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FADED ART: In the season of cards and letters, fewer begin with pen in hand

A cold wind and a snowy landscape outside, time and warmth and a quiet solitude indoors, with a good lamp to augment the ebbing light of a low-riding December sun: a perfect time to take pen in hand, break out the stationery and write a long lett...

A cold wind and a snowy landscape outside, time and warmth and a quiet solitude indoors, with a good lamp to augment the ebbing light of a low-riding December sun: a perfect time to take pen in hand, break out the stationery and write a long letter to grandma or that old friend in Idaho.

Pen? Stationery?

A long what?

For many people today - especially young people who couldn't write a fetchingly cursive love letter or even a concise stick-up note without cramping - the fine art of letter-riting has faded.

Blame the computer. Blame indolence and general busyness, too, but mostly blame e-mail and instant messaging.


"Very few of us can remember the last time we pulled open our mailbox and found a real letter inside, hand-written and with a real stamp on it," said Jason Wright, a Virginia author whose novel, "The Wednesday Letters," revolves around the discovery of some old letters.

"I had no idea the book would connect with people the way it has," he said - not by mail, but in a telephone interview. "The response tells me that many of us long for the days when a letter arrived that said 'commitment' in a way that no e-mail could."

Even the U.S. Postal Service concedes the decline. A 2004 USPS study found that personal mail had fallen off by a third, averaging about one piece a week per household. Another measurement: first class mail, which includes personal letters, declined from 103 billion pieces in 2001 to 97.6 billion in 2006.

"E-mail certainly is part of it," said Pete Nowacki, a USPS spokesman in Minneapolis. "Also, long-distance telephoning became more affordable.

"I think it's kind of sad. When you go to your mailbox and there, in amongst the bills and catalogues, you see a letter with your name written on it - isn't it the first thing you open?"

The decline may not have been as severe in rural regions, especially where the population trends are older, said Susan McMahon, postmaster at Gilby, N.D., and a 33-year veteran of the Postal Service.

"You'll never get the older people to switch," she said. "With a letter, you know that somebody took the time."

Can she remember the last personal letter she received?


"I got two today," she bragged. "One from an aunt and one from a friend. I opened them right away."

Eliot Glassheim, a Grand Forks City Council member and state representative, had to ponder the question for a while.

"My mother used to write me letters," he said finally, but she's been gone for some years now. "And when my step-father died and I went through his things, I found a letter I had written my mother."

His face lit up.

"I recognized my handwriting!" he said.

Glassheim doesn't want for mail. But what the "letter carrier" stuffs into his box tends to be machine-addressed, pre-sorted, impersonal. Bills and bulk mail.

"Except for thank-you notes and some wonderful Christmas letters, I can't remember getting any personal letters for 15 years or more," he said.

Rochelle Wetsch, who operates the Velkommen Scandinavian gift shop in Grand Forks, doesn't have a computer or an e-mail account, so her children - scattered to Kansas City, Seattle, Minneapolis and Scottsdale, Ariz. - keep in touch by. . . cell phone.


"Sometimes there's a Christmas letter," she said. "But that's not what I consider letter writing."

As a young college student in Valley City, N.D., she traded frequent letters with her boyfriend, Ed, who was in Bismarck.

"His letters were always short and to the point," she said, smiling. "As I recall, some of my letters to him had a lot of l'amour in them - and a lot of how much I missed him.

"That art of letter writing takes time. But it was part of our relationship."

The letters must have helped. They've been married for 47 years.

Karol Knudson, who operates Art & Learn, a Grand Forks shop that sells stationery and calligraphy supplies, said that e-mail "probably saves time," but an old-fashioned letter seems to carry more joy - or convey deeper sorrow.

"It's not as fast, so you can think about your thoughts a little, and then you put it down in your hand," she said.

"My dad died in the past year, and I received some nice letters. Something like that is a keepsake."


Strokes, doodles

You can't beat the immediacy, the rapid turnaround time of instant messages, texting or e-mails. Does it matter, then, that we lose the artistry of fluent strokes and singular doodles? What of the beauty and mystery in a stamp from a distant place, the familiarity of a friend's handwriting, or the lingering scent of perfume?

Will future biographers mine electronic records for the proud declarations, agonized confessions or deeply soulful introspections often preserved in a ribbon-bound stack of personal letters?

Personalized party invitations are giving way to e-vites. But is it OK now to end an affair or express condolences by e-mail?

In "The Wednesday Letters," Wright brings three siblings together after the deaths of their elderly parents, and the children discover a great family treasure: letters their father wrote to their mother, one every Wednesday throughout their married life, no matter where they were or how they were feeling.

"It's not a textbook on how to write love letters," he said. Nor is it a cry against technology; Wright has a political blog, and he has no problem using e-mail. And when he says, "I have an 8-year-old daughter who checks her e-mail as often as I do mine," he says it with pride.

But while the computer prompt "You've Got Mail" may inspire the same old palpitations, there is for Wright "something magical about opening a mailbox" and finding a letter that bears, in ink, your name.

"When you want to tell someone how you feel about them, or wish your mother a happy birthday, or apologize to a friend you've offended - there's nothing like it," he said.


Personal mail made something of a revival during the first Gulf War, the New York Times reported last year. Friends, family members and strangers all wanted to reassure the troops. But soldiers in Iraq today are far more likely to hear from home by e-mail or telephone.

Passing on

the thrill

School kids are more likely to compose e-mails to Santa now. They may still seek pen pals, but the young correspondents tend to favor computer connections.

"We have them make the initial contact by letter," said Michelle Stenberg, who teaches German at East Grand Forks Senior High. "But after that, if they have Internet access, they switch to e-mail. This generation is so much more comfortable with that."

Laurie Hertzel, an editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, wrote recently in her blog, "When I was a small girl, I once asked for 'a year's supply of stamps' for Christmas, to feed my letter-writing habit."

The habit has subsided, "overtaken by blogging and e-mail," but she still thrills to discover a hand-addressed letter among the bills.

She has tried to share that thrill with two young nieces, exchanging postcards after spending vacation time with them.


The girls are tech savvy, as they should be, Hertzel said. "But it makes me very happy that in this fast-paced electronic world, my little nieces have come to appreciate the value and the beauty of sitting at a table, writing down their thoughts, walking to the mail box, dropping in the card, and then waiting with hope and confidence that in a few days something will come back to them."

One obstacle faced by many would-be letter writers is a fear of being judged on their penmanship.

"Especially for men, it is by far the single biggest hurdle," Wright said. "Men tell me they don't want to be judged.

"I say, 'Trust me. Your wife, or your mother, or your child will think it the greatest thing to open a letter and see your handwriting. They could care less about how you use commas.' "

Reach Herald staff writer Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or chaga@gfherald.com . Better still, write him at: Grand Forks Herald, 375 Second Ave. S., Grand Forks ND 58203.

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