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Connecting Through Correspondence

Text by: Jacque Crosswell Watene

Dear friends,

I thought I would write again. I write you many letters with pens that are not seen. Do you receive them?
-Emily Dickinson to Dr. and Mrs. J.G. Holland
We live in an age when many of the strict rules of etiquette that once governed our grandparents' lives are no longer recognized or accredited, and while there are many benefits to the modern freedoms of conduct we enjoy, some of the decorous obligations once held dear in generations past, such as letter writing, have sadly gone by the wayside. Correspondence through letter writing used to be the only means of communication that could close the chasm of distance between two people. Letters were once cherished and saved and read again and again until the ink began to fade and the paper began to yellow with age. Letters from the past are the chief source of information on introspection to history's events, both great and small. But despite our modern infatuation with instant gratification and technology and impersonal emails, the art of letter writing is making a comeback.

Just browse the paper aisle of any craft store, and you will see an abundance of writing materials attesting to the return of the paper and pen. One may even find one's self overwhelmed by the myriad of choices: recycled paper, linen paper, note cards, lined, blank, monogrammed, patterned, plain, fountain pens, calligraphy pens, inks of every color, old-fashioned feather plumes, wax seals and embossed stickers… it can be quite a heady experience if you don’t have an idea of what you are looking for ahead of time.

© Jessica Ceason Photography

While all these writing accessories can be lovely little supplements to your correspondence, they are by no means necessary to write a good letter. In fact, the only requirements for a genuine letter are your own sincerity, a pen, paper, envelope, and stamp. Your words should do the job of making the letter beautiful to read, not the frills and embellishments that anyone can purchase.

When writing a personal letter, let us take our cues from those people of the past whose correspondences have stood the test of time. It seems that a warm combination of sincerity and candidness, mixed gently at times with a touch of wit, are the key ingredients to cooking up an enchanting letter. Emily Dickinson demonstrates exactly this formula as she writes to an intimate:

It is cold tonight, but the thought of you so warm, that I sit by it as a fireside, and I am never cold anymore. I love to write to you—it gives my heart a holiday and sets the bells to ringing.

We feel we are truly there with Ms. Dickinson, on a cold winter's eve, warming ourselves by the fireside of her words. Jane Austen shares another invaluable element of genuine social correspondence in an excerpt from a letter written to her sister, Cassandra:

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.

When writing a personal letter, we should express ourselves as we would if the recipient were right there with us. Our words should draw them into the very moments we are writing of, so that they feel they are an important part of our lives, included in even the most ordinary portions of our daily round (as well as in the more exciting events).

Lord Chesterfield (whose letters to his son were so affectionate and wise in their composition that they became a famous manual in 18th century England, advising the moral and social education for young gentlemen) gives us the most astute advice for letter writing.

Write as you speak. Write as though you were seated in a room with me, talking in plain, simple language about the things you have seen and done and thought and experienced since you wrote me last.

Writing may seem like a daunting, intimidating task; we tend to judge ourselves too harshly when we are trying to be creative. But our dear ones will be so pleased just to receive something besides a bill in their mailbox that the last thing on their minds will be to criticize a letter's form. James Boswell expresses this idea in his correspondence to his friend Sir David Dalrymple.

When I sit down to write to you, I never think of making any apology, either of haste, or any other impediment whatever. I consider you as a friend, who will take me just as I am, good, bad, or indifferent.

There is something deeply calming and therapeutic about letter writing and receiving. There, on paper, we feel freer to express our innermost thoughts, devotion, joys, and even sorrows (though that particular emotion should be shared only in the most intimate of relationships) as we let our hand draw out in ink what our hearts usually keep quietly locked away. And there is something ever so satisfying about sealing a finished letter in an envelope, your personal writings contained within its thin paper armor, safeguarded until they reach your correspondent.

The content of good social correspondence is simple in its form. We begin the missive by addressing the person to whom we are writing, either by their given name, or if they are very close to us, by a special pet name, at the upper left-hand corner of our paper, followed by a comma. The date should be placed in the upper right-hand corner of the letter. In opening, we should remember to write as if speaking to the intended recipient, openly and earnestly. It may help your thoughts flow through your pen if you begin the salutations with the very thought that inspired you to write in the first place (I came across an old picture of us today—the one of us on Coney Island when we were twelve, and couldn‘t help but to giggle). Draw your friend into your surroundings and your thoughts by describing where you are sitting as you write (on the front porch, under the eaves, watching the cat bat at the falling leaves), what you might be listening to (the rain spattering sideways against the window, as if daring to ask for entrance) or smelling (the scent of warm cinnamon bread baking in the oven). Just as in spoken conversation, ask them how they are doing, how their family is, and any other specific queries you may wish to pose to gain information and spark a response.

In closing the missive, be sure to express your affection before you sign your name. Some great suggestions are, “As ever,” “Affectionately yours,” “Kindest regards,” “Ever your devoted friend,” “With love,” and “With great fondness

Aside from knowing how to express ourselves in letter form, which we have found is truly very simple (thanks to the advice and examples of Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, and Lord Chesterfield), the only real hindrance to the actual writing of the letter is in finding the time to do it. We are pulled in many different directions throughout our days, and sometimes it really is a challenge just to find a few moments to call our own. One would think that with so much technological help in our lives, we would be able to enjoy more free time. The wicked irony about all the technological advancements that were designed to free up our time (such as washing machines and dryers, refrigerators, microwaves, computers, etc.) is that we still never seem to have any extra time. In fact, there seems to be less and less down time as the days progress. However, if we can view letter writing not as a chore, but as a truly pleasurable pastime in which to connect with and articulate our appreciation for our cherished friendships, then we will not have to find the time.

The time will find us.

Rediscover the joy of connecting to a loved one through written correspondence. Make it a goal this week to write a letter to them expressing how they have made a signifigant impact on your life, and be sure to follow the tips above.