Monday, July 1, 2013
A lost and dying art
When I began writing back in the 80s, I wrote by hand, using a mechanical pencil -- which always kept a sharp point -- and college-ruled binder paper -- because regular-ruled looked so fat. Loose sheets, not a notepad. Those were my pre-computer days, the days when penmanship and punctuation mattered.
My writing habits didn't change overnight with the purchase of my first computer. I found that blank screen -- which was less than half the size of my current monitor -- daunting, intimidating ... lineless. It glared at me, daring me to fill up a page.
So I continued to write with my mechanical pencil on loose-leaf, college-ruled binder paper, and when I had a chapter the way I wanted it I'd type it into my word processing program, which was and is, always and only, Word Perfect as opposed to Word. Don't get me started.
Eventually I got to where I could type the rough draft into my computer and do my edits on the screen. And perhaps a year, maybe two, later I began to actually compose while sitting at my keyboard. Oh, how that revolutionized my writing. I'd never go back.
In the last two or three decades, life has been computerized, mostly for the good. But we've lost something in the process. In this futuristic reality in which we live, we send birthday greetings to friends via Facebook -- thank you, Facebook, for those weekly reminders! -- rather than sending physical cards as we used to, in which we might even write a little note with our very own hand. We text our family and friends, when we used to pick up the phone and have a real live conversation. We punch our grocery lists into our i-Phones. And worst of all, we email rather than write honest-to-goodness letters.
My sister visited this past Christmas, and after the initial busyness died down, she said, "Let's go someplace quiet." So we stole away to my bedroom, and in a hushed moment shared by two sisters, she brought out a stack of letters she had run across after a recent move. Half were from our father, who had died 33 years before; the other half from our big brother, Johnny, written while he was serving in the Army, in Germany, in 1969-70, who died tragically in 1972, two short years after his discharge and marriage.
What a treasure, letters written in a hand as familiar as the faces we still miss.
And now we send e-mails, e-cards, e-everything, and our hands are e-empty.
But now, I have a pen pal, a fellow writer whose age is right in the middle of my own two daughters, and who lives in Australia -- or more specifically, Tasmania. I'm speaking about our own Megan Sayer! When I received that first letter a few weeks ago I was beyond delighted, and was reminded how important real correspondence can be. It's been years, literally, since I received a hand-written letter. (I received another one yesterday from Megan, in a Beatles birthday card!) But that first letter got me thinking about all that we miss, thanks to our technology.
The amazing and talented Ken Burns did a documentary series a number of years ago on the Civil War. It's truly a work of art, revolutionizing the whole concept of "documentary." In it he used passages from a multitude of historical letters, citing everyone from President Abraham Lincoln to the lonely private on the battlefield, away from home for the first time. People from all walks of life, including slaves, and even those written from the battlefield were beautiful in their language and sentiment. Even the grammar and punctuation were perfect.
And so help me, there wasn't an LOL in a single passage.
Technology is wonderful. I wouldn't want to write another book the way I used to. But between the letters my sister found, and the letters that now arrive from Australia on a regular basis, I've determined to pick up a pencil from time to time and write real words on real paper, and do my part to retain a lost and dying art. I want someone, somewhere in the future, to pick up a letter and see a certain style of penmanship, and be reminded that I lived and that I loved them.
When was the last time you received a letter? Or wrote one? Does it even matter? Will you take the challenge and write someone this week?