The Lost Art of Letter Writing

by Tammy Strobel on December 27, 2010

Great Aunt Mamie

When was the last time you wrote a letter to a loved one or friend?

I haven’t written a traditional letter in years. I started thinking about this over Christmas break because I was going through old letters from my Great Aunt Mamie. Normally I’m not so sentimental about things like old letters. But I have to admit, I was happy to find them hidden in my old closet.

When I started reading the letters, I got teary eyed because I miss my Aunt tremendously. As I was reading, I started thinking about her non-conformist ways. My Aunt was a lot like my Grandparents; she lived a very frugal and simple life. In addition, she never married, had children, or owned a car. She loved to travel and took the bus and walked everywhere.

As a result, she was able to take long trips across the country and always wrote friends and family detailed letters about her adventures. For a woman who came of age during the Great Depression, these choices were unusual. According to her family and her peers, she was “supposed” to get married and have kids, not travel across the country or live in a large city.

Through her letters she taught me about success, love, and unconventional living. I needed to hear my Aunt’s words, especially when I was a little girl and teenager.

A Little Background…

My parents split-up when I was five and soon after the divorce my mom decided to move to Red Bluff, CA. Over Christmas, I asked my mom why she moved to such a little town and she said:

“I didn’t want to raise you in a big city and Red Bluff was affordable. So it really had to do with the safety factor of bringing up a kid as a single parent. I just didn’t want to see you coming home from school alone.”

Mom and I were sad to leave the city because we were leaving behind my Aunt and other family members. I saw my Great Aunt every weekend and talked to her on the phone everyday after school. Knowing that I wouldn’t see her all the time made me incredibly sad.

And that’s where the beauty of letter writing came in. My Aunt Mamie started sending me weekly letters. After school, I looked forward to checking the mail box. It was part of my weekly routine and it was a magical experience.

I wasn’t that good about writing back and I regret not telling my Aunt how much I appreciated her thoughtful letters. When I spoke to her on the phone, I always told her how much I loved her. I thought she would be around forever. I guess that’s a sign of youth; thinking that things will always be the same and they won’t. Life is constantly changing, so it’s important to be grateful for what you have in the here and now.

Prior to downsizing, I didn’t think much about my past. I was too busy worrying about paying my bills to reflect on past lessons and experiences. Slowing down has given me the time and space to reflect on life and show gratitude to those you really care about.

Start Writing…

Traditional letters tend to be more thoughtful and original than email correspondence and twitter updates. Email, Facebook, and Twitter and are great ways to send quick updates to people. But getting a letter in the mail is almost like having a good friend stop by my house for coffee.

As I was reading through my Aunt’s old letters I noticed that she didn’t use fancy stationary and her notes always came along with a story from the newspaper, a recipe or a photo. All you need to get started is regular paper, a few envelopes, a pen, stamps, and you’ll be good to go.

Letter writing is a lost art and we should bring it back into style. It’s one way to show gratitude and love in a very busy world.

***

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1 Sam December 27, 2010

I just recently started writing letters to my loved ones. I’ve found that physically putting pent to paper is a much more intimate writing experience than typing out an email. I’ve said things in letters that I’ve been afraid to say anywhere else.

2 Tammy December 27, 2010

@Sam — So true! One of my goals for the new year is to start writing letters to loved ones and friends. Hope you had a great Christmas! :)

3 Andrea DeBell - britetalk December 27, 2010

Hi! I love writing letters. And you’re right it’s becoming a lost letter. There is this whole controversy though that email and electronic cards save trees as opposed to mailing actual letters and cards. Even though I see this point, I like to get cards and letters in the mail so I try to do the same for others when I can. Loving blessings!

4 Ayngelina December 27, 2010

Since I moved away from home ten years ago my grandmother and I have always exchanged letters. She receives such little mail now that many of her friends and relatives have died and really loves both getting them and sending them. Even though I’m 33 she puts glitter stickers on the envelope and inside the card.

We rarely say much, usually small talk and wishing each other well but I love receiving them every few weeks.

5 Tara December 27, 2010

Tammy,
hello…I just started following your blog after seeing your article in the Times. My mom actually works with your mom at C21 in RB. Small world! Letters really are a thing of the past–I think people sometimes forget how special it is to receive one. Great article!

6 Tammy December 27, 2010

@Tara – WOW! It is a small world. :)

Thanks for leaving a comment. So glad you enjoyed the article. :)

7 Meggan Carrigg Davidson December 27, 2010

Thank you for this post!!

8 Eric December 27, 2010

Hi Tammy I have just two things to say 1.) I absolutely agree with you on personal “physical” letters and 2.) The depth you display on your posts is amazing and one I try to emulate. Oh and 3.) You rock for keeping the comments- I feel you have a real connection with your peeps and I don’t want you to lose that ever! So actually that was three things- oh well I’ll enroll in a math class when I’m done here!

My wife and I still get coupons, photos, etc. from her 90 yo grandmother in Kansas. Each has a quick note and my name is always misspelled, but I don’t care, it’s the fact she took the time to put it together and send it via the “mail”.

The more technology advances the more I long for the days of slower communication.

Hope you had a great Christmas!

Eric

9 Tammy December 27, 2010

@Eric – WOW! Thank you so much for the kind words. I sincerely appreciate it. :)

I love the remark about your Grandma. So funny, but so cute. I still have a stack of my Aunt’s letters to read, but I noticed as the years went by her spelling got worse. :) And she started misspelling my name too. As a kid, I never noticed that detail. I was too excited to read what she had to say. :)

Hope you had a great holiday! :)

10 Carole & Chewy December 27, 2010

i haven’t written a letter in years either, but being the family genealogist means I have boxes of relatives letters dating to way back when. My favoirte are my grandmothers -she was form the Appalachian Mountains, and wrote like she talked -so I have her letters in a notebook, with a “translation” printed on the facing page, for those later down theline who might not understand what a “fur piece on down the way” means. But when I read them, I hear her voice. Priceless.

11 beowuff December 27, 2010

When I post on my blog, I often think of it as writing letters to my family and friends. It is a bit different, because I’m not writing to a specific person, but I find creating a post for my blog to be a much closer experience to writing letters then posting on facebook or twitter. Of course, this is my personal blog not a commercial one.

I think the reason I don’t write letters are two fold. One, anyone I would take the time to write to reads my blog. And two, I talk to the same people often on the phone where we discuss the things I want to talk to them specifically about. There’s really not much left over to write about.

I do occasionally write long emails to specific people about things. To me, sending email would be the equivalent of you sending a letter. The email is much better for me, though. When I write by hand, a lot of people can’t read my writing. I also type much faster then I generally write. This may be a difference in how people grow up as well. I never received many letters, so to me they are no better or worse then a well crafted email.

I think what might be a nice thing for you to do would be to gather those letters from your Aunt (including letters other people received?) and put them in a book. It’s not nearly as expensive anymore to do a small print run for yourself and maybe your family. It could end up being a nice family keep sake to pass on for several generations. Of course, that could also contribute to clutter. So maybe that’s not such a good idea :)

12 Jennifer December 27, 2010

I love writing letters. Why?
Because when I get a letter, it instantly makes my day better!
When I put a letter in the mail, I think about the smile on my friend’s face.

13 Bliss December 27, 2010

Very interesting that this is what you blogged about today as I just sat down for a break from decluttering my boxes of cards, letters, mementos, etc–totally overwhelmed by what to keep and what to toss. There are letters from my Grandmother, who died a few years ago, that I don’t want to part with. I also have correspondences from two dear friends that goes back for years and years–our friendships and histories penned into lovely letters. I have two “reference” books out that I keep referring to so that I am not hanging on to “stuff” just for the sake of memories. Any tips on how a wannabe minimalist can be balanced in this venture? I am going to be blogging about it as I go but love to have some quotable advice to pass along. (So far my strategy is: keeping anniversary cards from immediate family and letters from parents, gma, and BFFs–all else is getting tossed). Wish me well…this is really hard for me to do.

14 Tracey December 27, 2010

Hi Tammy,

I really enjoy your blog and often feel inspired by it to make changes in my own life. But one thing that I often wondered about was family history and treasures in a minimalist lifestyle. Obviously there is a difference between clutter/consumerism and treasures/history, and no one is forcing me to throw out anything I don’t want to, but I wonder if it is possible to lose connections to our pasts in our quests to live simply. I fear that the significance of some items might not be fully appreciated and discarded in the name of simplicity at one stage of life, that might have been treasured at another (later) stage, or that the wonderful experience of rediscovering family treasures hidden in a closet or an attic might be forever lost. Just something on my mind, how to find the balance between honouring our pasts and creating a simple life to carry my family into the future.

15 Tammy December 27, 2010

@Tracey and Bliss – thanks for your comments. :) It is hard to part with sentimental items. I’ve struggled with the same problems. I wrote a post about this topic for AOL earlier this year, called Letting go of Sentimental Objects. Maybe you’ll find it helpful?

16 Jo@simplybeingmum December 28, 2010

I’ll be checking this post out. I have made major changes in my life over the last two years, but my biggest issue is sentimental clutter. I have decluttered to the point now that I can see the benefits (not just stuff, but commitments, life in general). It’s time to address the years of cinema stubs, receipts, photos etc that I have been hoarding and hiding.

17 Logan December 27, 2010

Wonderful photo of your letters! :)

18 MJ December 27, 2010

I have a couple of friends who do not email and insist I write them letters or phone if I want to communicate with them. On the one hand, it’s a pain, since I’ve been using the computer so many years. But on the other hand, letter writing IS a lost art…I often think about the future generations..”Let’s go in the attic and look on Grandma’s computer for old letters…and photos. Ooops, hard drive is wanked, oh well.” And that will be that. Stories never heard or told again, no undiscovered treasures bound up in silk ribbons, just…bits and bytes. So I appreciate the fact of letter writing, even though it truly IS a literal pain due to arthritis in my hands (yikes, that’s the first time I’ve ever typed that). So even if I type my letters and print them out, at least it is a tangible thing…good post!

19 Diane December 27, 2010

I actually find it painful and difficult, after so many years of typing, to actually hold a pen and try to write an entire letter. My writing muscles aren’t in any kind of shape. I think old letters from relatives are amazing things to save. A friend told me she recently visited a cousin who had saved every letter the friend ever wrote to her. They passed a pleasant evening re-reading the letters, which sparked all kinds of memories.

20 nancyw December 27, 2010

One year I made a new year’s resolution to write a letter a week for the whole year. I stuck to it almost the whole time. It was awesome. Not only did it feel like journaling, but I reconnected with a lot of old friends and family members. And best of all people wrote back! I loved getting the mail.

21 Lisa Fine December 27, 2010

I rarely write letters anymore, though I used to communicate with many friends this way.

In a book I recently read, Radical Simplicity, the author, Jim Merkel, writes about the energy difference between writing an email and writing a letter. He looked into everything that goes into both actions, and in the end, letter writing uses up less energy than writing to someone online.

Another way to lessen our carbon footprints, and yet another good reason to write letters.

22 Tina December 27, 2010

Great post and glad to see someone paying attention to letter writing as you do here. I’m a big fan of the “art” and believe so much in its validity. One site I came across that’s keeping this alive is http://www.thingsunsaidproject.wordpress.com. I came across this last week. Fascinating stuff. I like how the creators insist on handwritten letters, which carry an artistry and sincerity not typically found in the days of the world wide web.

Keep up the good work!

23 Lisa December 27, 2010

I have a small group of penpals, and we exchange letters about once a month. I’ve been corresponding with some of them for about the last ten years; some for less time. The funny part of this whole thing is that we have bonded as friends though we’ve never met in person or even by phone. The original link we shared was that we were all Al Anon members. We voluntarily submitted our addresses to their head quarters in order to be put in touch with other willing letter writers. I think old fashioned letter writing reveals more of the true person than other forms of communication do and would encourage others to give it a try.

24 Kimmoy December 27, 2010

You know Tammy, I’ve thought about doing this for years especially since both sides of my fam are not too big on affection. This would be a great way to try to kick things up a notch. Years ago, I wrote a monthly family newsletter on the computer, printed it out then mailed it out everyone. It was a hit, but eventually it became a chore instead of a fun thing to do.

Maybe in addition to flossing daily I’ll create a new habit of writing physical letters to loved ones in 2011 (in a more sustainable way)

I agree with Logan, nice photo and I too am happy comments are back!

25 Virginia "Ginn" December 27, 2010

In case you missed this lovely article on NPR:
http://www.npr.org/2010/12/26/132263637/perfect-thank-you-notes-heartfelt-and-handwritten

It seems apropos! 8-)

Life is good…if youpay attention!

“Ginn”

26 Gena S. December 27, 2010

Tammy,

Mahalo for the timely post on the nearly lost art of letter writing. I too was a “latch key” kid before that term was popular. Sometimes in a city, sometimes in a smaller community where ever opportunity for a single mother with (3!) kids could be found. It was because of one of our moves that I discovered letter writing in the first place. I was bummed over yet another move for a job or to be near one family member or another when a teacher started a penpal project. I wasn’t in that school long enough to fully participate, but letter writing suddenly offered connection to old friends, grandparents, cousins and even an aunt or two. From that point on I kept in pretty close contact with several friends and relatives no matter where I lived. Letter writing kept them up to date on our lives and particularly cemented one of my cousins and I into a relationship that is closer today than I enjoy with my siblings. Thanks for the good memories your heartfelt post brought back; I’m sure your Aunt Mamie cherished your correspondence. I hope you have a simply peace filled wrap up to a great year!

27 Gena S. December 27, 2010

P.S.
Now that we simplified our lives and moved to the South Pacific this year, our letter envelopes will have slightly more exotic post office cancelation stamps than before :) This next year I’m targeting to start the next generation of my family off on letter writing by sending my own niece and nephews letters from halfway round the world. Sweet!

Mahalo again!

28 Claudia December 27, 2010

Such a nice post! Writing letters is sooo much fun!
oh, I love snail mail! Because its the only way to communicate with my best friend, she owns no telephone and no cellphone so it’s some kind of a ritual writing about each others life. We wrote about everything, sometimes with very fancy stationary, other times with plain paper. And our “short message” is a postcard.
I don’t keep all of her letters, just the most beautiful letters with deep, encouraging words and the letters with stories of her newborn, because I’ll make a book of them for his 18th birthday
:D
greetings from germany,
claudia

29 Niki December 27, 2010

My wife has been writing letters since before I met her. She has boxes of letters from pen pals that she has been writing since high school. In the years we have been together I find myself getting as excited about the letters she receives as much as she does. We have made friends with people we have never actually talked to or even met, yet we all know each other so intimately just by sharing our daily life in the letters.
In college my roommate and I exchanged letters with other friends in dorm rooms who didn’t receive mail. This random exchange continued as I was in the military and stationed overseas. Though it was easier to send an email or talk on the phone, getting a surprise letter with a fun handmade game or special art work, was always guaranteed to brighten my day. There are many sites in which you can use write people if you want to write a random person. My wife uses penpalsnow.com and I know there are various organizations you can go through to write military stationed here and overseas. Though many think letters are a dying art, in the military, it really was a blessing. I also know that many of my wife’s pen pals love hearing about how we live in the US since most of them have never visited or are planning visits and want to know what to expect.

30 Jo@simplybeingmum December 28, 2010

Tammy, how strange, I Have drafted a similar post about my Grandma who died last month. She too led a simple life, no car, etc… I probably will publish it, but wrote it the day after she died and found it difficult to go “public”! My gran was a minimalist through necessity rather than choice and had a made a major life change by catching 3 planes and landing in LA from England in the 60′s. Her only method of communication back home was telegrams and ofcourse letter writing. I keep too much sentimental clutter (its something I am addressing this month) and am cutting back, but since dying we have found things my gran wrote that have given us a huge insight into her most personal thoughts and battles. Just yesterday we found a newspaper cutting she had stuck to the back of a photo – she had written to an ‘agony aunt’ and received a published reply. I know a simple life means living in the moment and not keeping a lot of this stuff for generations to come – but what we have uncovered has been priceless and I am so glad she wrote her thoughts down.

31 Cristhyano December 28, 2010

Nice post. Greetings from Brazil =)

32 Charlotte December 28, 2010

How bizarre that the day this article is posted I receive a letter from a friend IN THE MAILBOX outside my house! It made my day because she included a little cartoon cut out from the newspaper. Maybe this will be my New Year’s resolution. I’ve been looking for one.

33 Vickie December 28, 2010

Hi Tammy, my first love has recently been posted to Afghanistan with the RAF & so we’ve stepped back to writing letters, the way we did when we were first in each others’ lives 15 years ago. It’s so refreshing to become reacquainted with his familiar handwriting and see a blue envelope pop out of our post box. And it’s so great to know we’re not the only ones continuing to discover our way in the world together while so far apart.

Peace in 2011.
Vickie.

34 Diana December 28, 2010

What a beautiful story. Your Aunt Mamie was obviously a treasure and an inspiration in many ways. I think I may write a letter to my great-aunt today.

35 Laura December 28, 2010

I totally agree. I enjoy sending encouragement cards to friends and family throughout the year. There is nothing like getting a letter in the mail with your name on it. The anticipation, excitement, it makes me feel like a kid again.

36 Marnie December 28, 2010

Love the photo of your letters!

Ideally, I think writing hand-written letters are a great idea and show our loved ones just how special they are to us.

However, one thing I’ve learned lately is to not pressure myself into putting another “should” on my “To-Do” list. (i.e. I should write someone a letter).

In the process of simplifying I hope to find more opportunities to do these types of things – out of inspiration, not obligation.

Thanks for a great post!

37 rob December 28, 2010

Ah… but the difference between then and now is that then everyone knew how to write. As someone who is 20 years older than Tammy, I can guarantee that I haven’t “written” with that run-together script in at least 35 years, and my residual abilities to print are only semi-legible. I suppose that “writing letters” could mean typing them, printing them out and then mailing them – but I’m not sure that that even makes sense when you can e-mail the text. Even the idea of a clipping from a newspaper is a little quaint, as I haven’t looked at a paper newspaper in a decade at least.

I’ve also heard that kids today are not taught that funny run-together script any longer. They get basic printing and then learn to type. I would not be surprised if “handwriting” vanishes completely in the next 20 years…

None of which makes it impossible to send “letters” to people. It’s just that the letters are e-mail..

38 Bethany December 29, 2010

I love writing and receiving letters :)

39 chrsye December 30, 2010

I love to write letters, but I have gotten out of the habit of it. My Grandma and Aunts have always told me how much they appreciate getting my letters. It means a lot, especially to those who don’t use e-mail, or even know how to use a computer.

40 puerhan January 3, 2011

So nice, thanks for sharing.

41 Rik January 4, 2011

Hi Tammy,

Great post. The idea of writing letter again had crossed my mind a few months ago. Till now it never happed, but I did start out writing birthdaycards again.

I hated the fact that someone had put (once a year, or even less) all birthdays in a system (on the internet) and then never ever cares about them. While the card states something like “we thought about you and your birtday”…… Nice that I get a card, but if feels a bit unpersonal. I sometimes only put my name under a BD card, but the fact remains that I had to think about the fact that person had his/her BD, get a card and put the effort in to write and drop them of at a mailbox. It’s just more personal (my handwriting (although not always as nice), ink and a personal message) that the printed one.

Greetings (from the Netherlands),
Rik
(a.k.a. DutchMinimalist.tk)

42 Eric January 4, 2011

Hi Tammy:

I’m Eric, a married dad and fledgling minimalist from New Jersey, and I follow RK on Twitter and I enjoy your dispatches. I’m also an avid snail mail enthusiast, and I’d be honored to become one your 2011 snail mail correspondents, if you’re up for a new pen pal. Either way, thanks for sharing your minimalist journey with the world. Keep up the good work!

Eric

43 Chance Birdsall January 16, 2011

Thank you for sharing this, its beautiful and so touching ;-)
I too enjoy taking time out everyweek to hand write a couple letters to both family and friends. It’s Priceless….
Wishing you a Blessed & Happy New Year! Thanks again ;-)
Best Wishes, Chance

44 nell January 18, 2011

I completely agree! I remember years ago when I was 12 or 13, finding love letters that my grandparents sent to each other in the 40′s. They truly were in love and it was so wonderful to read the letters and see a side to them that perhaps most people never saw. It saddens me a little now that I’ll have no letters to show my children and their children. Everything is all email and I regret that I don’t even have the first email my husband sent me.

45 Matt January 21, 2011

This really brought back a lot of memories of my Grandma who always wrote us on a regular basis. It wasn’t too long ago that I discovered a bunch of cards and letters from her in an old box. Now that she is gone they hold much more meaning to me. I agree with you that writing letters on actual paper with an actual pen does impart more meaning. My wife and I work with Compassion International and sponsor a child in Indonesia and every month we write a letter and receive a letter back. It really lights up our day when we see that envelope in the mailbox.

46 Lada Toman February 28, 2011

Dear Tammy and all the others:)
I found this lovely place today and wanted to thank you Tammy for this theme, you have give the heart and your world into it and that is why I like to sit down and write a letter to my friends…I am with them while I`m finding words and feelings to share .I can see their faces, smiles, can hear their voice and feel their silent presence while I`m putting my world and everything what is happening in me and in front of me onto paper,to them.Every time when I put my pencil down after telling ( writing) everything what I felt and wanted to share, I feel like something new I found , realise and learn…many times that writing moves something in me and always comes some change( in therapeutical way) .I don`t know do the others here feel something similar but writing letters comes to me like writing my diary, but here I`m not writing to myself but someone very dear and close to heart.
And, all that comes to me like sitting in the chair and making sweater to someone precious…my prayers ,good thoughts ,all the loving feeling are in these lines which I`m puting into envelope and sending to my friends, hopeing that time will come when I`ll be “able”( because of that space distance) to look them in the eyes and tell them all that, what was writen.
There is something magical and special in writing letters and I hope for all of you that your words will be full of love, respect and kindness because there is wonderful fullness in the heart when we see and feel that someone has taken his time just for us, in this cause, to write us.

Salaam from Croatia, be blessed!

Ladislava

47 Tammy February 28, 2011

@Lada – Thanks for contributing to the discussion and for the kind words! :) Wishing you all the best. Keep writing those letters.

48 Bonnie April 7, 2011

Tammy,
I was so heartened to know there are still “old souls” like myself writing letters! I love taking the time to really put across my feelings for those I love without pop-ups & other distractions. Both my parents & my grandparents were letter writers & when I left home at 18 for the Army, mail call was the highlight of my day.
My family wrote so faithfully. I love to re-read the letters my Dad sent separately from my Mom & vice versa. It was touching how they each had their own news to share & used separate envelopes. They always included questions for me to write back and answer. The act of placing words in an envelope & sending them into the world with just a tiny stamp to assure arrival is a luxury to me. I will keep writing to those I love because it does my heart such marevelous good!

49 Lori June 30, 2011

Tammy,
I enjoyed reading your post and it helped me to remember what it was like to go to the mail box and see a letter. When I was in high school, the guy that I was dating lived fifty miles away in another town. We would write each other on Monday, get the letters on Tuesday and write our replies and mail them out on Wednesday. Then on Thursday get letters again. I anticipated going to the mail box on Tuesday and Thursday. I agree, I think we should write letters again and bring back this art.

50 Ron Ross August 12, 2011

Tammy: I’m in the process of writing a little book about how to write legacy letters. Your posting titled “The Lost Art of Letter Writing” might be something I would like to use in my book as a sidebar or special feature. Would you give me permission to reprint it? It will be a self-published book so the best I can offer you in a stipend will be your byline and a copy of the book when it is finished.

51 Tammy August 12, 2011

Sure! Feel free to use it. :) I’d love a copy when it’s done.

52 georgette crush November 14, 2011

thank you for the inspiration. I do believe that writing letters to my loved ones is exactly what I want to do.

brilliant!

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