The Art of Letter Writing in the Digital Age

Lewis WritingI have always been fascinated with the art of letter writing. I have filled my reading these last few years with personal letters, especially those of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, James Thurber, E.B. White, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and St. Paul. Plus, I have learned to loved epistolary fiction, one of the rich sources that C.S. Lewis draw from in his work. I love the sense of peaking in–the voyeuristic guilty pleasure–and the “real life setting” that letter stories presumes.

Despite my love for reading letters, I 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 about to finish reading Lewis’ letters. I am in July, 1963, and he does not know it yet, but he is about to die. Throughout the entire collection, despite most of the letters being quite brief, what Lewis’ letters lack in (some of) the poetic qualities of his books, they make up for in narrative joy, spiritual energy, and curiosity-driven ideas.

Letters to Children by CS LewisI 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. I also have a few other momentos, such as graduation notes and sympathy cards.

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. I even wrote letters I never sent, which I may one day find between the pages of textbooks or a file somewhere.

Typically, though, didn’t write them at all. My correspondence continues today with social media and in-real-life visits with friends as we move throughout the world. 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.

Letters_to_an_American_Lady cs lewisInstead 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. Now that they have ceased home mail delivery and I have to walk through our community to get these letters, I find the receipt of a real letter a heightened sense of nostalgia. Even as an adult I still have this romantic notion of mail—fuelled, perhaps, by the central role “the post” plays in the Harry Potter series and my own work in letters—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.

Letters of CS Lewis by Warren Lewis 1966And 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)–and his comments on Christmas letters are worse–I get the sense of grim resolution rather than quiet morning pleasure when it comes to Lewis and most of his letter writing.

collected-letters-c-s-lewis-box-set-c-s-paperback-cover-artIt 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:

CS Lewis Latin LettersLetters of C.S. Lewis: Edited with a Memoir. Ed. W.H. Lewis. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966.

Letters To An American Lady. Ed. Clyde S. Kilby. Eerdmans, Grade Rapids, 1967.

Letters to Children. Ed. Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie E. Mead. Collected Letters vol 1Macmillan, NY, 1985.

They Stand Together: The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (1914-1963). Ed. Walter Hooper. Macmillan, NY, 1979.

Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis: C.S. Lewis and Don Giovanni Calabria. Trans. and Ed. Martin Moynihan. St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, 1999.

Collected Letters vol 2Volume 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.

collected letters cs lewis volume 3 ed by walter hooperVolume 3: The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy (1950-1963). Ed. Walter Hooper. HarperSanFrancisco, NY, 2007.

Yours Jack: Spiritual Direction from C.S. Lewis. Ed. Paul F. Ford. HarperSanFrancisco, NY, 2008.

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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. haha that is so interesting about Lewis- I understand what you mean about that dread when the postman/email comes. I think for writers in general we like to close ourselves off from the world and fall into our own imaginations- anyone coming to disturb that peace is most unwelcome!

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  2. For me, I see the advent of email as just an extension of the letter-writing practice. I still get the correspondence done, but without the need to procure envelops and postage, or the need to wait an interminable amount of time in order to receive a reply. For those emails which really should be “cured” a bit, before the return missive… well… I wait…
    But then, I don’t exactly burn up the web with volume to begin with.
    For me (and I expect partially for you, as well) blogging has perhaps taken the place of letter writing.
    Into the blog now goes the thoughts upon my mind on any given day.
    The thoughts I would like to “get out there”, but don’t necessarily have anyone specifically in mind to whom I could send it.
    It’s not as personalized as writing to a specific someone somewhere… but it’ll have to do.
    For most people no longer have the time, or the attention span to sit down and put their thoughts into a (hopefully) cogent form, from which future generations will draw what conclusions they may.
    I had thought of editing the blog to smithereens; and purging it of all those posts that I wouldn’t necessarily be proud for someone to read at some future date.
    But I think I shall forego that indulgence.
    One, I’m not at all sure that anyone in the future will care one whit about what some cranky dude a long time ago wrote.
    Two, editing my legacy seems to be an exercise in massive narcissism, and I really can’t find that within myself.
    Three, no matter what I do, I’m pretty sure future generations are going to misinterpret it all, anyway… because they aren’t going to have any idea of all the words and ideas I rejected, in order to get to the finished “product.”
    But that could just be the cynic in me shining through…
    (8^)>

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    • Well, the cynic did take over there in the end! But the point about blogging is actually really key–I hadn’t thought of that before. It is my testing ground for ideas, my thinking out loud. It is very epistolary, that way. That thought deserves a blog on its own!

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  3. I’ve only just started reading Lewis’ letters (and still need to find volume 3 somewhere!), but so far I have the impression that Lewis needed his “me” time. Remember, when he’s in the Sanatorium at 15, and receives a visit from a very talkative boy? He mentions that most people would have enjoyed a visit, but he preferred to be left alone? Perhaps the copious amount of letters he received interfered with his personal time. It’s like anything else ….. what becomes a drudgery when we’re overburdened with it, can become a joy when it’s in balance.

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    • Volume 3 is impossible to find. I’ve blogged about it somewhere. It will be a bit expensive.
      He loved nothing more than to sit by the fire with his brother across the table and write or read. He loved arguing and lecturing and walking with others, but he liked the reclusive moments. I am like that, an ambivert rather than just extrovert or intravert.

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  4. I am available for correspondence.

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I love the glimpses we get in Sherlock Holmes stories (when the Major Inklings were variously young) of an age of fairly inexpensive postage and an amazingly prolific and efficient postal service (at least in some places – like London) – something like six deliveries a day, where you could dash off a brief note, get an answer, answer that in turn, and hear back again once more: pretty e-mail like in its way!

    Your saying “I love the sense of peaking in–the voyeuristic guilty pleasure” reminds me of my astonishment at reading Boswell’s London Journal (1762-63) and thinking that he had written this diary with the thought someone else would be reading it (not posterity, but a contemporary!).

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    • I’m always amazed that we no longer have the technology to effectively move the post around like they did 100 years ago. We are all but out of mail here in Canada. We have email, but I wonder if they had a productivity advantage that we have lost.
      I don’t think of others when writing in my diary. Creepy.

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  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Lewis is such an impressively, humbly dutiful letter writer, doing all sorts of people such an enjoyably readable good service (and, so, us, too, at one remove)!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: How You Can Read C.S. Lewis Chronologically | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  8. If you love letters and letter collections, I hope you know Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience. Delightful, thought-provoking choices. He has a sequel coming out soon.

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    • I don’t know that book, Jessica, but I have added it to my to-read list. It is a tad expensive in Canada, so hopefully v. 2 will spur on a digital copy or softcover rerelease. It is the kind of book I would love.

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  9. Pingback: The Women That Changed C.S. Lewis’ Life #InternationalWomensDay | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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