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David Bouchier: A Few Well Chosen Words

Write Yourself A Letter

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The Holiday greeting cards are coming in, each one with a message of goodwill printed inside. They are a fine way of keeping in touch with friends and family, but not as heartwarming or as intimate as a proper letter. A letter is like a hug, but a greeting card is like a casual wave across a crowded room. An electronic card is more like a flash of headlights on a busy highway, signaling: "I know you're there, sorry I can't stop."

Some cards come with photocopied newsletters from acquaintances who always seem to be living a utopian existence with perfect children, cute pets, palatial homes, and dynamic careers. These are very annoying, as they are intended to be. You can even buy electronic family letters now, complete with pictures, sound and animation. But they rarely contain the kind of news you really want to hear: the scandals, the embarrassments and the domestic catastrophes that happen even in the best families.

From time to time a genuine letter turns up - a letter in an envelope, perhaps typed, or even written by hand on proper writing paper using a fountain pen. One day, not far in the future, somebody will write and mail the very last real letter of this kind, and it will be worth a fortune as an historical artifact.

Over the years I must have sent and received thousands of letters, and kept copies as a kind of informal diary. The two-way flow of correspondence ended abruptly in the 1990s. A letter suddenly seemed much too formal, and even an embarrassing form of communication. E-mail had arrived, and the effort of writing envelopes, going to the post office and buying stamps, and then walking all the way over to the mail slot, became too much to contemplate. I have to admit that, when it comes to cards and e-mails I'm as guilty as anyone else. I can send a hundred cards, but not write a hundred individual, personal letters in the second week of December. So we have gained a bit of extra shopping time, and a seductive convenience. We can write to anyone in the world without ever moving from in front of the computer. But we lost some important things too.

E-mails are just too short, and Tweets are even shorter. Real letters were counted in pages, they developed ideas and told stories, and some were of fine literary quality. At the very least a serious letter writer paid attention to style, spelling and grammar, which seldom seems to be the case with e-mails. Without long narrative letters there will be a big hole in our history. A lot of what we know about the past comes from letters, and biographies depend on them absolutely.

A letter is personal, and tangible, it comes from the sender's hand to yours with an envelope and a postmark saying where it came from, and a stamp that may be exotic. The paper may even be scented, if it's that kind of message. An e-mail might come from anywhere, like a whisper from a ghost, and never smells of anything.

There's an old song from the 1930s with the refrain: "I'm gonna sit write down and write myself a letter, and make believe it came from you." Maybe that's the answer. If you want to receive nice long letters, full of news and gossip and entertaining stories and profound reflections on the meaning of life, you will have to write them yourself, and send them to yourself, and hope that you have the courtesy to write back.

Copyright: David Bouchier