Put It In Writing

Every year, Susan Zelle mails some 200 handwritten letters to friends and relatives. "I make them conversational," says the foreign service officer, who has lived in eight countries over the last 17 years. "This way people have some sense of my day-to-day life and those who do the same with me give me a sense of their lives."

Even when she is back in the United States for a tour of duty, Ms. Zelle fills pretty note cards with tales of Max-the-mad-cat or kayaking on the Potomac. "I've kept friendships alive through letters," she says.

In an era when we can pick up the phone or shoot off a quick e-mail, it seems almost anachronistic for anyone to conduct relationships the way Emily Dickinson once did. Yet those who do never tire of praising the art of

letter-writing or decrying its demise.

There's no question that the art form has declined since the epistolary heights of the 19th century. Letters are not only getting shorter, they are getting fewer. According to a US Postal Service study, personal correspondence accounted for 8.4 percent of all mail delivered in 1988; that fell to 6.6 percent in 1995.

But there is also a countertrend. Many people are searching for ways to reach out and touch someone with something less ephemeral than a phone call or a message after the beep. In the process, they are rediscovering and reinventing letters.

In terms of job security, this bodes well for Richard Lillybridge, general manager of Copenhaver Stationers in Washington. Although the popularity of heavy three-by-five note cards tells him that letters are getting shorter, Mr. Lillybridge believes that people are using them for more than just the occasional thank-you note.

"Part of that," he speculates, "may come from their looking over family letters and thinking that these are nice to have."

It is, of course, impossible to generalize about letters. Some, like the bulk of Zelle's exchanges, inform the recipient of select details from daily life. Over time, these form the reference points of a friendship, just like shared activities become vehicles by which people get to know one another.

Others are heavier on internal musings, where events act as springboards for opinions and beliefs - the kind of information New York author Carol Wallace was after when a friend of hers moved to the West Coast, and they decided to write.

"My aim was to get to the heart of things," she recalls, "and that's what Rick and I were doing with the most rigorous honesty." They had such frank exchanges that they are now happily married and the parents of two boys whom, incidentally, Ms. Wallace is initiating into the art by making them pen thank-yous.

For many, however, the self-expository nature of writing is an obstacle. Kim Woerle, a flight engineer for Ryan International Airlines, helps ferry 32,000 to 43,000 pounds of mail a day, but she prefers talking to writing any day. "I feel I can communicate more what I am feeling with body language and inflection," she says. "And if I am misunderstood, I can rephrase."

Her captain, Chris Rainey, disagrees. "A letter carries more weight," he says. "The letter is remembered, whereas the spoken word is forgotten." And there are sentiments that Capt. Rainey says should be recorded permanently. "In a letter you can tell people how important they are."

Easier to write than say

Rainey has done this often. He recalls a letter to his erstwhile mentor, a retired pilot who took Rainey under his wing. He also opened Rainey's eyes to new possibilities by telling him of places he had visited around the globe.

Years later, after Rainey had himself become a pilot, "I composed a letter, and I told him about the places I had now seen and how the prettiest sight was indeed flying East at sunrise when the colors are so alive and crimson." He also recounted how he dipped his wings at Baltimore's Fort McHenry and "wondered what it had been like fighting for a cause."

"But I realized, too," he wrote his friend, "that it was better to be at peace with all that is. Like you are."

It's the stuff of letters, not spoken words, Rainey says. "If I had said all this, it would have been kind of, well, goofy."

Letters like Rainey's not only give the recipient a permanent testimony of affection, they also demand a process of reflection on the part of the writer that is especially beneficial as our lives get busier. "You have to clear your head," says Chris Ott, whose passion for letters led him to launch an online magazine - appropriately named Letters ( - in 1995. "You have to develop a narrative and there's something of value in going through that process on paper."

History in an envelope

The thoughtfulness inherent in letters made them the ideal vehicle for English novelist Samuel Richardson, who used fictitious letters to tell an intimate story in his 1740 book, "Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded." This was the first epistolary novel, a genre that later gave rise to the modern psychological novel and that occasionally resurfaces as in Alice Walker's 1982 bestseller, "The Color Purple."

One of Mr. Ott's favorites is a letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to his brother, Johnston, which begins with unambiguous frankness: "Your request for eighty dollars," writes Honest Abe, "I do not think it best to comply with now." Nonetheless he extends a hand. "I now promise that for every dollar you will, between this and the first of May, get for your own labor ... I will then give you one other dollar."

Such missives make it clear why historians, biographers, and novelists cherish the permanence of letters. To social historians, the wages Lincoln mentions, as well as the kinds of jobs he recommends to Johnston, speak volumes about the 1840s. To a biographer, they offer a glimpse of Lincoln's values and character.

Marcie Heidish, a novelist who has drawn on historical correspondence and is herself a prolific letter-writer, speculates that "maybe in the course of writing a letter, you realize that what seems to be trivial is so often central, and what seems to be central is tangential."

Ruffles and flourishes

But letters also convey unspoken messages. A thank-you note expresses the value a culture places on gratitude, while words that skitter across a page reveal an exuberance that may or may not be captured in the words alone. When stationer Mr. Lillybridge thinks of his Aunt Gertrude, he sees her tight handwriting working its way down the center of the page then filling the margins. "This may have been a World War II habit. Since she was Scottish," he adds, laughing, "it may just have been inborn frugality."

The choice of paper also adds to the mood or tone. According to Paul Rubenstein, owner of The Written Word, a store in Washington that sells specialty papers and cards, people are drawn to roughhewn, handmade paper. "They want the complete antidote to e-mail," he says. "When people take the time to write a letter, they want something that is tactile."

In this respect, letter-writing is part of the same trend that accounts for the crowds at craft shows. Like buying a hand-thrown bowl or handcrafted earrings, letters are a way to "brush hands," as Heidish terms it. And as long as people yearn for direct contact, letter-writing will not disappear. "It's not extinct," Ott says. "It has just become a quaint handicraft." One that, waning or not, still translated into some 6 billion pounds of mail a year.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.