Monday, July 1, 2013

A lost and dying art

I have a pen pal. More about that later.

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?


Megan Sayer said...

Teehee! I can't believe how much fun letter writing is Sharon. Just so cool. It's a different type of correspondence entirely, one involving time, place, distance. Waiting. The excitement of finding a real letter in the post, and the delicious joy of anticipation while the kettle boils so you can read it slowly over a cup of tea. And writing back! Suddenly PSs make sense (although I use them all the time in emails anyway) And there's no delete button. There's nothing like getting half way through a sentence and thinking "oh, did I really want to say all that? Gonna look a bit obvious if I scribble it out now."
But that in itself is a gift, because it makes you stop and think, and sip your tea again, and reflect, which is something we do too little of these days.
Yup, pen pals. Nothing like it!

V. Gingerich said...

One fun thing about living abroad, is I receive a letter nearly every month from either my mom, sister, or grandma. I agree, there's something extra special about a handwritten note.

I like to write letters by hand. I love to write cursive, love the artistic swirl and glide of a ballpoint or--my favorite--a mechanical pencil with .5 lead.

Megan, I'm sending you my postal address. Via snail mail, of course. :)

Patti Hill said...

I love this post. It brought back sweet memories of letters received and letters sent with anticipation and a sense of accomplishment.

There's an old song that just popped in my head--"I'm gonna sit right down and right myself a letter and make believe it came from you." Today, we might hear lyrics like this--"I'm gonna punch in some letters and abbreviations, and make believe you sent me a text." Not the same.

Pat Dyer said...

You are so right. I loved to write letters longhand--growing up, that was the only way. Some of my most precious possessions are letters and cards I received from my grandmother, and a letter my mother wrote to me before she passed. My aunt passed last year, and I really miss her birthday cards which, incidentally, arrived ON my birthday nearly every year.
Thank you for the memories.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

When I edit, I do a lot of longhand rewriting. I think it engages a different part of my brain. It's fabulous.

I had a few pen pals when I was a pre-teen that I met from camp. We wrote back and forth for a few years. You just made me wonder what ever happened in their lives. Hm.

AND, Sharon, lovely, lovely Sharon! Happiest of birthdays to you! I hope it is full of sweetness and joy!

Cherry Odelberg said...

Old habits die hard. Every day I go to the mailbox in anticipation. Most days, it is empty. Once in awhile, I get a Thank you note from my brother or sister-in-law. Once a year, I get a birthday card from the same brother and sister-in-law -- and maybe one from my cousin.
But, every so often my 24-year-old daughter mails me a hand written letter. Oh frabjious day! It is such a treat, you would think I would pass it on to as many others as possible.
Hope your birthday was scrumptious.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Megan, it is fun. I can't tell you how long it had been since I'd received a real letter. But it would be a number of years!

Wandered, mechanical pencil .5! Absolutely! Save those letters! I lost all mine in a fire, so I was so glad my sister found hers.

Patti, you're right. Doesn't have the same ring at all.

Susie, I think that makes a lot of sense. And thank you!

Cherry, I too now anticipate getting a letter from time to time, thanks to Megan. And so far my birthday has been very nice. Thank you.

Sara said...

I actually wrote a fan letter to an author just last week--the veteran Katherine Paterson. I'll admit that it was because there was no email address, combox, or other electronic contact information available . . .

treasure trove, yes. But I can't help thinking (with a smile) of writer Alison Hodgson. She tells of finding a stack of correspondence between herself and her then-boyfriend now-husband when they were early teens. And an overwhelming desire to go back and smother her younger self . . . some things are better left un-read by the next generation. :)I think a lot of our texts, FB messages, etc., are the equivalent not of letters, but of notes passed in class (who do you like? check one.) and reminders scribbled on sticky notes and the backs of receipts. Which could make an interesting literary device . . .