Friday, June 18, 2010


I had an interesting experience today. I spent two hours writing -- by hand -- a long letter to a friend.

In 1969, I was teaching French at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, when I met my friend Francoise, a French woman who was there for a year to teach French as well. She and I became fast friends and spent nearly all of our free time together that year. When she returned to France to teach junior high English, we wrote letters to each other -- long, newsy, frequent letters for a while.

One time, in the seventies, she came to Champaign-Urbana for a brief visit. In 1985, David and I went to France for two weeks and stayed with her in her Paris apartment for a week. Other than that, it's been letters as the only form of comunication over the years.

But it's hard to keep updating and communicating when you no longer have many in-person experiences to share, and the frequency of our letters dribbled down gradually, to the point that we only write about once a year now. I've asked her about e-mail because that's really how I keep up with other friends from earlier times who live far away. But she doesn't like the impersonality of it and just uses it for quick information sharing about schedules and train departures and so on. She likes -- and still sends -- long, newsy handwritten letters. She writes in French, and I write in English. That helps us both keep our reading skills up a bit.

But, as I said, it had been almost a year since I've written, and I have to admit that the last time I had written in Word and then made a printout to mail to her. So it had been a while since I'd handwritten anything long at all. Unlike some younger people, I was used to writing letters to friends and family for many years when I was younger, but over time it all turned to e-mail and phone calls.

I am an inveterate list maker, and I do handwrite notes related to my copyediting work even though I do the work online. But it was still an eye-opening (and hand-cramping!) experience to cover both sides of five pages of lined 8 1/2 by 11 paper with a pen, and it led me to think about the transitions we've all made because of technology.

It made me think about the letters of famous people that I've read in books, the epistolary novels, and the letters inside novels that I've enjoyed reading. And I wonder sometimes what it was like for scribes at the time of the first printing presses. Food for thought. Have you written any letters lately?

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