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The Unsung Joys of Writing Letters : There Are Special Revelations Only Captured on Paper

May 23, 1986|JOHN TAGG | Tagg is a San Marcos, Calif., free-lance writer and former speech and writing instructor at Cal State Northridge and UC Berkeley. and

A case could be made for the view that the greatest enemy of literacy and clear thinking that modern technology has produced is not the television but the telephone. A strong case, but not, ultimately, a persuasive one. The telephone, on balance, has facilitated economic growth and the development of complex networks of cooperation in society that would have been unimaginable without it. But Mr. Bell's invention has had one unequivocally baneful consequence: People have stopped writing letters.

Oh, I don't mean everybody has stopped. (I haven't stopped.) But if letter writing is not a lost art it is at least disoriented. Tell the truth now: when was the last time you wrote a real letter, one of more than a couple pages? Or has there been a first time yet? Are there not people out in the wide world to whom you could talk for hours on the telephone, but with whom you haven't communicated in years except for that annual cop-out, the Christmas card? Do you know what you're missing?

A Pleasure to Cherish

Of course it's a pleasure to hear a friend's voice, and you can't do that with a letter. But when you hang up the phone the voice is gone. A letter you can read over again next week, next month, next year. You can carry it around with you and take it out whenever it's convenient. You can answer it when you choose, a little bit at a time or all at once. A letter is not instant communication, either in the reading or the making. You can dwell on it, live with it a while, and experience it in the fullness of time rather than the haste of the moment. A good letter is a rich and wonderful thing. Why, then, is it so hard for many of us to write?

Time is just an excuse. I know people who spend hours on the telephone nattering over the merest trivia but "don't have time to write." The real reason, I suspect, why many of us find it so much easier to talk to our friends than to write to them has to do with the immediate feedback we get over the phone. I say something, or part of something; you respond. Thus I can adjust my conversation immediately in light of your reaction. But this is a mixed blessing, because you see only certain aspects, only fragments, of another person in conversation.

When I chat casually I see much that others have in common with me, little of the differences. We so easily project ourselves upon others, so eagerly seek common ground and confirmation of our own hopes and fears and likes and dislikes, that we often miss the special and different configurations of qualities that make other people other people. It may happen--it has happened to me--that when a person you have known well for years moves away you find that the person who emerges from his letters is a surprise and a revelation.

The challenge in writing a letter is that you must hold forth without interruption and without encouragement, without the safety net of immediate correction or disagreement. One of the great excuses for not writing is that we have no "news." What piffle! How much real "news" do you convey in your average telephone call or conversation with a friend? Oh, there may be some mere events to report; report them and get on with the main business. In a letter, you are the news: your thoughts, your feelings, your doubts, your fears, your frustrations. And if you write the truth you will reveal who you really are, with no one to interrupt you just in time so as to perpetuate the illusion that you are just like everybody else. That, perhaps, is why you hesitate to write letters. But that is also why, if you do make the effort, and if you take the time to train and encourage your correspondents, you will learn things you never knew before about who you are, and who they are.

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