A letter about letters
by Chris Hibbard
(Originally published for http://www.lethbridgelivingonline.com
A Letter About Letters
140 characters in a printed message are just not enough. Honestly, I have seen more characters than that killed on a single season of Battlestar Galactica. How is one supposed to truly express their genuine thoughts, let alone a descriptive detail of their innermost feelings, in a mere 140 characters? Note that we are over 150 characters already.
This is what bugs me about all the Facebooking and Twittering on iPhones and Blackberries, all the instant message technology around me that encourages bite-sized communication with a maximum limit of 140 characters. Sometimes I just want to write a letter–a letter that lets it all go and lets it all out–and that can take whole paragraphs. That is what a letter is for after all isn’t it? Letting?
Written letters engage the mind, causing the process of thought; something I worry that we too often take for granted. When you write a letter, you actively engage a small portion of your soul. The act of writing can be like a clearinghouse sale for emotions and opinions you never even consciously knew you had. In this way, writing a letter can be a liberating and uplifting experience. Quite often, once you have started writing, the letter practically writes itself. By writing a letter, you unburden your mind, saving yourself the 200 dollars you might otherwise give to a therapist, psychologist or other head-shrinker.
The act of writing a letter; be it to an editor, a friend or relative; is a means for one to truly communicate. Think about handwritten letters. These require work, patience, time and thoughtfulness. So it is to a lesser extent when writing anything substantial. It is not uncommon for a letter writer to write two drafts, and still be hesitating before putting a “stamp” on the envelope–be it a wax seal, a Canadian beaver or a Send button. Some people go so far as writing letters to themselves in the form of diaries or journals. Yet on some unconscious level, even these people are guilty of desiring to see someone pick it up and read it–knowing that if that someone should read it, they will be surprised and privy to personal thoughts.
Writing a letter is like a civilized way to reach out and speak your mind. Think about a message in a bottle – it drifts and it bobs along, floating in choppy water until someday it washes ashore on some distant beach and someone removes the cork. No matter how you dice it, when you write a letter, you are writing to some future audience. You always hope that someone is going to pick it up and read it; be it on a newspaper’s editorial page, in a mailbox or on a computer screen.
These letters, when printed on the “Letters to the Editor” page, can stir emotions in other readers that they were not even aware they had. This small spark can grow and ignite and blaze–effectively changing the tides of local history by inspiring change and getting people up and on their feet–demanding at city hall that new legislation be enacted; that so and so should shut up, should think, should confess or concede.
My favorite part of a newspaper is typically this “Letters to the Editor” page; a page, usually delegated to page two or sometimes the back of the City section, that is just chock full of these bobbing bottles. The Editorial section which contains said letters, is truly the only portion of my daily news digestion that feels real and spontaneous; and a lot less like lies perpetrating some dark hidden agenda or subtle advertising campaign.
There are those angry letters written about people speeding through town or not picking up after their dogs. These letters are interesting–full of opinions and pointed accusations. There are also little ray-of-sunshine letters, where someone took the time to write a little note, thanking someone for returning their lost wallet or purse. Last but not least, is my favorite kind of letter–the ones written by someone with too much education and too much time on their hands, the one who writes in a moment in which they are clearly beset by paranoia, genius, or the early onset of insanity. These letters usually contain five syllables words like “obsequiousness” or “antiestablishmentarianism” and are targeted at some shadowy figure or corporation that may have written an earlier letter, or that may otherwise intend on single-handedly disassembling everything our “conservative” Alberta society has worked towards. These letters often bear a striking similarity to the one you are reading right now – passionate for no real reason, yet intriguing in their premise.
The letters to the editor page is also the only forum where Canadian citizens truly engage in society. We take a moment out of our day to utilize our supposedly god-given right to a freedom of expression. We leave our mark on the public record–a record which is captured in time on a blog, an email folder or best of all – on these printed newspaper pages– little time capsules of a moment in which someone actively cared.
These letters live on, in libraries and magazines and get stumbled upon by interesting people at interesting times, influencing their lives by planting a tiny seed that grows in their minds. Think about Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein; two individuals who wrote letters that changed the world, letters that we are still reading today in certain university classes.
On the flip side, the reading of a letter can also be an uplifting and liberating experience. The letter reader knows that the handwriting before him is genuine–that someone was truly thinking about life, about him or her, about some noble cause. Reading a letter can be a special morning surprise or a hideous life changing moment; a moment for reflection or one for righteous indignation.
A letter can speak louder than any CBC broadcaster and retain something of the true Canadian democratic anonymity that our Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees sacred. You just never know what other people are thinking – but every morning, newspapers offer this little glimpse of the people around you, a permanent snapshot about the community you live in.
Now think about it. When was the last time that you wrote a letter, if not with a pen and paper proper, then with a keyboard and monitor and email. I wrote this letter to remind any who read it of the inherent value of letter writing. This is a letter about letters. Please, start writing more letters. Letters are good for the mind, the soul, the spirit, the relationships, the community, the society, the world, the universe, and the endangered ancient art known as communication.
If you don’t write one–someone else will–and then we may simply be reading more about people who speed and leave dog droppings where they fall. This letter you are reading right now, has exceeded 3,000 words–the rough equivalent of 26 separate tweeted messages. But you will note, it was not sent in small portions and digested slowly–it was a letter. A real letter about letters that shows my true character(s).