The dying letter

I am still stinging with shame about a letter I just received. It came from one of my old high school teachers, a man with whom I have corresponded over the decades. Every Christmas, I’d send him a personal letter about my year, and every summer, I’d mail him an autographed copy of my newest book.

About six months ago, he wrote me a long, long letter sharing all the latest in his life. I set it on my desk, with every intention of replying. Because he doesn’t do email, I would have to actually write a letter and send it snail mail, so I delayed the task until I had a bit of time. The trouble was, time got away from me. I had to proof-read the galleys of my book, then I had to leave for China to bring my mother’s ashes to her hometown, then I went on book tour, followed by weeks of travel for various speaking engagements. In the meantime, that letter from my teacher got buried under other accumulating mail. I never did write him back.

A few days ago, after returning from my latest trip, I found a new letter from him in the bin of mail that the US Postal Service had held for me in my absence. He was hurt and upset that I had not answered his earlier letter. He asked if our friendship was dead. He assumed it must be, because I hadn’t responded, nor had I sent him my latest book. I immediately mailed him a book and a card of apology, but I’m still having sleepless nights about it. And I’m mulling over why, exactly, I didn’t write back sooner.

My crazy schedule is one reason. But a bigger reason, I think, is how much I’ve come to rely on email as a primary mode of correspondence, a convenience that’s so quick and immediate that it makes old-fashioned letter writing seem like a burden. Every morning, when I sit down to catch up on messages, I answer my email first. As tasks go, it’s the low-hanging fruit, something you can speedily accomplish. Letter writing? That feels like a far more ponderous task, so I put it off. And I put it off.

And before I know it, weeks and then months have gone by, and unanswered letters are still lying on my desk.

I, and people like me, are responsible for the impending death of the snail-mail letter. In this era of “Faster! Faster!”, we feel the urgency of accomplishing everything at top efficiency. We feel too harried to actually write with pen and paper, address the envelope, affix a stamp, and bring it to the post office.

And that’s a shame. Because years from now, all our emails, all those quickly dashed bits of information rendered to the electronic ether, won’t be around to enlighten our descendants. The death of the handwritten letter means that we, too — our thoughts, our memories, the way we press pen to paper — will vanish forever when we’re gone.

19 replies
  1. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    E-mail can be edited, sent instantly, printed out for posterity, and copied to digital files. Nothing need be lost unless disposed of as someone usually does with a handwritten letter. Your teacher friend has treasured your acquaintance over the years, yet he shuns the ease of sharing correspondence regularly with you through our digital electronic world. This may seem harsh, but developing guilt trips because others refuse to move into a more brightly illuminated world seems pointless. You might want to point this out to him in a well formed, long hand written letter. Explain to him, as an author, you feel it counterproductive to preserve an archaic world of poorly written and unedited communiques. 🙂

  2. monet001
    monet001 says:

    I know just what you mean. Writing a letter seems a burden to the most of us. I don’t write much letters any more, but send a postcard sometimes and write a short message.
    When I have done so, I feel a lot better, for reacting this way.

  3. cactusneedle
    cactusneedle says:

    I agree – handwritten letters are very special. My mother, who passed this last February at age 92 kept every card and letter she ever received. I have had a wonderful time going thru all this old correspondence from family and friends. She even had letters written by my great-grandfather to my grandmother. While some of what BernardL says is true – you can save emails – they are not the same as hand-written letters. Holding something in your hands that someone dear to you held in their hands, and took the time to write down their thoughts in their own handwriting cannot be replaced with an electronic missive. My teenage granddaughter wants to have a “snail-mail” correspondence with me. I even went out and bought stationery. Have I responded to her first letters? Shame on me for having to answer no. Who hasn’t thrilled to the sight of a hand-written letter in the mailbox? Just not the same as an email in your inbox.

  4. Rose-Marie
    Rose-Marie says:

    I have to disagree with BernardL. The idea that snail mail letters were somehow “poorly written” and “unedited” is absurd. Sure it’s easier to write and rewrite these days, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t done before. I used to write a first-draft letter on notebook paper, edit it, then write the more polished version on stationary by hand or typewriter. I doubt I was alone in this. The implication that e-mails are well-written and regularly edited seems a rash assumption. Most e-mails I get appear to be dashed off with little thought, and often without something as basic as spell checking.

    The ease with which we can correspond may generate more volume, but I think it’s has very little effect on quality, except that quality may be suffering a bit.

    Tess, I’ll bet he was happy to get the book and card, because the relationship means more to him than the actual letters involved. But I bet he’d be happy to get a letter too. 😉

  5. PackingPadre
    PackingPadre says:


    I can’t remember the last time I received a snail-mail letter from someone, or that I wrote one. Virtually everyone I know has email at home or at work.

    Sadly, my mother threw out correspondence dating back to the 1930s, some of which had historical significance. So even handwritten letters did not always survive.

    I hope your high school teacher forgives you. I can understand his feelings, especially where you had established a routine and failed to follow it. I am not criticising you as I am aware of your schedule, but you obviously mean something to him, as you do to me. Your kindness does not go unnoticed.


  6. Bailey James
    Bailey James says:

    The relationship will survive this. Being Southern, I have personalized cards and envelopes. The cards’ size limits how much I write, and my assistant takes care of the addressing of the envelope and such.
    A hand-written note is so unusual these days, it will make the day of receipt special on its own.

  7. basykes
    basykes says:

    I must respectfully disagree with BernardL. There is much more to “learning e-mail” than simply learning e-mail for older folks who are fearful or suspicious of computers or who just don’t want to be bothered to learn how to use one. It shows no disrespect for YOU, merely a reminder that he prefers the old fashioned letter writing.

    I am happy that there seems to be a reawakening of the art of letter writing. I personally prefer the instant gratification of e-mail, but recognize that there are those who prefer a written (in my case that would be a TYPED letter) in an envelope.

    I hope that you have eased your guilt by now and that you both continue to enjoy your lengthy mutual friendship, which is a rarity in itself.

  8. Andrea Baxter
    Andrea Baxter says:

    Electronic communication is convenient at a huge price. Not only is the language being lost, but there’s no thoughtfulness behind words — no depth of feeling. I love words; reading them and writing them. An entire generation now thinks phonetic and numeric substitutions should replace them. To hell with nuance. We can end sentences with combinations of punctuation marks that illustrate our moods and intentions. Poor Shakespeare, having to write pages of dialogue to convey what a high school kid can communicate in a single tweet.

    I’ll admit I rarely write letters and dread doing so. Email and Facebook messages are just too convenient. But when I do sit down with pen and paper and an unavoidable reason to write a letter, I’m amazed at how intimate it feels. And when I seal and stamp the envelope, there’s a sense of relief that the recipient will know how important he/she is to me. That’s a far cry from shooting random observations through cyberspace.

    I’m sure your teacher will forgive you, especially if he hears the episode affected you enough to become a blog topic. How cool are you for corresponding with your former teacher in the first place?! I wouldn’t be surprised if some of mine changed their names to avoid future contact with me…

  9. vdfn.90543
    vdfn.90543 says:

    Sheer Look Resolves the Course of the Islands. Course Act of Gerritsen is Anthropology Medicine China St Luke and St Francisco. Darwin had the Beagle of St Christopher. now, how is the Course Act of the Teacher of Gerritsen? How are the Letters? Ignatius any more?

  10. vdfn.90543
    vdfn.90543 says:

    yes, Bruce Mcgill is the Lightmotive here in these comments. and Darwin was on board of Beagle, there were Shoulds and Shouldnts and Shoulders on Board of the Ship. St Christopher is One of Doughheads. We might consider Crow Bread and Cave with Letters of St Paul but here Bikes and Horses are due in Boston. could Gerritsen visit the Teacher other than Typewriting, either in the Office or in the Bourrough. thanks for Rissoli & Isles.

  11. vdfn.90543
    vdfn.90543 says:

    in the Building of Boston Police Department i had met a Dyson Circle Ve Airpusher the one i have here in my house. so, Reconnection Book of Eric Pearl in the House of Sasha Alexander would such much surprise me.

  12. vdfn.90543
    vdfn.90543 says:

    it is three degrees warmer than Absolute Zero in the Universe and last month in Munich, Ulricht passed the gateway.

    there is superconductivity. planets are weightless. Avatar-Google shall freighten the Asteroid BElt and build the highway. Industrial Age of Coal Water and Iron has rendered the project. King of China has scheduled the other 28 days. Jose Sixto PAz Wells visited the Guest of Jupiter from Asteroid BElt. NASA is practising in CAves for the Folks in the Houses in the Underground Cities beyond Asteroid BElt and searching for other pieces of Asteroid BElt and the conditioned Absolute Zero Civilizations.

    and there is communication amongst folks. Gerritsen might be transliterated as “gear to ride sane and in sanity”. Ulricht has conditioned the environment, with constant magnetic field and light.

    in Afghanistan there is lithium, either from the Starness of EArth or from one another Star. Afghanistan is the Starness on the Shoulder of St Christopher on Board of the EArth Ship. and there is iron in the EArth, there is magnetic field and light around.

    so, what shall Tess GErritsen pass to the folks in the following episodes? conditioned energy? sentimentality? how to weave the magnetic field of human body?

  13. vdfn.90543
    vdfn.90543 says:

    Pyramid in Bosna is one year old, according to Solar CAlendar. it is based on GEometry. Semir is Spider Woman, Mountains, TAlented PErson. Thessaloniki is the first center after Benjamin Franklin’s Key.

    Pyramids in South America were freightening goods to Hittitians. there are Pyramids in MEmphis and Egypt. so, there must be at least on Pyramid in the Land of Hittitians. Lithium is the fuel, for human body and for space shuttles. Hittitians were relatives to Indians. Hittitians were FAmilies and Justice. Sanskrit is essential in Programming LAnguages. Differential Equations is essential in LAnguages.

    so, what shall Tess GErritsen pass to the folks in the following episodes? shall there be Pipelines to Boston from Vostok LAke? Greenwitch Timelines? References to 40th Latitude, FAtima Algeria San Francisco TAklamakan? References to Moscow Longtitude? KAhuna Healing? Ho’oponopono? Desert Dust? Space Dust in Boston?

  14. vdfn.90543
    vdfn.90543 says:

    Indian JAils, Absolute Zero and Ulricht in Municht. Police of ISrael, Abraham of India, Cube of Abraham, Green Stones from another Civilization under the Cube of Abraham in Arabia, the civilization that has brought Trees to EArth, the Arabian PEninsula that is the center of Golden Ratio, the Cube and the Kite of Benjamin Franklin and Geometry. Umbra Activation and Yin of Yin YAng, and St Christopher.

    Nietzsche in GErmany and OSHO in India, both are fully charged with with St Augustine in Algeria, St Augustine that Pope has passed the river with.

    what shall Tess GErritsen pass to the folks in the following episodes? references to Mother Teresa?

  15. vdfn.90543
    vdfn.90543 says:

    Serbian Armenian Anatolian St PAnteleimon? 14 Holy HElpers? references to St Anthony and St Paul? FEng Shui? Reflexology? WAtsu? Hyperborea? references to Italian Lina Esposito’s EMF Book? Signtologics?

    Channelings (“verbalisation”, in Dutch)? Indonesian Sailors and Eagle JAguar MEn? why is TEss Gerritsen as thin as Keeper of KEeper of Time Steve Rother?

  16. vdfn.90543
    vdfn.90543 says:

    shall there be references to MArk Twain and Michael Crichton, maybe with Tina FEy? so, TEss GErritsen wants to see the handwritings, and to feel the amount of pressure of the pen on the paper, right? what about Metathrone Voice of MAster and Nikola Tesla? shall there be references to Umbra PEn and Brushes? shall TEss GErritsen show how to integrate Course Acts with differential equations? shall Sasha Alexander record the voice of the pen on the paper in the following episodes?

  17. vdfn.90543
    vdfn.90543 says:

    Archbishop of Anglican Church is now LEcturer at University of Mother MAry. what are Students of LEcturer busy with at nights? are Students of LEcturer dancing? having mentioned Holy HElpers, Dancing in England is not the same with DAncing in Brasil.

    so, shall TEss Gerritsen help to keep the journey safe and sane in the following episodes?

  18. vdfn.90543
    vdfn.90543 says:

    DYING is a person, such as Dove and RA SHEEBA, MAsculine and FEminine and Dove, Dove from Columba Constellation and Enoch that Noah had conversed with and Yin YAng, or Enoch in China, Avalokitesvara and Quan Yin. Koans are instruments, and Utricht University is in Holland. Vietnamese is essential in Computer Science and Differential Equations, but Molly HAhn is not Integrative yet.

  19. vdfn.90543
    vdfn.90543 says:

    now is live from Vatican on a “port of jesus” portuguese channel. later Rissoli & Isles on CNBC-e. Black Sea, Ionian Sea with 12 ISlands, Mediterranean Sea, Polished Boots of Doctor St Francisco, St Augustine of Sweet Salty WAters and Trees, and the Ocean. safe wood safe ark safe journey.

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