The Art of Letter Writing

June 2, 2021 § 8 Comments

By Meg Keeshan McGovern

A handwritten letter from an old friend came in the mail along with a hand-blown glass paper weight housing a decoupage of bachelor buttons. It was packed in a beautiful box with a purple ribbon. This friend knew my love for letters and flowers in an old-fashioned sort of way. The first line of her letter said, “I felt that such an auspicious event deserved an actual handwritten note.” She expressed the reality that handwritten notes are not as common as they once were. Seeing my friend’s scrawling script, brought back memories of our younger days when writing a letter was considered etiquette.

The handwritten letter is an art. It takes inspiration and thought. What stationery should I use, the one with the flowers or my initials? Which pen should I write with, my calligraphy pen or my silky, black felt tip? Which stamp should I place on the envelope, the one with LOVE or the one with the United States flag? The answers depend upon the person you are writing to—a spouse, relative, friend, or colleague. It depends upon the event—a wedding, new baby, death of a loved one, get-well, thinking of you, or holiday. The art of letter writing using a pen and paper has become less traditional. Birthdays are recognized on Facebook and through texts instead of birthday cards handpicked specifically for that person. I have been guilty of this myself but growing up it was different. My sisters and I were required to write thank you notes every time we received a gift. We mailed family and friends birthday cards. I expected the same of my sons.

The drawer of my night table is filled with cherished handwritten letters from my father, my mother, my sons, those who have touched my heart with their words. Occasionally, I will sit on my bed, the drawer in front of me, and get sucked in for hours reading each letter. Memories, the stories of my life, are resuscitated, and suddenly, I am reliving moments I had tucked away or forgotten. Recently, I reread a letter my father wrote me in 1997. Written on his standard off-white stationary, his full name embossed in dark blue, my dad wrote that were like soulmates, something he had never said to me in person. His handwriting brought him back to life. I could hear his voice saying the words as if we were sitting on a couch together. While reading his letter, a few years after he died of lung cancer, I was brought to tears, seeing his cursive longhand, the way he wrote my name with the ornate M, the way he wrote the number seven backwards with a slash through the middle, the way he always signed his letters with “Love, Your Dad,” was a warm embrace.

A handwritten note is part of the person, the sender. My son sent me a birthday card with “Thanks a Million” on the front. His letter traveled across the country. I felt his presence as I breathed in every word. Seeing the penmanship, I recognized from his school years, a few words crossed out, a few comments in parenthesis, then his words of proud encouragement as I was wrapping up my MFA, was the greatest gift I could ask for without being physically together. It may not seem significant, but when you live in a remote location like Alta, Utah, buying a card and sending it off in the mail so that it arrives in Connecticut on time, takes thought and planning.  

This art isn’t taught in schools the way it used to be, and now with COVID, students are using chromebooks instead of physically writing in composition notebooks. Wrapping my head around creating and using digital notebooks, not passing out black composition notebooks with crisp pages and a fresh pencil with an eraser cap for Language Arts, felt insurmountable, but I had no choice. My twenty-fourth year of teaching was a first for not memorizing the handwriting of 115 students. My classroom is still empty of sharpened pencils, pens, colored pencils, and markers usually in colorful containers around the room. My shelves, usually lined with writing and drawing paper, are empty, too.

Last week, my students chose a character trait to write about in their digital notebooks. One student wrote, “I am creative. I take birthday cards and letters very seriously. I spend hours decorating cards and the envelopes to my friends and family, personalizing every inch of free space.” This student gave me hope, hope that the art of letter writing will not become a thing of the past.
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Meg McGovern teaches middle school Language Arts and is the author of We’re Good: The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination. Meg is an Assistant Editor for Brevity and has also written for their blog. Meg holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Fairfield University in Connecticut.__

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