Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The lost art of letter writing

I was bored the other night and was flipping through the channels on the TV when I came across a program on PBS. It was a documentary about Dolly Madison where actors were hired to speak parts of the letters she and others wrote about her life interspersed with commentary from historians. Now normally this isn't a program I would be drawn to but I couldn't change the channel. I wanted to know more. It took me an hour or so before I realized WHY I was fascinated by this program.

It was the letters.

The way people wrote letters back then is totally different than the way we write letters today (or should I say emails and/or text messages). They did use a lot of big words where more simpler words would do but there was such an evocative air about those words that made them more direct and intimate than the "short" words we normally use today (which seems to run counter-intuitive to writing advice).

I went to bed thinking about the "history" of letter writing and communication. It seems as time has moved on our communication and choice of words gets shorter and shorter. If anyone in today's world used the kind of language Dolly Madison did in her time we would think that person is a loon, snobbish and "out of touch", among other things.

It also seems that changing our language from multi-syllable words to monosyllabic isn't enough. Now we cut out letters in words altogether. Like: "plz 2 met ya" and "WTF?" and "LOL" and "BTW" etc. What does that say about our ability to communicate and level of civilization? Will we get to the point where verbal/written words are no longer necessary? Will we revert back to grunts and gestures?

As a writer (or a writer-in-progress [which sounds better than writer-wannabe]) I lamented the decline of the richness of language. Yes, the language of colonial America was stuffy and roundabout. But the language of today makes me feel like people are throwing pins when they talk. Sharp and direct. And a more shatter shot approach to see "what sticks".

Back when it took weeks, or maybe months for a letter to get from one place to another it seems you had to think of the words you said (and the delay of decoding the message). Today we fire off an email/text in anger because we can immediately send another one to excuse ourself and explain our intentions. A letter written in anger in Colonial times could take months to be explained and apologized for.

Like I said, I lament the lost art of letter writing and feel guilty at the same time that I am not writing letters of my own to keep the tradition(?) alive. Who would I write to that wouldn't say "why didn't you just send me an email or test message?". I wrote letters to my Grandma when I was a little girl that, when she died, I got back. I didn't know she had kept them and I didn't remember writing them. But I was thrilled to relive the life of my past self, especially when memories of forgotten moments came to life on those faded pages. Those letters didn't have the eloquence of Dolly Madison's letters, but they had the history. A permanent recorded of a era in time. Can you get the same things from "c u 2nite"?

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