Monday, September 9, 2013

Does Anyone Write Letters Like Van Gogh Today? The Intimacy of Letter Writing.

People of a certain age used to write AND receive letters. In this newfangled age of text messages, emails and such, receiving a letter ranks right up there with viewing dinosaurs on the prairie; at least in the minds of anyone say under the age of about 40.

What brought this to mind was a letter, handwritten of course, to a friend that I was unable to see on a recent trip. It turns out that he came down a few weeks later and when we connected he had with him that letter. He was so surprised to receive an actual letter. I was surprised that he had it with him! It got me to thinking.

Even though he is in his 90's and knows how to write and receive email, it just seemed that I should write him. I know how wonderful it is to hold a letter in my hand and I was sure he would enjoy it too. An email, printed or not, has about as much intimacy as a dead frog. This is something youngsters have never understood. The more we are digitally connected, the more we seem to separate ourselves. To actually pen a letter is to expose yourself and your thoughts on the first go-round. No spell check, no is what you are thinking at that very moment. To receive such a letter gives a rare glimpse into anther persons thoughts and feelings. Its a rare moment of intimacy.

For artists, of course, the most memorable and very intimate letters regarding art and the mind of an artist, have to be those written by Vincent Van Gogh. To read the struggles, despair and rare moments of triumph in letters written to his brother Theo, is to witness at first hand the birth of an artist. In fact, it was those very letters, written in 1888 just helped a Norwegian man prove that a canvas he had, had stored in his attic when told it wasn't painted by Van Gogh, WAS in fact a Van Gogh, one that the master himself thought a failure and wrote about several times in his letters.

Writing an actual letter has, in fact, become such an archaic thought that the question of getting clip art on Google Images for a "person reading a letter" gets you just about everything but. Has the idea of letter writing already gone out the window?

I can remember how my mother would nag me and then my sister into writing thank you notes to people who gave us gifts. It was always a drudgery. Yet we did it because she checked. Then in high school, the year my father passed away, I started making Christmas Cards. I created them by hand over and over again and sent them to family and friends each one with a personalized note. I continued that in college as I was 2,000 miles from home. Then, when I was in the Peace Corps, I had plenty of time and created some interesting cards I wish I had today. I have done it ever since. 60 years now and counting.

When my kids were young it became our yearly Christmas post card of the kids usually taken a few weeks before December 25th. Back then we didn't run to Wal-mart or Costco for the cheap and meaningless prints because I had my own darkroom and each kid had a chore. I would print, my son would develop and my daughter, who could barely sit up at first did the fixer. It became a yearly ritual. The horrible photo taking session, the developing and finally the printing with the photo everyone agreed on. There were several years where the photos of the kids fighting as we were taking the photos would have been more revealing but we never used those. Too bad. THAT was what life was like then. Looking at them today, they are very funny.

We hear the post office bemoan the fact no one writes a letter anymore. I wonder. Could they create a campaign talking about the joy of writing letters? Have people speak about the pleasure it brings? Would it make any difference? To me, receiving a real letter ranks right up there with a real person answering the phone when you call a business. In the blink of an eye they get you where you need to go, no prompts, no #3, then #2 and the message that "we are experienceing an unusual increase in call volume. Please stay on the line, your business is very important to us," then minutes of terrible music that is too loud and not tuned in right. The increase in volume is more than one person calling and only one person answering.

The mail equivalent to that is email, tons of junk email that no matter what you do never seems to go away. Even here no one really writes a letter. Its a link, a few short lines, forwarding something that someone else sent them. As intimate, as I noted before, as a dead frog.

Doris Kearns Goodwin made a comment when we heard her speak about this very fact. Historians for thousands of years have mined letters and such to gleam facts and details about the people and events they write about. The fact that the Founding Fathers wrote to each other and others frequently has been a gold mine for historians writing about the founding the United States. She moaned that everyone was writing emails and that those intimate details in diaries and letters would never be written. However, I believe that she is wrong, In fact, just about every email ever written is saved somewhere on some server somewhere on the planet. Can you imagine the drivel you would have to go through to get anything interesting? It could be a gold mine though as people write what they think is private and deleted after they read it. Its not.

The next time you want to "drop a note" why not make it a real, hand written note? Remember the joy receiving a letter brings you. Bring some joy to a friend as well. If you are willing to take the time to write an email, write a note instead. It costs 45¢ but can you put a price on friendship?

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