Friday, December 21, 2012

The Dying Letter ~ Tess Gerritsen

Tess Gerritsen left a successful practice as an internist to raise her children and concentrate on her writing. She gained nationwide acclaim for her first novel of medical suspense, the New York Times bestseller Harvest. She is also the author of the bestsellers Life Support, Bloodstream, Gravity, and The Surgeon. Tess lives with her family in Maine. (PHOTO CREDIT: Paul D'Innocenzo) --as appeared her blog.

 The Dying Letter

I am still stinging with shame about a letter I just received. It came from one of my old high school teachers, a man with whom I have corresponded over the decades. Every Christmas, I’d send him a personal letter about my year, and every summer, I’d mail him an autographed copy of my newest book.
About six months ago, he wrote me a long, long letter sharing all the latest in his life. I set it on my desk, with every intention of replying. Because he doesn’t do email, I would have to actually write a letter and send it snail mail, so I delayed the task until I had a bit of time. The trouble was, time got away from me. I had to proof-read the galleys of my book, then I had to leave for China to bring my mother’s ashes to her hometown, then I went on book tour, followed by weeks of travel for various speaking engagements. In the meantime, that letter from my teacher got buried under other accumulating mail. I never did write him back.
A few days ago, after returning from my latest trip, I found a new letter from him in the bin of mail that the US Postal Service had held for me in my absence. He was hurt and upset that I had not answered his earlier letter. He asked if our friendship was dead. He assumed it must be, because I hadn’t responded, nor had I sent him my latest book. I immediately mailed him a book and a card of apology, but I’m still having sleepless nights about it. And I’m mulling over why, exactly, I didn’t write back sooner.
My crazy schedule is one reason. But a bigger reason, I think, is how much I’ve come to rely on email as a primary mode of correspondence, a convenience that’s so quick and immediate that it makes old-fashioned letter writing seem like a burden. Every morning, when I sit down to catch up on messages, I answer my email first. As tasks go, it’s the low-hanging fruit, something you can speedily accomplish. Letter writing? That feels like a far more ponderous task, so I put it off. And I put it off.
And before I know it, weeks and then months have gone by, and unanswered letters are still lying on my desk.
I, and people like me, are responsible for the impending death of the snail-mail letter. In this era of “Faster! Faster!”, we feel the urgency of accomplishing everything at top efficiency. We feel too harried to actually write with pen and paper, address the envelope, affix a stamp, and bring it to the post office.
And that’s a shame. Because years from now, all our emails, all those quickly dashed bits of information rendered to the electronic ether, won’t be around to enlighten our descendants. The death of the handwritten letter means that we, too — our thoughts, our memories, the way we press pen to paper — will vanish forever when we’re gone.


Normandie Ward Fischer said...

What a poignant reminder that we must take the time to think of others. And make the effort to reach out and touch them. A hand-written note can live far longer than we will.

My mother still has all the letters I sent from Italy back in the day before computers or cell phones. They were hand written, probably legible only to those who knew my scrawl.

I compare mine to the letters from my grandparents, written beautifully both in language and in form. We've lost the art.

Perhaps we should do as you suggest and take the time, make the effort, to try pen to paper again. (Though I think my recipients would prefer that I type my notes!)

Nicole said...

A lovely and dying art. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I love receiving a hand-written letter but rarely do anymore. Nor do I write them anymore. Maybe I should . . .

Michael Ehret said...

I write better, more eloquent emails than letters. One of the reasons I prefer emailing. I'm a writer through and through -- I prefer to edit my writings, even emails, because I want to convey just the right tone, meaning, etc. A handwritten letter does not allow that control.

But I love getting letters ... even cards with a handwritten note.

But when I become famous, no one is going to compile my correspondence into a witty, insightful look at the genius that was me. (Yes, that's a joke...)

Lorretta at Dancing on the Dash said...

Oh. THIS: "ears from now, all our emails, all those quickly dashed bits of information rendered to the electronic ether, won’t be around to enlighten our descendants. The death of the handwritten letter means that we, too — our thoughts, our memories, the way we press pen to paper — will vanish forever when we’re gone."

A kick in the gut. Thank you.

Marian Pellegrin Merritt said...

I do love getting a handwritten letter, but don't anymore. I send one every now and then, but not as often as I should. There's something special about seeing a person's handwriting that makes a connection. So sad that this will go to the wayside. From what I'm told schools aren't teaching cursive writing anymore. We trade so much for "faster, faster" and it's happening so fast that we don't realize we've lost it until it's gone.

Patti Shene, Executive Editor, Starsongs Magazine said...

Oh Tess, I am so like you! I befriended the daughter of an old friend last year when she (the friend)was diagnosed with a terminal illness. We corresponded with handwritten notes for a few weeks after my friend's death, but the last one went unanswered. When I went to write a note on her Christmas card, I dug up that old note and was shocked to see that it had been nine months since I had received that note! The day after I mailed my Christmas card, I learned that her dad (my friend's husband) had passed away that morning. I saw her at the funeral a few days later and we promised to keep in touch, but I wonder if we will.