The Lost Art of the Letter

Have we reached a point at which the excitement of technology has worn off enough to see that we have committed little murders everywhere?  Technology is not going away with anything short of a nuclear bomb or natural disaster to decimate the population & destroy the infrastructure of society. I’m acutely aware of this fact.  From the beginning let’s make this clear, this is not some Luddite Unabomber manifesto.

While technology is here to stay, I do think it has been around long enough for the blindness of infatuation to have faded.  It’s time to scale and debone the truth.  We need to determine the utility of the low tech before disposing of it completely.

Email is pretty fucking great. I won’t go so far as to say that it has made us more efficient, but it definitely has allowed things to happen faster.  Imagine doing half of the things that you do on a daily basis without it.  Imagine running a business without it.  It just seems painfully difficult without being able to send documents back & forth in minutes.

What email sucks at, though, is personal communication.  Sure the system works great but somehow email’s speed & convenience has made personal communication disposable.  If there’s one thing that we are all slowly learning is that free isn’t necessarily good.  If it’s free most of us think it has no value.  We get handed free shit all the time & must of us chuck, in the closest garbage can, whatever we’ve been handed.  We don’t even look at it.  “They just gave it to me.  It probably sucks.”  This mentality has to have some subconscious effect on our communication.

Email is free.  We’ve all got at least three accounts.  If its gets too packed with spam, we don’t go through & unsubscribe from all the lists or report all the spam, we just go get another account.  Whatever.  It’s free.  You can send as many email as you want.  It’s free.  You can send two word responses.  It’s free. But can you imagine if you had to mail that; if you had to pay for postage?  Can you imagine getting a letter in the mail that simply said “Sounds good”?

That’s where the magic of the letter has been lost.  When you have to pay for it, you want to cram as much information into that letter as possible.  You wanna make it worth the cost.  And time is another factor.  Letters aren’t instantaneous.  They take time to get where they are going.  So when you send a letter stuffed with information, you experience something most of us rarely do anymore: anticipation.  What will the person think about what you have sent?  What will they say back?  When will the reply arrive?

But writing letters is a lost art.  People used to be really fucking good at it.  Jack Kerouac used to carry around a letter he got from Neal Cassady.  He claimed it was one of the most brilliant things he’d ever read.  He used to lend it out to people like a book, until one day it was lost off the deck of a house boat.  When famous writers died, their publishers used to put out books of their letters.  Average people used to be really fucking good at it too.  But, I have never received an email that I would even consider printing out & showing to anybody.  When we write emails, we use flimsy language; we put in little effort.  And that’s a travesty.

The art of writing a letter is an important discipline.  It’s actually good for you.  You learn from writing letters because you are forced to articulate your thoughts.  You are forced to make your language clear so that you are understood.  It’s easy to send an email back to someone saying “What the fuck does that mean?  What are you talking about?”  If that happens with a letter, you’ve wasted a lot of damn time.  You’ve made an ass of yourself.  When writing letters you try to get things right the first time & this creates better communication between you & whoever you are writing to.  It also forces you to organize your own thoughts & you begin to understand your own thoughts better.  Imagine that.

So where am I going with this?  Am I looking for a pen pal?  Probably.  But more so, I’m saying use email for speed, that’s what it’s good for.  Write letters to communicate.  Pick the right tool for the right task.  Shouldn’t we think about the importance of letters before we take the postal system down by the river and shoot it in the back of the head?  Love letters can get you laid.  Can email?

Categorized as Thoughts

By C.A. Hall

Writer / Podcaster I'm a well-written sentence marred by a curse word. In another life I might have been a criminal profiler, a jazz drummer, an architect, an acrobat, an actor, or a children’s book illustrator.