me that reading about her own strength in past challenges proved to be better therapy than she could ever pay a therapist for.

Bookewyrme
06-18-2011, 08:21 AM
Curious, do teenagers write notes and fold them up like this (http://twitpic.com/3xawxp)anymore? In this age of texting and Facebook, I doubt it, and it makes me a little sad.

We did when I was in high school, but I'm coming up on the tenth reunion soon. I don't think I ever saw my sister with any (she just graduated this month) but I assumed that was because her phone was usually attached to the end of her wrist and she just texted her friends.

A thought from someone of a slightly younger generation: I've never much liked letter-writing. I always viewed it as more of a chore than anything else. I feel the same way about emails which are longer than a few lines or a paragraph. I always felt like the effect was forced, like I was trying to create both sides of a dialogue by myself, or else that I was rambling on about myself interminably.

However, I've kept and treasured a number of letters written to me (including one from my favorite author who replied to a fan-letter I wrote, and one from my grandmother just a few months before her death, both from the last two years) and several inherited with the effects from relatives. The ones addressed to me are precious keepsakes and the others are bits of family history, irreplaceable. That being said, part of what makes them so precious to me is their rarity.

I don't really regret the reduction of letter-writing, since I prefer my long-distance communication to be more about having a conversation (such as with IM, message-boards, or shorter emails) than news. I think hand-written letters will be around for as long as we have paper, though. Just like physicals books will remain even as we move into an age of e-books. Just my prediction though, YMMV.

Purple Rose
06-18-2011, 12:27 PM
I think what I like about letters is saving them.

Yes, yes and YES!!! This is so true for me :-)

juniper
08-24-2012, 05:47 AM
The other reason the TLS essay struck a chord with me was that, while moving stuff around several months ago, we found a box full of them. They still make interesting reading for both of us -- far more interesting than any email I've sent anybody in the past decade.

I wonder if other folks have had a similar experience.

Reviving an old thread - I just discovered this forum. (where have i been the past 2 years?)

When my brother and I had to clean out my mom's house to sell it I found some letters my mom had sent out to family in the USA in the early 60s, when we were living in Germany.

My mom was a secretary and the letters were typed, but also mimeographed! Apparently she'd made several copies of each letter and then mailed some and kept the remainders. Mimeographs! Ha.

I loved finding them. I was a toddler in Germany so didn't remember our life there. Reading those letters was wonderful. Each one was 2-3 pages, full of details about what was going on with us and her observations about living abroad.

When I found the letters, my father had since died, and my mom was not able to communicate much anymore, so those letters were precious. I sent some of the copies on to an aunt, who sent them on to another sister - they'd originally received them the first time in the 60s and were nostalgic about seeing them again.

What a gift from my mom. :Sun:

kuwisdelu
08-24-2012, 06:47 AM
I still have a shoebox filled with love letters my ex and I wrote each other in high school. I can't really bring myself to read them anymore, but I like having them anyway.

RichardGarfinkle
08-24-2012, 12:36 PM
Some aspects of letter writing remain in the more modern arts of e-mail, blog, and post. I think the voice and pseudo-spontaneity CG mentioned in the OP are still present. Indeed, to my mind, the distant presence is made stronger with things like avatars and sigs.

Also modern versions allow for both sides of a dialogue to be retained by both correspondents rather than each having half of the back and forth.

But there are some aspects of the art that we have lost.

The physical object or the letter and envelope. I was fond of stationary as a teenager. I corresponded little (bad hand writing) but I liked good paper and envelopes and had an eccentric liking for seals and sealing wax. The backdrop of the paper itself and the quality and personality of handwriting give physical letters more aspects of artworks then electronic communications have.

And the standalone nature of each letter is lost. Each is a separate piece within the context of the correspondence. But the act of taking up a single envelope, removing the letter, and reading it is a distinct artistic experience that is not found in the electronic perusal of an e-mail exchange.