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Keeping Alive The Lost Art Of Letter-Writing

For thousands of years, letter writing has been the primary form of human communication. Now, with e-mail and text messaging, mailed correspondence is becoming as obsolete as film and LPs.

Just as those old technologies have their fans, though, a quiet subculture of people is keeping alive the art of writing letters the old-fashioned way. This group includes not only people who grew up before computers gained prominence, but also the under-30 set-and they're invigorating the practice with pen-pal clubs, hip stationery, and letter-writing groups. Those of us who have been seduced by the speed and convenience of instant communication are missing out on one of life's pleasures, they claim.

Loves Lotsa Mail

Letter writers find like-minded souls through the Letter Exchange, which publishes a print bulletin three times a year for its 400 members who are looking for pen-pals. According to Lonna Riedinger, co-director of the operation, members' ages range from 20 to 80, with most in the 40- to 70-year-old range. They don't accept listings from the lovelorn or from prison inmates, but only from regular citizens who simply enjoy writing and receiving letters.

Members can submit a listing in a variety of categories including genealogy, health and wellness, philosophy, and daily life. This appeared under the "Potluck" category:

"Midwest pen pal gal loves lotsa mail! Likes 60s music, old diners, postcards and recipes. Write today!"

That Belongs In A Letter

Because receiving a personal letter is so rare these days, it can feel like a gift. Handwritten letters are especially prized.

"If you write me a letter by hand, I know in a way that cannot be faked, that you put more effort into it," says Margaret Shepherd, author of The Art of the Personal Letter: A Guide to Connecting Through the Written Word. E-mail may be great for routine tasks, she says, but not for special occasions like thank-you notes: "For anything special, it's nothing special."

Shepherd is no Luddite. She routinely sends text messages to her grown daughters. It's the letters she's received from them, however, that hold a special place in her heart. She fondly recalls one:

"'Mom, the last three weeks have been really hard for me. You've been a big help.' Now, that really belongs in a letter. I've still got those letters."

Hope For The Penmanship-Challenged

For those who are afraid to write letters because of bad handwriting, Shepherd has good news. "You're more critical of your handwriting than anyone else will be. You'll find that most people feel, when they receive your handwriting, that's it's still infinitely better than e-mail. I think even the worst handwriting has more going for it than the best e-mail." Handwriting preserves the personality of the hand that wrote it. "When I see your handwriting, I know it's you."

But what if your handwriting is truly illegible? Is there any hope for improvement? "Absolutely," says historian and professor Bruce C. Smith. Smith claims to have taught thousands of children and adults alike develop beautiful cursive and print handwriting using a method that he's called Smith Hand. It's an improvement over the Palmer and D'Nealian Methods, he says. Clear handwriting is easy, as long as you don't write way you were taught in school.

"The biggest problem that comes from the traditional methods is writing large, circular letters. You have to extend your fingertips away from your palm in order to make these larger, awkward letters. If you keep your fingers up close to your palm, and write narrow-up and down-you'll find that you can write much more rapidly, much more easily, and your hand doesn't tire out. You can do a much better job."

Overcoming The 'Block'

Even if you've improved your handwriting, there's always the fear of "writer's block." In The Art of the Personal Letter, Margaret Shepherd offers rules of thumb on how to write all sorts of letters, from letters of advice to letters of apology to break-up letters. Her rule of thumb for writing a love letter?

"Talk about us, then talk about you, and only then, talk about me."

No Wi-Fi Required

Young people are writing letters for a different sort of experience they get from electronic media. Twenty-eight year old graphic designer Kathy Zadrozny of Chicago uses Twitter to keep up on what's going in the stationery field, but she's also a frequent letter writer. Her goal? To "resurrect the art and elegance of letter writing."

Zadrozny co-founded 16 Sparrows, an Internet stationery store that sells her line of quirky paper products. (The store's motto: "Where sarcasm is folded in half.") She also co-runs the Letter Writers Alliance, which offers its members a pen pal swap and such retro letter-writing products as vintage, uncancelled postage stamps.

"We really need to continue having letter writing in our society. It is an integral part of how we communicate," Zadrozny says. "Just because technology is coming to a point where everything is instant doesn't mean that we can't allow the slower things to run parallel to that."

Zadrozny calls herself a "vintage enthusiast," but says others don't have to be retro to get into the letter writing habit.

"There are definitely a lot of people I know of who are very into technology, who just like letter writing because it's taking break away from their everyday. It's almost like a little bit of a vacation for them to sit down with a pen and paper."

Those who feel they don't have enough time to write letters, says Zadrozny, need to rethink the way they see letter writing. Letter writing can be done anywhere, anytime-no Wi-Fi necessary. "You can write a letter on a bus, or while waiting in line. It's a good use of your time. And whenever you see mailbox you can just mail it off."

The Letter Writing Club

Letter writers in Vancouver, British Columbia, have the option of writing in a group with other like-minded folk. The Regional Assembly of Text, a hip stationery boutique in that city, holds a letter-writing session it informally calls "the Letter Writing Club" on the first Thursday evening of every month.

For about three hours the store is closed to customers while the letter writers take over. The store owners set up twelve manual, portable typewriters. They make tea and cookies. The sessions attract some 25 to 30 people, ranging in age from 10 years old to over 60, with most in their late 20s to mid-30s.

The store's co-owner Rebecca Dolen says they began the sessions to encourage people to write letters. "I think that it's such a wonderful thing to receive a letter in the mail. We thought if we gave people the opportunity and the motivation to do it, maybe we would get more letters out there." Participants appreciate the opportunity to write in a group. "We get a lot of thank-yous," says Dolen.

A Typewriter Renaissance

"People really enjoy using the typewriters. We get a lot of comments about the difference between writing a letter and sending and an e-mail. Most people have a lot of fun."

Dolen believes that letter writing makes for better thinking.

"When you're sitting down to compose a letter," she says, "you really have to think about what you're going to say, formulate your sentences before you start writing. There's no delete key. There's no going back and fixing mistakes, which keeps it sincere and lovely."

Speed Is Relative

Even if you've improved your handwriting, overcome your writer's block, and found time to write, there's still the problem of all those days and weeks it takes to get a reply to your letter. But is 'snail mail' really so sluggish? Or have we just become impatient?

"Ninety-six percent of local mail gets there overnight," says Norman Scherstrom, a spokesman for the United States Postal Service. The average length of a cross-country mail delivery isn't too shabby either: three days.

Perhaps it comes down to one's attitude. To people who are accustomed to the speed and ease of instant electronic communications, waiting weeks for a reply is intolerable. Letter writers, on the other hand, relish the days or weeks that take place between mailing a letter and getting a reply. The delay creates one of the joys of mailed correspondence: anticipation.

Writing Slow Makes The Mind Quick

Scherstrom, a former schoolteacher, shares Rebecca Dolen's opinion about letter writing's ability to train the mind. "Speaking makes a quick mind, reading makes a full mind, and writing makes a precise mind," he says. "The act of writing-narrowing your thoughts and double-checking them and getting them to say exactly what you want-is a wonderful intellectual exercise, and letter writing promotes that."

"I'm afraid that some of these modern forms of communication-whether it's quick e-mails or Twitters-really don't improve the precision of the mind. I fancy them more like speaking. They might help to make the mind a little quicker, but they will not improve its precision."

So write a letter, stick a stamp on it, and drop it in a mailbox-if you can find one. You know those blue collection boxes that used to be on about every third street corner? Because of the overall reduced use of the U.S. Mail, last year the Postal Service removed 2,400 of them.

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