Good Letters

20100913-the-lost-art-of-letter-writing-by-dyana-herronLetter writing, the kind with real ink and paper, has become something of a cultural anachronism, like rotary phones or washboards.

Mention that you plan to spend the afternoon writing a letter, and be prepared to meet the same quick-blinking surprised faces you might receive if, pushing back from a restaurant table, you say, “Excuse me while I powder my nose.”

It just doesn’t happen anymore.

I think this is a pity, because letter writing has held an important place in my life since I was thirteen. It was then I made my first real best friend; we’ll call her Summer. Summer and I had a lot in common: we were both in honors classes, we both had mothers with bipolar disorder, and we both wanted to be writers. We were a match made in heaven (or Trewhitt Junior High, if you want to get specific).

One difference between us, however, was our sleep schedules. I would nod off early in the evening, usually on my bed when finishing my homework, an open pen bleeding black spots on my bedspread. My mom would come in and, finding me dozing, accuse me of taking drugs (I wasn’t). Her suspicions were reinforced by my newfound affection for Green Day and green fingernail polish.

Summer, however, was an insomniac. This made her even more glamorous to me, as I couldn’t imagine what a person would possibly do with themselves after, say, eleven at night.

What she did was write letters.

She would give them to me in the morning at school, often folded in fancy geometric shapes. They were rarely under ten pages long, and most times over twenty. It hadn’t struck me before that such letters could be written, certainly not by people our age. Although I’d received plenty of “notes” from girlfriends before this, they consisted of not much beyond “Hey what’s up, not much here,” with maybe something about a cute boy thrown in.

But Summer’s letters were different. They were freewheeling and funny, often weird, with unfamiliar words that kept me reaching for the dictionary. They were full of made-up stories, doodles, snippets of poems and song lyrics, and she wrote not only in the lines but filled the margins as well.

She’d supplement these letters throughout the day with shorter ones written in free time during classes. I started writing back, writing whenever and wherever I could, and her letters challenged me to write better than I had before.

I still have many of these letters, and I’m glad that even at that age I had the sense to save them, knowing they would remain precious to me. Even after Summer and I drifted apart, it seemed every person of real importance in my life also wrote letters, which I added to my collection.

My friend Jeremy, at fourteen, wrote to me about chaos theory, the Zapatistas, punk rock, and Steve McQueen. My friend Matthew wrote to me about how he believed the devil had appeared to him and made an offer concerning his future, which he declined.

Now my most faithful letter-writer is my friend Jenny, who began to write me when she moved to Japan. I lived for when her envelopes arrived, embellished with tiny circles or lines she’d draw with fine-tipped colored pens, or glued-on foreign packaging. She would accumulate many letters and postcards and send them all together, so that in sum they gave a picture of her life over a period of time: the day she found a favorite American food at the Japanese supermarket, the day she baked a cake, the day it snowed and she stayed home and worried she would be alone forever.

In graduate school, I made a friend who believed exclusively in writing and mailing letters; he would only use email if absolutely necessary. His explanation? “Email is a lie. It covers distance in an instant, as if the distance didn’t exist. But it does. If I write a letter to someone far away, I want it to take a week to arrive, even more, because that’s true. The distance is real, and it should be expressed.”

Even as a fan of letter writing, I was skeptical of this. But a couple of weeks later, receiving a letter from him written in the margins of a page torn from an old novel, I couldn’t help but smile, thinking of the letter’s journey from Massachusetts to Tennessee.

There’s something great about receiving a letter, even just the tactile materials, the ink or graphite on paper, and the author’s handwriting, not just their words in Times New Roman or Arial. There’s something powerful, too, about reading words that were created by hand just for you, not for anyone else, and sent off to be read by your eyes only. It’s like receiving a gift, an act of love.

And writing letters to someone else, that’s an act of love too, one the recipient is sure to feel, even when first ripping open the envelope, surely more than when clicking “open” with one tap on a keyboard.

Who knows? That recipient may keep those letters for years, until the pages are soft and yellowing, and unfold them on quiet nights, and remember, and then begin new letters.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Dyana Herron

Dyana Herron is a writer and teacher originally from Cleveland, Tennessee, who currently lives in Seattle. She is a graduate of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing.

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