Over the summer, one of my teenage son’s high school classmates lived and worked in a remote country place where she lacked reliable internet and phone service. Because it was hard to call or text his friend or reach her on social media, Will landed on an old-fashioned alternative to stay in touch. Once a week, he tried to sit down and write a letter.
That little phrase, “sit down and write a letter,” is one of our language’s most pleasant redundancies. People often text or email while standing, walking, or, sadly, driving. But the only practical way to write a letter is sitting down – in a posture of repose that encourages reflection, the blooming of a thought.
Writing letters helped my son think about a lot of things, including letter writing itself, a rare topic in our household, as it no doubt is in others. Except for thank-you notes and brief messages of condolence, I haven’t written a decent letter in years.
When Will asked for stationery to get started, I struggled to remember where we stowed the paper and envelopes; it reminded me of the blank I draw each Thanksgiving when we have to find the heirloom gravy boat.
But once we fished the essentials from a shelf and Will biked to the post office for stamps – an errand that required us to recall just where the nearest post office was – he settled into a spot near the living room window and set to work.
That was his correspondence corner, the place where I’d routinely spot a 21st-century adolescent with a sheet of paper on his lap, scribbling away. I could not have been more amazed if I’d encountered him churning butter or cranking a Model T.
Etiquette being what it is, I didn’t ask my son what he was writing to his friend. But I did ask him if writing a letter felt any different from writing an email, text, or post.
“What I’m learning,” he told me, “is that you don’t want to write about the news in a letter. By the time the letter gets where it’s going, the news has moved on.”
His insight would never have occurred to me, although its logic is airtight. Given the endless mutability of current events, a letter about the latest political gaffe or Hollywood scandal would travel about as well in first-class mail as a fillet of sole. To really succeed, a proper letter must nudge both the writer and the reader beneath the current of the headlines, into the more sustaining depth of domestic life, personal musings, private dreams. As my son wrote letters, I spent time in another corner of the house dipping into the essays of one of the world’s greatest letter writers, Virginia Woolf.
Woolf, who died in 1941, worried in her own time that as communication became cheaper and easier, people would think less about what they were trying to say, forfeiting the ideal of letters that were “inducements to careful composition, to the finishing of sentences, the artful disposition of trifles, the polish of phrases, the elaboration of arguments and the arts of the writing master.”
The texts and emails we now dash off by the dozens each day seem a grim fulfillment of Woolf’s fears.
I’m not giving up my smartphone and laptop, and I’d be lost without the convenience of connecting with multitudes each day with a few quick keystrokes.
But my 17-year-old reminded me this past summer that in an age of instant communication, snail mail still has its virtues.
Recently, Will returned to the boarding school where he spends most of his year. Tonight, I’m going to sit down and write him a letter.