The Dying Art of Letter Writing; for Some, Though, Pen and Paper Not Part of Past

Article excerpt

Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY

My dearest reader -

Did you ever wonder what happened to those things you used to write and receive in the mail, those things called letters? Well, you wouldn't be wondering if you were friends with Jacksonville's Ruth Tippen.

Tippen's friends and families don't get e-mails or texts from her. Instead, she keeps in touch the old-fashioned way - through hand-written letters and cards.

"I write to my family, and I write to friends because when people receive a letter, they get a warm and fuzzy feeling," Tippen said. "It makes them feel like somebody has taken the time to sit down and think about them and share what's going on in their life."

Even so, Tippen said, she knows she's part of an ever-dwindling minority of people who cultivate what she describes as the dying art of letter writing.

That knowledge, she said, is tinged with sadness.

"I remember thinking how sorry I felt that so many young people are not able to experience the joy of receiving a letter," she said. "There's a generation that has no experience at all with letters, even to compose a letter."

Literacy and writing experts point to the declining use of first-class mail and rising usage of social media as proof.

"The art of actually sending a card ... or a paper letter in the mail is declining," said Sharon Washington, executive director of the National Writing Project, a California-based group that seeks to help educators improve students' written communication. "We see this in the post office and its request not to deliver on Saturdays, which is an indication there's less volume going through the mail."

While that style of writing continues in some blogs, listserves and e-mails, Washington said, what's disappearing is the occasion that was generated by the practice of letter writing and reading: a writer sitting down in quiet reflection being met by the contemplative reading of a letter's recipient.

Diminishing is "that opportunity to write something deep and send it off to a reader who understands and appreciates what we have done in 'baring our soul,' " she said.

Figures provided by the U.S. Postal Service show that the pieces of mail being sent by Americans have dropped steadily since 2000, from 208 billion that year to 177 billion in 2009. A spokeswoman said the figure includes personal letters but also other kinds of mail, including bills. The service doesn't keep statistics on letters alone, she said.

As a result of declining revenues the past decade, she said, the service requested March 30 to go to a five-day-a-week delivery schedule. The Postal Regulatory Commission is expected to issue an opinion in October. Congress would have to approve the change.

'MISSING THAT CONNECTION'

While one generation has never written or received letters at all, another has given up on them. They are the middle-aged, who grew up with letters but abandoned the practice in the '80s and '90s as the demands of professional and family lives increased, later embracing e-mail, texting and social media as the easy, preferred way of keeping in touch.

Holly Swantek is one of them.

Swantek is 45 and says the last time she sent or received letters on a regular basis was when she was in college in the 1980s. After that, her career and family kept her too busy to sit down to write the important people in her life.

Swantek, who works in public relations, recalls the excitement of getting letters, but said with five siblings and her mother, plus friends, it's simply much easier to stay connected online.

"We are all keeping in touch now on Facebook," she said. "To me I think Facebook speaks to the fact that people miss a connection - they're kind of yearning for that."

KEEPING AT IT

Some people are still sending those letters, though, even if they don't receive such hand-written correspondence. …