Yesterday I was listening to the Diane Rehm program, as I often do – and really got into her interview with Suzanne Marrs who had written a book covering the lengthy correspondence between Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty and her New Yorker editor and fellow writer William Maxwell.
For more than 50 years, they corresponded about work and family, likes and dislikes, griefs, joys, moments of dispair and humor. In the introduction to The Norton Book of Friendship, Welty wrote, “All letters, old and new, are the still-existing parts of a life. To read them now is to be present when some discovery of truth – or perhaps untruth – some flash of light is just occurring… To come upon a personal truth of a human being however little known, and now gone forever, is in some way to admit him to our friendship.”
Listening as they read through some of these letters made me step back and think about not only the format of our communication but the length as well. So much of our correspondence now is done on a whim – through Tweets, Facebook messages and SMS. But because they are rattled off on a whim in most cases can be a problem. Taking the time to sit down, collect your thoughts and then attempt to articulate them is for many people a lost art.
I’m not lamenting the death of the letter as an object, but rather challenging myself (and you if you’re reading this) to take the time to be eloquent. To think through a thought. To be, on occasion, a person of long format. There is a different emotional reaction to receiving a letter, postcard, or even a long email than we do with a Tweet or Facebook message. Social media has made it so easy to communicate with a larger group of friends on a more regular basis but it’s also in bite-sized chunks. This, I think puts even more value on long form communication.
I’m guilty of printing and saving so many old emails, travel logs, post cards and letters that I’ve written and received over the years and it’s these long forms of communication that really give us insight into those around us and ourselves. To me, they have more mass than a Twitter stream or a series of Wall posts. I wonder if biographers of the future will piece together (or have access to) the life stories of their subjects through social media interactions, Tweets, and cell phone videos as primary sources. Will we have many other options?
So my challenge to you (and to myself) is to on occasion get back to the long form. To sit and articulate thought. To try to be eloquent from time to time, instead of relying on 140 characters. When is the last time you’ve written a letter, or a long email that wasn’t business related?
Update: I’ve neglected to include one of my favorite blogs that illustrations the power of the letter. Letters of Note. Check it out. You’ll be hooked, promise.