Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An Attempt to Reform Myself in the Art of Writing Letters

Corresponding on paper lets you elevate a simple pleasure into an art form. And art has always survived technology. A handwritten note is like dining by candlelight instead of flicking on the lights, like making a gift instead of ordering a product, like taking a walk instead of driving. Handwritten notes will add a lot to your life. You can still use the telephone or the Web for the daily chores of staying in touch, but for the words that matter, it's courteous, classy, caring, and civilized to pick up a pen.

~Margaret Shepherd in The Art of The Handwritten Note

I'm in the midst of an attempt to reform myself.

I've never been a really good correspondent, and I've always been a bit ashamed of myself for this. I've taken comfort when I've read the words of others who have struggled with letter writing, like JRR Tolkien, who seemed to apologize often for being so slow to respond to his correspondents. The difference between Tolkien and me, though, is that there is a whole book of Tolkien's letters, and I'm sure this is only part of the correspondence he wrote.

I could probably fill a book with my letters, too, but not with much that's worthy or interesting. I've written many, many letters over the years, but it takes a lot out of me to write one, so I burn out and too easily find excuses for writing them. I have never-- for long-- settled into any kind of letter writing routine, but I've always wanted to and meant to.

I love reading collections of letters. The correspondence of NC Wyeth or the Letters of a Homesteader Woman or The Letters of JRR Tolkien have kept me enthralled in their pages. I own quite a few books of the collected correspondence of various figures of literature, art, and history, and, in these books, letter writing is clearly elevated to an art form. The letters often seem to exude thoughtfulness and care. It's inspiring. Or it should be.

The plain, honest fact is that I don't very often feel like writing letters. I've always known that to behave in accordance to my feelings rather than according to what I know is right or good to do is a flaw, but I've somehow been able to shrug off the value of letter writing as something not falling within these sorts of moral parameters, and maybe they don't, but if Margaret Shepherd is correct, it is at least "courteous, classy, and caring to pick up a pen."

A clincher in my recent decision to attempt a letter writing reform was this selection from the devotional, Joy and Strength:

"She constantly yielded to that kind of selfishness which makes the writing, or not writing, of a letter depend upon the inclination of the moment." ~Sarah W. Stephen


Last week I decided that, after five decades of sporadic letter writing (I'm quite sure that no one waits by their mailbox for a letter from me!), I need to reform myself. I have a bundle of letters that have come to me in the past month and a half and many, many more letters that have remained unanswered for far too long (some of them for years, I'm ashamed to say).

So, I bought myself some stationery and some stamps (which I promptly lost), and each morning, after my quiet time, I sit at the table and answer one of the letters in the stack. I finish it while I am still sitting there (if I get up and set it aside for awhile to come back to it later, I'll never finish it), then I place the letter in an envelope, address it, and put the stamp on it. Now I can get up from the table.
Knowing some of my hindrances to letter writing, I made a few guidelines for myself. One of them is not getting up from the table until I've finished writing. Another is stamping and putting the letter in the mailbox that day. I don't have to write on weekends unless I want to, and when I am out of town, I'm off the hook, too. Another guideline is keeping the letters short until I catch up with my correspondence, and then, if I want to and have the leisure to do it, I can take two days to write a letter. The main thing is that I will have a letter writing time each day right after my quiet time. A short, thoughtful note is much, much better than no letter at all, right?

So far, four letters have gone out, which does not make me feel even slightly victorious because I've gotten way past this stage in previous efforts to reform myself. I think it takes a while to break a bad habit and even longer to build a new one. And then, I hear, it takes something like 1,000 days for a new habit to become an actual, natural way of life. But I'm just going to think about tomorrow.

I feel almost like a child learning to do something new. That's how pathetic my letter writing habits have been for the past five decades. But I really do want to improve, and I intend to keep working at it. So, if I owe you a letter, don't faint if you find one in your mailbox soon. (Though, I must say, it will take me a long time to catch up!)