My letter writing practice goes all the way back to my childhood living on the east coast and going away to summer sleep away camps. In those days, there were no cell phones nor were we allowed to call home. The only way we were able to communicate with our family and friends were via letters. As I had a deep passion for writing at an early age, my mother knew to toss in pretty box of stationary into my big black trunk.
I am still drawn to nice boxes of stationary, but sadly they have accumulated in what I call my “stationary drawer,” because more often than not it’s easier to write and send an email then a longhand letter with an addressed envelope and stamp affixed. But, I am trying to bring the art of snail mail letter writing back into my life. There is just something so nice about receiving a note in the mail.
I was recently reminded about the importance of letters by the November 29th issue of The New York Times Book Review. It included a review of Kind Regards: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing, by Simon Garfield, a British journalist, which is a testament to the nostalgia of letter writing. Particularly compelling is the author’s reference to receiving emails as akin to receiving a poke, and receiving a letter akin to a caress. The book includes anecdotes of famous letters between writers, politicians, and philosophers. As the author of a new poetry collection (CW Books, 2014) called LUST, I was intrigued by his discussion of what he called lustful letters between sweethearts, often between writers or soldiers to their loved ones back home.
One of my most admired writers, Anais Nin, began her literary career by writing a letter to her father who had left the family for a younger woman when Nin was ten years old. Nin’s letter expressed her deep sadness at losing him. That letter paved the way for her life as an avid journal keeper and novelist.
Because of Nin, each year on the anniversary of both my grandmother’s and father’s deaths, I write them a letter. I used to store them in a box, but now after jotting in my journal I type them into a computer file. I share this passion with my students. One of my favorite writing assignments is to write a letter to a deceased loved one. The purpose is twofold: first, in many instances, a writer’s true voice comes forth in the letter form, and second, it gives a chance to say what might have been difficult to say in person. Whether the letter is actually mailed or not, the task can be considered a powerful healing exercise.
Some years ago another book was published in Great Britain called Letters of Note. The U.S. version will be released in May 2014. It is a collection of 125 of the most entertaining, inspiring and unusual letters, from Virginia Woolf’s suicide letter to Gandhi’s appeal for calm to Hitler, and Leonardo da Vinci’s job application. I learned about this book from a friend who sent me a link to the website which provides weekly posts of excerpted letters from the book. The link is www.lettersofnote.com.
To end, in honor of the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, here’s a letter from that book that he wrote to his father when he was ten years old. He was asking for an allowance raise. NOTE: The typos are meant to be here … that’s exactly how the note was written!
A Plea for a raise
by Jack Kennedy
Dedicated to my
Mr. J. P. Kennedy (father)
My recent allowance is 40¢. This I used for areoplanes and other playthings of childhood but now I am a scout and I put away my childish things. Before I would spend 20¢ of my ¢.40 allowance and in five minutes I would have empty pockets and nothing to gain and 20¢ to lose. When I a a scout I have to buy canteens, haversacks, blankets, searchlidgs, poncho things that will last for years and I can always use it while I can’t use a cholcalote marshmellow sunday with vanilla ice cream and so I put in my plea for a raise of thirty cents for me to buy scout things and pay my own way more around.
John Fitzgerald Francis Kennedy