The Power of the Letter and Society’s Great Communications Shift

I feel very fortunate to have experienced a major shift in written communications in my lifetime. I was at a ripe age (approx. 12 or 13) when e-mail (specifically AOL in my household) revolutionized The Letter, and I wasn’t much older when the widespread adoption of text messaging ran up our nation’s phone bills and turned our adolescent population into a nation of lazy zombies characterized by poor grammar and spelling.

Furthermore, I’m glad I entered the workforce after this sea change in digital and mobile communications stormed society and became widely accepted as The Norm. I can’t fathom how inefficient, expensive and cumbersome calling, sending hard copy mailings or faxing documents would be in the current business model. Even attaching documents is becoming antiquated as cloud-based computing grows in popularity providing instant and remote access to virtually all material.

But I wasn’t born yesterday. I was born in an analog era where cursive was incorporated into our elementary school curricula and our phones and modems were hardlined into the wall. I grew up with pen-pals to whom I initially began every letter as such:

Dear xxx,
How are you? I’m fine.

I grew up before e-vites and happily licked stamps or hand-delivered envelopes containing critical details to my long-awaited birthday parties. I collected stationary. I loved using Wite-Out. I loved writing letters.

I rarely receive letters anymore. I doubt any of us do. With the exception of the occasional card signifying a holiday or important life event, the contents of my mailbox usually consist of credit card statements, pre-approved credit cards and a smattering a coupons.

But letters possess a certain charm, don’t they? Letters convey a sense of nostalgia and an embedded sense of thoughtfulness. Considering the high-speed digital age that I described, taking the time to compose and post a letter is incredibly meaningful to the recipient. I do believe lengthy e-mails can possess a diluted version of this romantic effect – it worked for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. It also worked for a few long-distance couples I have the privilege of knowing.

I just wanted to share some heartbreaking letters I’ve come across that brightened my day. Innovative and curious little Lily Robinson, revolutionized the term “Tiger Bread” by simply asking a grocery store manager why the product was named as such. And what a kind response from the friendly manager! I adore this series of letters Flavorwire posted from authors directed to their adoring fans. The appreciative nature of little Jim is apparent in the Maurice Sendak case study. The friendship and love J.K. Rowling communicated to the brave young woman who lost her parents is poignant as it is beautiful.

Though we’ll never see this drawing and note from Maurice Sendak to a young fan, it must have been especially good:

“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, ‘Dear Jim: I loved your card.’ Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, ‘Jim loved your card so much he ate it.’ That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”

 From J.K. Rowling to 16-year-old Sacia Flowers, who had lost both her parents and wrote to Rowling about how much she identified with Harry:

19th September 2006

Dear Sacia (beautiful name, I’ve never heard it before),

Thank you for your incredible letter; incredible, because you do indeed sound phenomenally like Harry Potter, in your physical resemblance and in your life experience. I cannot tell you how moved I was by what you wrote, nor how sorry I am to hear about your parents. What a terrible loss.

I know what it is like to be picked on, as it happened to me, too, throughout my adolescence. I can only wish that you have the same experience that I did, and become happier and more secure the older you get. Being a teenager can be completely horrible, and many of the most successful people I know felt the same way. I think the problem is that adolescence, though often misrepresented as a time of rebellion and unconventionality, actually requires everybody to conform if they aspire to popularity – or at least to ‘rebel’ while wearing the ‘right’ clothes! You’re now standing on the threshold of a very different phase in your life, one where you are much more likely to find kindred spirits, and much less likely to be subject to the pressures of your teenage years.

It is an honour to me to know that somebody like you loves Harry as much as you do. Thank you very much for writing to me, I will treasure your letter (which entitles you to boast about this response as much as you like!)

With lots of love

JKRowling

(Jo to you!)

I personally love writing letters – the process is cathartic and healthy, but sadly, we don’t carve enough time out of our days to communicate to our loved ones in such an archaic way. I think I’ll make a personal goal to write more, or even to send more personal emails to my long-lost friends and family. From the examples I provided today, I think it’s apparent that letters are both personal and powerful.

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