For the love of a letter
Resolutions, I have a few. But the one I hope we all keep is to write a letter once in a while.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Resolutions, I have a few. But the one I hope we all keep is to write a letter once in a while. Find some good paper, a pen that doesn't leak, and then set about sharing yourself — and your handwriting — with a certain face in mind.
It's a nice way to slow down, to get away from the keystroke communication we're used to, the way our thoughts are dispatched almost as quickly as they occur to us.
I don't know anyone who doesn't love to see their name, written in hand, on the front of an envelope, a bit of humanity among the bills and slick circulars.
But the written letter is a dying art, thanks to email, Facebook and Twitter. It's also an endangered species, thanks to the U.S. Postal Service's recent announcement that it may have to close a number of mail-processing centers and local post offices as it tries to cope with a number of financial issues, including a decline in first-class mail.
Consider: Ten years ago, the USPS handled 103 billion pieces of first-class mail, but that number has dropped to 73 billion — and is expected to keep falling.
In other words, by using less ink, we're putting the USPS in the red. Just the other day, Paper Zone announced plans to close eight Northwest locations after 30 years of selling paper for everything from baby announcements to cards to scrapbooks.
One culprit cited in the news story? Evite. We're losing something of ourselves in all that; the intimacy of a signature, the history that a stack of letters provides.
Consider the biographies and history books and movies that depended on correspondence written by presidents and authors, movie stars and soldiers. Napoleon and Josephine. Even "Griffin & Sabine." The Box Tops, for that matter.
"I just think there's a graciousness and a specialness to it," said Ted Kennedy Watson, owner of Seattle's two Watson Kennedy shops, which are filled with all things paper. (No Luddite, Watson also blogs about life and style at www.tedkennedywatson.com.)
"We're all so used to email," Watson said, "but there is still that tactile quality of the paper and the stamp and the way someone writes, even if it's just a couple of sentences."
Watson gets "hundreds" of emails a day, some invitations to events that, en masse, lose some of their luster. You start to feel more included than invited.
"But if I get something in the mail," he said, "I guarantee we are going to go to that party."
Seattle lost one of its most prolific letter writers last week, when civic and business leader George Corcoran passed away at 82.
Cleo Corcoran said her husband sent out about 230 handwritten Christmas cards every year, and many more letters throughout the year.
"He was a beautiful, beautiful writer and was always able to use the right word to express what he wanted," she told The Seattle Times' Katherine Long.
I'm not saying that we should try to do what Corcoran did, only that we don't tweet or tap away the value of putting thoughts to paper, of taking the time. Letters give people something of you to hold, to read, to remember.
William Merrill Decker, author of "Epistolary Practices: Letter Writing in America Before Telecommunications," praised the "sensation" of writing, but also the magic of "holding something that has been inscribed."
"A letter is more than the language someone has written on the page," said Decker, a professor at the University of Oklahoma. "It's handwriting and tear smudges, sometimes people doodle."
I have letters from the late Mister Rogers and, of course, my mother. They are among the first things I would grab if my house caught fire.
Letters also can open a window into the mind and motivations of people, like the six-page (typed) letter composed by the Barefoot Bandit Colton Harris-Moore to Judge Vickie Churchill.
"I wish not to point fingers or enumerate through a gamut of issues," he wrote, "however, my thirst for knowledge, cries for help and coming of age was met with inept parents suffering from drugs and alcohol."
"Enumerate?" "Gamut?" Those aren't words you say in front of a judge. Those are words you put in a letter to show that there's something below the surface.
Carol Pica, who was shopping in Seattle over the holidays, hasn't written a letter in a year. But when she gets one? "Love it! Love it!" said Pica, who lives in Puyallup. "Even when I get a card, and they've only written three lines, I love it. I got one a year ago from my mother, and it made my whole year."
A new one has just started. Why not put a pen to paper? Not just to help the post office, but to make life a little more personal — no matter the message.
"I've heard that people get jilted by text message," Merrill said with a sigh. "I think that's kind of crass, don't you?"
Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for the card, Bijan.
About Nicole Brodeur
My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper.
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