I still have a letter I wrote to the newspaper when I was a child about supporting the Phillies even when they lost, and another I sent the school board advocating for a better library for my junior high. I’ve shown my kids letters I saved from President Carter and members of my Congressional delegation after I wrote asking for protection for the endangered snail darter (if you read Ranger Rick in the 70’s, this may sound familiar).
In the same album are letters and postcards my mother sent me one summer while I was visiting my grandparents on their walnut farm in Michigan. My husband and I kept boxes of letters we wrote each other during his military deployments. I’m fascinated by letters my grandmother and her brother sent during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. My grandmother also loved reading collected letters, especially those of John & Abigail Adams.
She asked me once whether people would really someday read “collected emails.” I think she would enjoy the resurgence of interest in old-fashioned correspondence. Letters of Note, a website created by Shaun Usher, is devoted to “fascinating letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos.” The Rumpus online magazine recently started Letters In the Mail, whose subscribers receive letters from authors.
Author Mary Robinette Kowal has issued The Month of Letters Challenge: write and send a letter every day in February (excluding Sundays and postal holidays). I’m in. Since September, I’ve been writing weekly to my son in England. This afternoon I began thinking of other potential recipients.
Letter writing is gift of presence; it’s slow conversation. You have to pay attention to what you’re writing and who you are writing to in a way I don’t think email replicates. It’s also a gift to the future. Letters are excellent primary source material for historians and teachers, and I’ve found them to be troves of ideas for creative writing.
Will my letters inspire a poem or story or end up in a library, historical society, archive or museum? Possibly. More likely they’ll find their way to a descendant, who like me, will pore over them, piecing together news and family, observations and dreams.