The Common Good
November-December 1997

The Joy of Letter Writing

by Carey Burkett | November-December 1997

For quite a few winters now, I have watched a great joy of mine turn slowly into sadness: No one writes letters anymore, a fact that is especially noticeable at Christmas card time.

For quite a few winters now, I have watched a great joy of mine turn slowly into sadness: No one writes letters anymore, a fact that is especially noticeable at Christmas card time. Is it that friends—as they have graduated from school, acquired jobs, gotten married or not, added children—are just too busy for such things? Has the art of letter writing been usurped by e-mail? Is it that many people never really liked writing letters in the first place (although everybody likes receiving letters)?

I'm guessing that people who say "I'm too busy to cook" are the same ones who don't make the time for letters either. Many of the reasons for why I cook mirror my motives for writing letters.

Just as hot-out-of-the-oven bread gives wondrous pleasure to anyone lucky enough to be within nose-shot of that kitchen, so finding a plump, hand-lettered envelope after opening the mailbox and rifling through the junk is an equally exquisite pleasure. Like bread, letters are a tactile pleasure unduplicatable by the ring of the telephone or the blinking neon of a computer: Paper comes in all thicknesses; ink has a smell and a way of changing appearance as the mood or speed of the writer changes; even the lowly postage stamp adds a colorful and festive air to a letter.

The act of cooking often is as pleasurable as the eating. Just so, writing a letter can be as cathartic as receiving one. Your life takes on color and shape when its events are spun out onto paper. Patterns emerge. You discover things you didn't know were going on in your head—there they are coming out at the end of the pen. You find you can make others laugh at the crazy things you saw people do that day; things seem to get funnier by the very act of telling.

Letters make life slow down a little bit. The quiet hour or two it takes to write a real letter are hours that nourish your own soul. As with cooking, where choosing a recipe, creating something from scratch, designing the presentation are some of the necessary steps genuinely enjoyed by a cooking fan, so, too, the little decisions that make for a special letter, and the time they take, should be undertaken with joy. Recycled work paper? Exotic card? Homemade stickers? Typed? Handwritten? A surprise tucked inside? A newspaper clipping included? Photos? A pressed flower? Long and musing language? Short and brisk? An interesting stamp?

Is it morning? Make a cup of tea and grab a handful of cookies. Is it night? Pour a glass of wine and slice some cheese. Too distracted at home? Find a corner table in a bookstore after choosing a notecard there that captures your fancy; fill it border to border with your thoughts, address and stamp it, then mail it on the way home. (I can't count how many completed or almost-completed letters I find around the house that my husband wrote and never got around to mailing. Because he is a storyteller of Texas proportions, not to get one of his letters is a great loss, I think, for the intended recipients.)

A 32-cent stamp is an outrageously good deal. I can walk down the driveway, which in my case is a half-mile of tree-lined dirt road that is itself part of the pleasure of sending and receiving letters, put an envelope in the mail box, and expect it to be delivered to whatever of the 50 states I have chosen, to the exact doorstep of my beloved ones. So, just as it is much cheaper to cook at home rather than eat out or buy convenience food, so, too, writing a letter costs far less than making a telephone call or hooking up to a computer network.

A GOOD cook is known for how he or she puts ordinary things together in an extraordinary way. So, too, the best letters often are ones that expose for the reader (and writer too) the profound truths found in life's ordinary events. I think the best letters start with a tidbit or two from the day or week—a glimpse from work, from a walk, something funny the dog did—and then move naturally into how you feel about work, where you live, or how comforting your dog is when days get lonely. People search letters for your commentary, not for facts and litanies of events, although such litanies are tempting to do when a long time has elapsed between letters.

One of the big advantages letters have over oral communication is that written vocabularies tend to be larger and more specific than spoken ones. As the writer you have time to think through exactly what you want to say and how best to say it. Likewise, the reader has the leisure to read, and re-read if necessary, to discern exactly what you meant. Besides, reading a letter for the second and third time is just about as fun as the first one.

I received a short but complete letter the other day from an 8-year-old friend of mine, carefully printed on a pink construction paper heart: "Dear Carey, how are you doing? I'm fine. How are the sheep? James can say a lot now. I've lerned a lot in swimming. Here is a Husky bookmark I made. Love, Grace."

I would like to think that if those of us who get her thoughtful letters write back quickly, with thoughtful letters of our own, Grace will be encouraged to keep up her letter-writing habit. I suspect that, sadly, her talent will be a rare one in upcoming generations.

CAREY BURKETT is an organic vegetable farmer in Hallettsville, Texas, and the mother of a newborn son. For the next few issues, she'll be taking a break from writing "Simple Feast."

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