Thursday, November 20, 2008

Letter Writing Campaign

I asked my class of college freshman this week when they had last written a letter to someone. I got the same set of blank stares that I’ve seen before—on a day when I've mentioned Erica Jong maybe, or the BeeGees, or say, dangling participles. Blank stares. Dead quiet. Not that this is not a lively bunch—someone did quote Lil Wayne last week in a discussion about the election. They’re bright kids, my freshmen, and finally, someone in the back of the room offered that he did write thank you notes on occasion. And of course, he’s right. Thank you notes, a condolence note, that’s about it. Letter writing is as dead as disco.

The temptation here is to tell you why letter writing is dead and what sorts of communications have replaced it. However, I am not going to do that (though text me and I will be happy to fill you in). I have a feeling that most of the people reading this already understand these things. You are reading a blog, after all. This is not a private correspondence from me to you—it's a public broadcast. We humans of this decade are nothing if not efficient creatures, so why would we write something beautiful and heartfelt for one person when we can write something and zap it out on the internet for thousands (or maybe dozens) to see?

Well, there are plenty of reasons to write letters, but instead of listing them, I’m going to use my little piece of blog space to issue a challenge: write a letter. Write a letter during this holiday season. Write someone to say something that is long overdue or to tell a story or to deliver some everyday news.

As a fiction writer, I always tell myself that I have no need for correspondence or even a journal because most of what happens to me ends up in my fiction (in some way, shape or form). My fiction is my chronicle. However, a friend of mine recently proved me wrong when he showed me one of my own letters, written to him in 1980.

The letter was a time capsule. In 1980, I was living in Dallas, Texas. I had taken my first post-college jobs selling textbooks and moved to the city all alone. I wrote the letter sitting at the kitchen table of my tiny Cedar Springs apartment on a solitary Saturday night. I wrote unselfconsciously to my childhood (and now lifelong) friend, telling him the kind of things I would even now if we were talking on the phone.

Halfway through my letter, chatting away, I noted that my next door neighbor had returned to his apartment. “There is some high-pitched laughing,” I wrote. “He must have a date.” Thus began my account for all history of the next forty-five minutes—a play-by-play of the end of my neighbor’s date: every giggle, moan and thump thump thump that came through the thin walls of my apartment.

What I would give on any day now to write with such immediacy and fluidity. I am really grateful that my friend kept the letter. Reading it made me laugh, as I surely did as I was writing the letter, and even more, it flooded me with the full memory of this particular time in my life. “A letter is a gift,” says Garrison Keillor. And of course, it is—to both the receiver and the sender.

So here’s your prompt: Dear …

Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Carrboro, NC. Her website is


River Joran said...


My mother once told me that she was glad that i had moved away- not because she wouldn't miss me because she would - but because now she could look forward to receiving my letters. Sad to say they've been to few in coming.

Like you I think letter writing is an art form in which we say things never surfacing in emails or blogspots - God bless them both. I once made a New Year's resolution to write a friend or stranger once a week. It lasted about 6 months and I was richer for it. And there are so many lonely shut in's - soldiers at war - others in need that would adore an envelope with a few words about anything. My niece just told me that her Girl Scout troop was having them start just writing to someone in the whole world and they will write back and they'll make friends that way. (long live the Girl Scouts and old fashioned pen pals)

Thanks for reminding me (and all of us) that the old-fashioned letter is long overdue its resurgence in popularity in our culture. As writers seems like we should do something about that. Thanks for getting us started.


Kerry Madden said...

I lived in China during my first year of marriage, and I began every morning writing letters back to the United States. Long typed letters on onion skin paper with the tiniest of fonts to use every inch of paper. I lived in England during my junior year in college and typed letters on the aerograms, and my college roommate back in Knoxville still remembers how annoying it receive them only to discover I had typed on the part that you seal, and so she lost of the words in each sentence. Thank you for writing this...and for making me remember to write a letter today and not just a slapdash email, but a real letter with a stamp and envelope and friendship.

Pamela Duncan said...

I love this! Maybe it'll inspire folks to write letters again. Don't we all love to get them? Email is fun, but nothing beats the secret delicious pleasure of opening the mailbox and finding a letter from a friend. It is a gift. Thanks for writing that.

Augusta Scattergood said...

My college roommate and I wrote letters all through the beginning years of our marriages and our children's young lives. A couple of years ago, at a "big" birthday, she presented me with a beautiful box, tied with satin ribbon, filled with those letters. What a treasure.

Wendy said...

I was delighted to find your blog post about letter writing and your challenge! Coincidentally I'm in day two of a 10-day letter writing challenge over at A Passion for Letter Writing. Come over and join!

The Missive Maven said...

Letter-writing is NOT dead! There are a number of us (granted, a small but dedicated number) that do write longhand snail-mail letters regularly. And I try to entice the young folks in my life to enter into written correspondence.

For what its worth, I laud it regularly at