The Lost Art of Letter Writing: What Else Are We Losing?

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“I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth; I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter.”
Jane Austen, letter to her sister Cassandra, 3 January 1801

I can pinpoint the day I last wrote a letter (actually it was an email in the form of a letter). It was 16 December 2003. Between 2001 and 2003, I corresponded with an Alaskan woman I met in a chat room. We bonded over being writers and a mutual jealousy of being in a faraway location. Her name was Jessica.

We did actually write each other letters. We mostly sent emails but between those, we would write letters, lots of them, package up a bundle and then send them via snail mail across the ocean. I guess it was just for a change, something different. Sometimes we sent other things, too (I introduced her to a pack of Tim Tams).

Jess and I wrote each other so much that I started printing out copies of our emails and photocopying the letters I wrote to her in long hand so that I had a proper record of our correspondence. It felt important. At the time, I’m sure it was.

When I thought about writing this blog post, I pulled out the folder where I stored the emails and letters and started going through them, thinking maybe I could publish one that I’d written in conjunction with this theme of the lost art of letter writing.

I’m going to save you the whiny, self-indulgent ramblings of my coughtwentysix year old self. But let me summarise. I was still living with my grandparents, my relationship with both of my parents was in need of some patchwork repairs and I was working a job that frequently allowed me to open my letters to Jess with the words, “I am at work and it is just after lunch. I am so efficient that I have finished all the day’s work during the morning. So now I have time to write to you.”

I did a lot of complaining. About things that when I am reminded of them twelve years later seem hugely insignificant and I wonder why I let other people get to me so much instead of just living my own life. Jess complained about similar things, so we were obviously a good fit for each other.

At the start of 2004, Jess frequently started going on radio silence. She didn’t have a computer of her own anymore or access to one and the last email I had from her assured me she was fine and promising to tell me all about it very soon. In June of that year, I received my last communication from her. A postcard without a return address telling me she’d moved to California to live with her father and try to repair her extremely fractured relationship with him. There was a blog address (now long inactive) and a short message to say her story was too long for a postcard and that she’d tell me about it someday.

I never heard from Jess again.

Chat rooms are a thing of the past and in the meantime, social media seems to have taken over as the platform for keeping in touch with friends, family and acquaintances wherever they may be. We don’t need to write long letters because everybody already knows everything about us from what we reveal on those social media platforms (sometimes way too much).

But when I did write letters, it wasn’t in the form of the “true art” that Jane Austen described, expressing “on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth”. More often than not, it was the things I couldn’t say out loud to everyone else in my life. I am always more witty and considered on paper and that’s because of the time spent refining, a skill I don’t have when I’m speaking.

I own a beautiful Folio Society edition of Jane Austen’s Letters and reading through it, which is where I found the above quote, what struck me most were the things she didn’t say, not the things she did. Many of Jane’s letters were destroyed and the collection is of only those that remain. The letters that were destroyed perhaps painted a picture that her friends and relatives didn’t want to be public, the real Jane Austen, someone with a quick wit and a sharp tongue but also someone with very strong views that weren’t commonplace at the time. Her family and her estate felt they had to protect her image.

The letters between Jess and me paint a very distinct picture of a period in my life but before my death I think I will probably destroy most, if not all of them. Because they don’t reflect how I feel now and I would hate to think of them as a legacy I would leave. I would hate to think of people reading them and passing judgement on me or my parents (who I have a terrific relationship with now) or the minutiae of my pre-moving-out-of-home life.

I’ve said before that I don’t ever want to write an autobiography and reading those letters after all these years confirmed it for me. Instead, I’d rather be remembered – if I’m remembered at all – for my public volumes of writing.

And to Jessica Spurgeon, formerly of Anchorage and last known address somewhere in California, I hope your life turned out alright because despite all that complaining, mine did. I hope you’re still writing and that you’re happy. And maybe, one day, we’ll stumble across each other on a social media platform like we did all those years ago and resume some form of correspondence.

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