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Keep those cards and letters coming.

I don't know about you, but when I come home at the end of the day, I'm not hoping to find a letter from Ed McMahon promising that I, Pat McCormick, may have "already won" $10 million, and I'm certainly not dying to tear open another personalized note from Visa or Citibank informing me that because of my great credit rating (which is only slightly better than that of your average Third World country), I've already been approved for one more no-fee, high-interest card with a $5,000 line of credit. In fact, I've recently become so callous that I'm not even particularly thrilled at the prospect of getting another $50 check from MCI or Sprint for switching from AT&T one more time.

No, as I turn the key to my mailbox, I'm fantasizing about something much more exciting than Ed's check. Amid all the bills, magazines, special offers, and begging letters, I'm hoping against hope to find a fat, cream-colored envelope with my name and address lovingly scrolled in a familiar hand and extra postage generously stuck in the upper right-hand corner. I'm not talking about a postcard from vacationing friends or family, or even one of those darling Impressionist note cards with a nice little "thank you" or "thinking of you" message scribbled inside, although both can be very tasty morsels to snack on. I'm hoping instead for the rarest treat of all: a personal letter, one of those handwritten missives from a faraway friend in which seven or eight pages of full-length stationery have been crammed to overflowing with affection and anecdotes and then folded and packed into an envelope and sent on their way -- to me.

Unfortunately, such letters make their appearance in my mailbox somewhat rarely, no doubt in part because it has been a while since anyone has received such a generous epistle from my hand. As a friend, whose letter-rich mailbox I used to covet, was fond of noting, "It's harder to get letters if you don't write them." It's not that I don't write them, of course, I just don't write them as often as I'd like to get them. To paraphrase Mark Twain, great letters are something everyone wants to get, but hardly anyone wants to write, at least not at just this moment.

Thankfully, I have had the good fortune over the years to be on the receiving end of more than a few wonderful letters from family and friends -- letters that I appreciated not only because of the affection and craft poured into them by their authors but also because they came at a time when their reader was particularly lonely for signs that he had not been forgotten. And even now -- in spite of my less than stellar correspondence record -- there are a few close friendships that have been occasionally sustained and enriched by an exchange of letters. So it is not completely in vain that I continue to pan for gold in my mailbox.

In the past couple of years a number of essayists have written columns bemoaning the death, or at least the decline, of the personal letter and the rising tide of "artificial" correspondence glutting our mailboxes. In "Letters Are Acts of Faith; Telephone Calls Are a Reflex," a piece in the New York Times Book Review last summer, Vivian Gornick complains that the convenience, immediacy, and easy intimacy of the phone has led too many of us to abandon the valuable art of letter writing. This is our loss, Gornick argues, for crafting a letter to a friend or loved one offers the writer challenges and gifts not usually found in a phone conversation.

The discipline of writing a good letter teaches more than penmanship, grammar, or typing. It helps us to develop a richer, fuller voice. And speaking for lonely readers everywhere, Benjamin Cheever's slightly satirical New York Times essay, "Seeking Signs of Life in a Full Mailbox," decries the dwindling number of real letters he finds among the five pounds of mail stuffed monthly into his post-box. Like many of us, he longs to find one real letter among all the fool's gold of computer-generated junk mail and bills.

The situation may be getting worse. In the Los Angeles Times piece, "Postscript to the Personal Letter," Berkley Hudson reports that household-to-household correspondence makes up only 4.4 percent of the mail, a drop of more than 25 percent over the past 15 years. When you combine this trend with a growing customer preference for note cards over full-length stationery, it becomes clear just how endangered real letters have become. Furthermore, although letter writing manuals have offered models of professional and personal correspondence since the 18th century, the recent flourish of software programs loaded with hundreds of such models is certain to bring a whole new wave of cloned mail to our doorstep.

Combining the technology of these Cyrano de Bergerac programs with a new software that loads your handwriting as a font, we may soon look forward to receiving lovingly handwritten letters composed, printed, and faxed from our mother's desktop. There's a brave new world for you.

Of course reports of the letter's demise at the hands of modem life are not new, and not everyone is ready to mourn the letter's passing. As far back as 1929, essayist Ian Malcolm complained in "The Art of Letter-writing" that 20th-century gadgets like the typewriter, dictaphone, and telephone were destroying the personal letter. And yet, according to Walter Kendrick's "Return to Sender: The Myth of the Dead Letter," an extended essay in last November's Village Voice, the sentimentalist myth that the hectic pace and technologies of modern life have robbed us of the precious art of letter writing is simply not true. It wasn't until the introduction of the penny post and the explosion of literacy in middle of the 19th century that anyone except the wealthy had the time, money, or education to correspond.

When letter writing did take off with common folk, Kendrick argues, it tended to produce much more chitchat about daily events than well-crafted literary essays baring one's inner soul to a friend. There was more shopping list than Shelley in the daily post.

Modern technologies, like the fax and e-mail, far from sounding the death knoll of the letter, may be introducing a brand new epistolary age. Paul Saffo, a fellow at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, California, has suggested that the "ease and speed of computer mail has created masses of `epistomaniacs' . . . We're in the middle of the biggest explosion of letter writing since the age of Samuel Johnson. Johnson thought nothing of writing a letter to someone who lived across the street. Now people think nothing of writing an e-mail message to someone across the hall."

In spite of this optimism about a new epistolary age, however, many wonder just how often e-mail users, whose exchanges resemble wire-tapped phone conversations more than personal correspondence, take the time and effort to compose a well-crafted message. And, stripped of stationery, handwriting, and even a colorful stamp, e-mail messages don't seem like the sort of thing you'd tack to your refrigerator or stow in your dresser drawer.

So what is it about the personal letter that continues to capture our imagination? Let me suggest a few things.

The irony about letters is that they have always been a particularly frail sort of communication, and yet it is their very weaknesses that have made them so interesting. When we sit down to write a letter, we are trying to reach out to someone who is absent from us -- someone we can't see, hear, or touch. In a letter we are forced to fashion our link with this faraway soul by means of a narrow line of words, a thin message stripped of the rich timbre of our voice, the palpable warmth of our smile, or the sweet embrace of our arms, and decorated only by a turn of phrase and the flourish of our handwriting or signature. To make things worse, we then drop this letter in a mailbox and send it off, wondering if our intended will ever receive it and knowing that we will not be there to savor its arrival or explain its contents.

Compared with a late-night conversation over cups of coffee or a tearful hug at the airport, a letter seems like a pale and lonely creature indeed, demanding so much discipline, creativity, and imagination to spark the fires of such a remote connection. And yet it is these very limits that have forced letter writers to be so creative, and in doing so, have occasionally allowed us to compose messages that not only gave eloquent voice to our deepest hopes and fears but also enriched our dearest friendships. Indeed, as a result of this struggle against the limits of letter writing, we have, on a few occasions, produced a couple of well-read missives that ultimately found their way into those special boxes and drawers where we store our most precious treasures. Not bad for a thin, dark line of words.

Perhaps the hardest thing about writing letters is the solitude. In a world increasingly busy with work and distractions, being alone with the quiet of our own thoughts often seems about as welcome as a trip to a briar patch. Writing a good letter usually demands that we turn everything off and sit down for an hour or more with only a blank piece of paper (or computer screen) and ourselves for company, In this way it calls us, as Gornick notes, to construct our world and ourselves from within, and court, not fear, the experience of being alone. "To write a letter is to be alone with my thoughts in the conjured presence of another person. I keep myself imaginative company. I occupy the empty room. I alone infuse its silence."

This is hard work, and yet if we have the patience and tenacity to stay awake a little while with our own company, there are great treasures to be found in occasional drafts of such solitude -- as artists, mystics, and writers have long known. As Anthony Storr notes in his Solitude: A Return to the Self (Ballantine Paperbacks, 1988), in solitary stillness we can find not only a deeper grasp of ourselves and our world but also a richer, more resonant voice of our own.

Maybe that's why the journal of a fictional castaway such as Robinson Crusoe, instead of showing us a tortured soul -- like Frankenstein's monster -- driven to terror and madness by his enforced solitude, offers us the increasingly mature and sane voice of one who has benefited from long periods of introspection and drinks regularly from the still silence of his own thoughts. Indeed, the journals and letters of fictional and real characters track their author's developing sense of self, revealed in the increasing authority and autonomy of his or her voice.

That the solitude we find in letter writing could produce such good fruits should come as no surprise to Catholics. Although we have no letters from jesus, we know how important and life-giving solitude was in his life and how he encouraged his disciples to take time for it. Margaret Guenther's recent article in Christian Century, "Embracing the Silence," reminds readers that although people are often terrified of stillness, in scripture "silence is the place of encounter with God." The journals, correspondence, and autobiographies of our greatest saints are littered with praise for solitude's virtues, and the very prose and insights of these writings testify to the ways in which wrestling with solitude benefited their authors.

Letters also allow us to invite a friend to step into the stillness with us and to share our world. A good letter builds two bridges, spanning the distance between us and our inner lives as well as the gap separating us from our friends. The thing that transforms a good letter from an act of kindness into an expression of friendship is not just the time we put into composing it, but the self we offer to its reader.

A real letter is an act of friendship because it is an act of faith to put into an envelope, not merely news of the weather or reports of recent events, but a glimpse of our true selves. It is also an act of love, a gentle touch by which faraway friends and families reach out and remind us that we are not forgotten. How sweet it is to open a note and find that its author, at the end of a long day at work and a longer evening with the children' should want to sit down at the dining-room table and share her thoughts with us, or that a friend studying abroad has momentarily pushed aside his books and journals and put pen to paper to take up an old conversation and inquire how we are, how we really are.

Finally, it seems to me that every good letter is also a work of art. Not that every personal letter needs to imitate the marvelously decorated notes we get from children, though I would think the popularity of Nick Bantock's wonderfully illustrated trilogy of the "extraordinary correspondence" of Griffin & Sabine (Chronicle Books, 1991) might indicate just how preciously even the crayon sketches of an adult would be received. Rather, I mean that in every good letter the writer is trying to exchange information and create something of beauty. No one wants to give a friend a shabby gift, so even if our letters are on legal pad instead of stationery, written with a ballpoint or pencil instead of a fountain pen, or punctuated by coffee stains, tears, or crossed-out deletions, we are still trying to fashion something that expresses ourselves and offers a gift. That, I think, is why we are inclined to hold on to really good letters; not because the world can see their beauty but because we can.

None of this is to suggest that I have anything against phones, faxes, or e-mail, or that I think letter writing is the best form of communication. If I had to depend on the post for all the news and information I need to exchange with others, or for all the hugs and signs of friendship or love I ever got, my life would be a disaster. And if I had to write a good letter every time I wanted to respond to a message or connect with a friend, I wouldn't have time for anything else. I have neither the intention nor desire to imitate the great letter writers of the past, and when I die I will not be leaving behind a 30-volume collection of my correspondence.

All the same, I don't think I'll be giving up on letter writing any time soon, and not just because of the impressive benefits to be derived from a regular practice of creative solitude. Mostly it's for friendship's sake -- as Saint Thomas More once noted. Over the years a small but steady stream of warm and affectionate correspondence -- occasionally punctuated by a handful of genuinely extraordinary letters -- has poured into my mailbox, and I have no desire to imagine a life without even the hope of these small sacraments of the "real presence" of love and friendship. I agree with Cheever when he notes that the "reward for writing a personal letter is that ... once in a great long while, a personal letter will come to you."
COPYRIGHT 1995 Claretian Publications
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Sep 1, 1995
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