The Favor of a Reply is Requested

Mailing_Letters-214x300I think everybody likes to get real mail. Remember letters written on actual paper?

For awhile, it looked like letter writing was dying out, but then here came blessed email and after everyone got over complaining about computers and how they wouldn’t touch one with a ten-foot pole. They got out their eleven foot poles, logged on, and merrily emailed one another.

Now we have texting, Facebook messages, and other means to connect, which are all well and good, but it’s sad that the long, introspective personal letter again seems to be threatened. Often now I get as an answer to my heartfelt email some minimalist inanity of one line or less or worse, some type of code. And no, I’m not ROTFL about it.

My writing life began with writing letters. I wrote letters to friends (“How are you? I am fine.”) and to relatives like my Uncle Guy, who faithfully answered. Somewhere in there I started writing letters to “the great” to ask for their autographs. A curious habit for a ten year old, but so it was.


Sometime I sent a postcard to the reigning monarch of England, King George VI. “Dear King,” I began, “Please put your autograph here.” And I left a space for it. But I never received an answer. I wrote to President Truman; he didn’t answer, but his secretary wrote to explain how the prez was too busy to give me his autograph. Ditto for England’s Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.

Countless others answered. Hollywood stars sent me big pictures of themselves. “Thanks for the memory,” Bob Hope wrote at the bottom of his photograph.

But not the King of England! I was resentful for the rest of my childhood about that. Now I see that he was probably far too busy even to ask his secretary to write and tell me how busy he was; far too busy holding his scepter and dressing up in his purple dress. So I let it go.

Today only a few people answer my letters—even people I know and love. This has been going on now for some years. I ask a simple question: Why?

My hunch is it has nothing to do with not having enough time; nor does it have anything to do with the price of postage, outrageous as it is. A letter is a letter, so far as I’m concerned, whether handwritten and posted or typed and emailed.

My hunch is that not writing letters has to do with the Curious Culture of Correctness.

You know these people: the grammarians and punctuationalists and dictionarians who shut down when someone makes what is, in their view, a “mistake.” They are in us all, more or less, and they wouldn’t be caught dead making a mistake! And so… they are indeed caught dead: they do not write at all. There is a saying, attributed to either President Lincoln or Mark Twain (perhaps they shared the thought in a letter . . .): “Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” This goes double when it comes to writing. A mere blush may accompany the mispronunciation of a word but a written malapropism in a letter endures forever.

I coach writers. In my seminars I ask people to write. Not go home and write but take out a sheet of paper and write right now! I hold up a sheet of blank paper. “Here’s an example of bad writing,” I tell them. They laugh and start writing. And they write well. They write from their hearts. They write authentically. There aren’t any mistakes in the room.

So to my children and to my children’s children, I say, the future of history is literally in your hands. Don’t worry about being caught making a mistake. We will forgive you.

We will, won’t we? Wouldn’t you rather receive a letter (hard copy or by email) with “mistakes” than no letter at all?

Because if you don’t write . . . if you won’t answer an honest letter to you, then who do you think you are, the King of England?

~~~ APH: Life, Stories, People ~~~

Photo credits: King George VI by Sir Gerald Kelly (1879-1972) (Royal Collection object 403422) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Mailing Letters by Smithsonian Institution (originally posted to Flickr as Mailing Letters) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

29 thoughts on “The Favor of a Reply is Requested

  1. How I wish I’d had you for a writing teacher ‘way back when, Charley! Love the ‘bad writing” example. Thank you!

    1. Hi Marjorie, and thanks for the kind words. That “example of bad writing,” i.e., the blank sheet of paper, held up just before I start folks writing in a workshop, never fails to produce a good hearty laugh. And it seems to work: everybody writes. Charley

  2. Great post - and lots of food for thought here. The more I think, the more I wonder if you’re right, though, Charley, about the real reason people don’t write letters. Is it possible that as a professional writer, you’re just projecting upon others? Personally, I’m not sure that people stop themselves from sitting down to write a letter because they’re afraid of making a mistake (they might be afraid of writing letters to YOU for that reason, intimidated by your vast experience, but that’s another matter). I really do believe that it has more to do with the frenetic pace at which most people live. We (the average American/Canadian/Australian etc) run, run, run between work, kids, social obligations and so by the time we actually have time for ourselves we crash in front of the television in mind-numbing bliss (I say “we” but mean “you” because I don’t own a tv 😉 How often do we actually enjoy the down-time needed to write a proper letter? There’s always something that needs to be done. Modern life means pressure to perform - to go out and accomplish things so we live up to society’s expectations. We have to have the perfect house, perfectly cleaned, the perfect car, perfectly cleaned, and make time for friends and family while ensuring we’re as successful, professionally, as is humanly possible. We need to work like crazy to afford the best house, car, shoes etc. I’m exhausted from all this running!
    All this to say that I’ve made some changes in my life to slow my pace down. I’d love to get to the point where I have the freedom .. both from a time point of view and an emotional point of view .. to sit down and write a letter. And when I do, I promise Charley, I’ll send one to you with a gorgeous stamp on the envelope 😉
    But in case you’re right that the overly-critical are intimidating others and keeping them from enjoying the pleasures of letter writing, I’ll join my voice to yours to say that writing something is better than not writing anything at all .. whether it be in an email or written on paper, in ink. It’s the historian in me speaking but also the human rights supporter who wants to be sure that no voice is ever silenced, for any reason, whatsoever.

    1. Hi Michelle,

      Wow, there’s a lot of good stuff here that I mostly agree with. Of course there’s no single reason why people don’t write letters much anymore-even real email letters-and time is often given as one of them. But both the need to “write well” (whatever that means) and time function here: it takes them a lot of time to write because they want the letter to be perfect…? I write fast and more or less just as I talk and let it go.

  3. Wonderful, oh-so-appropriate thoughts,Charley. I promise to write back (correctly or not) whenever I receive a letter from you. Can’t wait to see you at the conference in St. Louis this year!

    1. Hi Paula, Thanks and I too am looking forward to Saint Louis. Maybe we should have a workshop on writing incorrectly. You know, a thousand years ago when I taught Freshman English I’d have a row in front who wrote sooo correctly and yet had really very little to say (too risky, I guess), and in the back I’d have a row or so of (usually) art students and even sometimes engineers who were so passionate..and incorrect. I was sad that I had to give them an F…per orders of the Commanding General of Freshman English.

  4. Charley, thanks for the phrase, “The Curious Culture of Correctness.” I hope I may use it forever!

    1. Hi Peggy,

      I have somewhere around here in my piles and piles a “Are you correct?” exam that I used to give. Maybe I can dig that out. Mostly it was designed to made the correcteurs (of which I can be one) laugh at themselves, with questions like, “Will you be eternally mortified if on your tombstone your name is misspelled?”

  5. What a lovely post, Charley. It’s poignant and heart warming. You reminded me to write to my grand children. Receiving letters in the mail means the world to them. And, I agree with Marjorie Turner Hollman about wishing I had had a writing teacher like you. Thanks.

    1. Hi Julie,

      I have six children and ten (or is it eleven?) grandchildren. For a couple of years I wrote to each of the children once a week, and then I tried to write collectively to all the grands once a week. I rarely got an answer but I decided that was okay. Even so, I have languished…sad to say. I think your grandchildren will treasure everything you write to them.

  6. What a lovely hobby you had as a child, Charley! And what fun to see where it has led you. Thank you for writing the story — and for reminding me to write more often.

    1. Hi Judy,

      Thank you, and I hope you do. In the reply to Julie, above, and to you too, I might add that there’s no better way to write your own memoir than piece by piece to your friends and family. After a couple of years of this then simply cut and paste it all into a book of memoir!

  7. I love this. This philosophy really applies to life in general, doesn’t it? We need to be okay making mistakes. I am reminded of one of my very favorite quotations: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” Thank you…

    1. Hey, Karen, thank you for that quote. And I think you’re write about our general fear of making mistakes…we are imperfect, still works in progress. I think of a little ditty by e e cummings…talking to his girlfriend he says, “…then laugh, lean back in my arms, for life is not a paragraph and death, I think, is no parenthesis.”

    2. Hi Karen,

      Love the quote about ships in harbor! Old e e cummings wrote to his sweetheart, “…laugh, lean back in my arms, because life’s not a paragraph and death, I think, is no parenthesis.

  8. Bravo! Love it!

    1. Thnnk you, Cherie…maybe we can in St Lou start a revolution and sit in a big room and write letters to one another! There must be someway to rekindle the love of writing to one another. It’s worth noting that engineers, and not writers, saved writing for us when they invented the word processor. But of course then they turned around and invented texting…

  9. I grounded my daughter once when she was in middle school. No texting or email privileges for her. I did allow her to write letters to her friends. She sent out about ten. Most of her friends had never seen one before. Sadly it did not catch on. But I’m sure they kept their letter as a keepsake.

    1. I love that ‘punishment’ you gave your daughter, Bill. I hope her friends did keep the letters. When I was in high school (many years ago!) my best friend and I wrote each other all the time. Even when we saw each other every day in school, we would exchange pages-long letters. And yes, we also managed to get our homework done! I wish I had kept some of those letters.

    2. Hi Bill,

      That is a great idea as “punishment.” Kids, the younger they are, love to write just as much as they love to paint. But by the time they’re in high school and college, they do it more or less correctly…and hate it.

  10. I have a friend whom I met in Atlanta over thirty years ago, and who lives in Florida with her husband. She and I rarely communicate except by letters and cards. She is more faithful than I am.

    1. Hi Mark,

      My cousin Jerry and I corresponded weekly for a long time way, way back there. Then last summer after visiting him we started emailing to one another daily. I enjoy and he does too and in effect we are writing a good part of our family history to one another. So I guess it’s never too late to pick it up and go on.

  11. Charley, thanks so much for yours. When I was a kid I wasn’t allowed to go out and play until I had written my thank-you notes for holiday presents. I resented it at the time but now am grateful. Thank-you notes, what are they?

    1. Hi Laura,
      I think thank you and all such notes are wonderful. I love to send them (it’s good for the soul to thank), and I love to get them. I suppose people don’t send them so often as they used to (in whatever form) because they’re just too busy or they fear saying something insincere or…I don’t know. I do remember finding in an old letter collection a card from my late Aunt Isabelle to her mother that had the usual Roses are red verse in it and along the bottom Izzy had written, “Mom, did you get the new slop jar?” Well, that was sincere.

  12. Charley wrote: “Often now I get as an answer to my heartfelt email some minimalist inanity of one line or less or worse, some type of code.” Right?! Like cryptic writing that takes more time to decipher what it means let alone what it ‘meant.’ I received an email from a very high on the rung film preservationist yesterday, in his 60s. It read: “AFAIK, there are…” (WT*?!) (That’s a joke, I don’t talk like that.) I had to google AFAIK. (Now you have to.)

    On another note in my personal archives- lovely boxes full of diaries, jewelry, memorabilia, books, love-notes, etc. from my childhood- are letters I wrote and received as a young child. I am not sure how I got the letters back that I had written to my friend in 3rd grade (for instance) when we moved away but I have them. I recently went through them and was struck with the memory of “hot-pants” stationery!

    I think a good ‘punishment’ would be to go through the ritual of taking one’s child to the store to pick out stationery. How fun would that be. Some kids probably don’t even know stationery exists let alone what it’s for come to think of it.

    Charley, is it okay if I post this link on my Preserving The Past, LLC Facebook page?

    1. Hi Taylor, thank you, yes, of course, post the link all you want…this blog is open for reading 24/7!

    2. I just learned something, and AFAIK, this might be a good term to know! Thanks for the new internet slang term, Taylor! :)

  13. Great post Charley. Got me thinking about my own letter writing, or really the lack of it. I reply to the few letters I receive, but I tend to write these lengthy, and unfortunately boring, epic things that outline far too much information. What I WISH I could write were letters filled with interesting observations, a bit of news and some lovely thoughts. I think about those Civil War soldiers that wrote home (read in the Ken Burns Civil War documentary). Now THOSE guys could write! Granted, they were in the most horrible of human experiences, seeing terrible and doing awful things but when they put pen to paper they turned out good content. I wonder if people don’t write because they don’t feel what they are sharing is interesting. Sherry

  14. What a timely post this is. Just this evening, I ordered a book from Amazon…”The Gift of a Letter,” by Alexandra Stoddard. I had been browsing Miss Stoddard’s books, and this one showed up. I was enthralled with the title and the reviews, so I ordered it.