The Art of Letter Writing in the Digital Age

I have always been fascinated with the art of letter writing but have always failed at actually doing it. I yearn for rich, paper correspondence, where my ideas can be later—much later, I hope—dissected and the me I leave behind rediscovered in them. I yearn for the kind of rich correspondence that C.S. Lewis shared with friends and fans. His letters with Arthur Greeves, for example, span a lifetime, capturing as poignantly as Surprised by Joy did his spiritual journey. I am just beginning into Lewis’ letters, but in what I’ve read, what Lewis’ letters lack in the poetic qualities of his books, they make up for in narrative joy, spiritual energy, and curiosity-driven ideas.

I have, at home in a box I treasure, some love letters from my wife in our early years. I also have some letters from a European friend, Emilie—meaningful expressions of teen spirituality and biblical faith from a good friend. But I have nothing I’ve written myself, partly because I never thought of keeping them, but mostly because I never actually wrote them. I intended to write—I really wanted to. But I wrote letters I never sent, or typically didn’t write them at all. My correspondence continues today with facebook notes to my wife and biennial visits with Emilie as she travels across the pond. Besides an interesting digital conversation I have with a friend that has extended for several years and consists mostly of brief notes making fun of the world around us, I am a failed letter-writer in an age when people don’t send letters anyway.

Instead of a great corpus of written letters, I have the burdensome responsibility of email—the mounting, pressing evil of digital sludge that fills my inbox with bold demands for my time. I hate email—and now facebook messaging, which is starting to replace it. There is always another note to read, another project to finish, another Nigerian investment program to send all my money to. Email, to me, is the used bathwater of my work: tepid, tainted, what’s left over when the meaningful work is done.

To the degree that I hate electronic mail, I love snail mail—what, I suppose, we used to just call “mail.” I still love going to the mailbox, even though it is typically filled with bills. Still, I have this romantic notion of mail—fuelled, perhaps, by the central role “the post” plays in the Harry Potter series—and I read this romance with mail back onto Lewis. Even as I explore his letters, I am reading them slow enough to allow the story to tread forward naturally, but quickly enough to keep the correspondence in my mind. In slowing down the experience, I imagine that I am reproducing the slow movement of the post in the last century, when the experience of letter writing was so different.

And in this romance I see Lewis sitting at his desk—beneath a window, perhaps—with soft morning light streaming into a dark room, scratching out replies on his Magdalene College stationary, pleasantly sharing his wit and wisdom with the precious few that were invited in. But this serene image is nothing of what Lewis actually experienced in his letter writing. He received an unreal amount of letters, particularly after his Screwtape Letters—a demonic correspondence of the first order—was published. And Lewis felt honour-bound to respond to the letters he received. It was, for him, a great burden. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis said that

“it is an essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail and never dread the postman’s knock” (143).

           Certainly, Lewis wrote letters that were a joy for him, like those to his oldest friend, Arthur Greeves. His Letters to Children are quite engaging and he had a genuine friendship develop with his Letters to an American Lady. He traded letters with authors like Arthur C. Clarke, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, and T.S. Eliot, seeming to have received as much as he had given with some of his correspondents. But as he describes Easter as a very dark time because “everyone writes to me at Easter” (Apr 17, 1954), I get the sense of grim resolution rather than quiet morning pleasure when it comes to Lewis and most of his letter writing.

It strikes me that the way Lewis feels about his unexplainable need to respond to the deep burden of his letter writing actually sounds very much like my own distaste for email. I wake up in the morning and obediently tackle the email I dread—yes, “dread” is the right word for it, dreading not the postman’s knock but the Windows doorbell of the same measure. By all accounts, it seems like Lewis did the same. Perhaps the digital age hasn’t made that much difference after all.

Volumes of Lewis’ Letters:

Volume 1: The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Family Letters (1905-1931). Ed. Walter Hooper. HarperSanFrancisco, NY, 2004.

Volume 2: The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Books, Broadcasts, and the War (1931-1949). Ed. Walter Hooper. HarperSanFrancisco, NY, 2004.

Volume 3: The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy (1950-1963). HarperSanFrancisco, NY, 2007.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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16 Responses to The Art of Letter Writing in the Digital Age

  1. Mr WordPress says:

    Hi, this is a comment.
    To delete a comment, just log in, and view the posts’ comments, there you will have the option to edit or delete them.

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  2. I just read John Simon’s Requiem for the Longhand Missive, and though I would like to respond to him by personal letter, I’m doing it by blog post. I would do it by hand, but his postal address is not posted on his blog page, and if I were to write a handwritten letter, I wouldn’t be able to share his post (and my response) with you.

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  3. Nice irony Mark Reynolds. My handwriting puts the “curse” back in “cursive.”

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  7. Jennifer says:

    I just read, “The Art of Letter Writing in the Digital Age.” How apropos! I’m pursuing a project with a topic in the same vein! I’m a filmmaker who just returned from a year aboard having bus-hopped my way around South America and Europe. I’ve recently returned to the states (Chicago) and I am creating a documentary film about the United States Postal Service, pen pals + the lost art of letter writing in the digital age. If given the chance, would love to chat with you further about your post and its relevance! Gratefully, Jennifer ( ladylaxplayer [at] yahoo [dot] com ).

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