By: Benedict Coughlin

The advent of February heralds the approach of the day for which most of us write our only letter of the year, Valentine’s Day. We walk into the nearest stationary shop and pick out a single card with an eye to the picture and witticism, mindful that we should not choose a card too big to be filled with a few choice words. The more daring of us believe that an entire page can be filled with such words, and sometimes we fail, too accustomed to the quick emails and texts of our day to day life. We labor over this letter to our wife, girlfriend, or mother, and breathe a sigh of relief when we can sign our name at the bottom: ‘That task is over with for the year’.

It seems to me that letter writing has gone the way of champagne, so closely associated with certain special events and holidays that we no longer think of them for anything else. They are both so highly regarded that they are no longer properly appreciated or frequently indulged in. For the sake of my brothers trekking through Exodus 90, I will not force champagne down your throats, but I do wish to look more closely at the art of letter writing.

Sertillange says, ‘the good is the brother of the true, and brother will help brother’, and the same can be said of the beautiful. Letter writing is an art which lends the beautiful to the service of the true, and it is the only art belonging to personal communication at a distance. If then, you wish to say something of some importance, something from the heart, to you dear absent friends, why not write a letter instead of sending a message? Just as you wish to cloth your conversation with grace and subtle meanings beyond what mere words convey and so pepper it with witticisms, embellish it with apt phrases, and shun the monotonous, so too you can give your words and thoughts to your distant friends in the form of a beautiful gift they will treasure.

If you think of letter writing as an art, you can take just pride in your correspondence. You should approach your letters as art and not merely as a more laborious method of telling someone something you could say in a text or phone call. If you say to yourself, ‘I am an artist, how can I share my thoughts as a letter writer?’, then you will spare no effort to give your friends the most beautiful gift you can. Good stationary is expensive (I use, for longer letters, a Florentine paper which costs nearly three dollars a sheet, for shorter letters, Crane & Co), but a canvas for a painting can cost far more. It takes a couple hours to write a good letter, first writing a draft and then penning a clean copy, but an oil painting can take weeks. It may take a couple months to learn to write in a good hand, but it takes years to learn to paint. I promise you, it is worth the effort and expense!

You will reap unseen rewards if you begin to write letters. They give you the opportunity to develop your thoughts as an act of charity. You give yourself to your friends in a deliberate way when you write to them; the effort you dreaded in paper-writing for school becomes a joy when its fruit is the renewed blossoming of a serious friendship. And what is more, in keeping with the maxim ‘action begets reaction’, what you give of yourself will be returned to you tenfold by your friends: the reception of a letter is, as we all know, a joy, and your friends will read the letters again and again, giving full weight to your words and responding in kind. If they don’t, giving them the joy is still worth the effort.  There is something in the precision of writing which draws you into the beauty of revealing yourself and you will find yourself saying the things we had always wished to say but never did. You will even discover that you are able to tell your closest friends things you never thought about distinctly before.

Myself having written nearly two thousand letters, I must lay the depth of many of my friendships at the feet of this art. All those half-formed thoughts of the day garnered from reading, meditation, and brief conversation find their way into letters, for after all, I want to give a gift to those I love and cast about for the best I can give. Since what a man thinks is the greatest indication of who he is, you will find that, by grasping and writing whatever you can, you are not writing drivel or useless nonsense but putting yourself into the gift. If you think of it, you read and listen to letters about the everyday thoughts of men nearly every day, those of the apostles in the New Testament. The apostles, whose every thought was for the proclamation of the gospels, wrote so well and gave themselves so completely to their friends in the Church that we can read their letters and in them see, in the words of Cardinal Newman, ‘no longer them, but only Christ’.

  • r m

    Want to learn more about the why and how of writing letters as a Christian? First read this: https://aleteia.org/2016/02/03/write-a-letter-save-your-soul/ Then go here for the necessary supplies for really artful letter writing: https://www.gouletpens.com/

  • etomaria

    Okay, but for those who have either forgotten or grown up without this skill (art, habit, tradition) and have gotten all too used to brief comments, any advice on transitioning to letters that aren’t superficial or pointless? I do write to my grandma and rarely to my husband (I know, Those Catholic MEN, but I like your stuff!) but those are either just regular news (we live in different states) or occasioned by something (a serious argument or something else). What keeps me from attempting regular, but not just recounting-of-news, correspondence is this lack of an in-between.. I end up sounding like I am trying to lecture or sound smart.

    Do you think just writing letters will necessarily result in decent letter writing?

    • Benedict Joseph

      One of my fencing teachers, who had the wonderful name of John-Marie St. Francis, use to say, ‘practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent’. For something like expressing your thoughts on paper, though, I think that practice is the most important thing. Most of the form will flow naturally from the way your mind works and what you are writing about. That said, here are a couple thoughts on how to improve as you go. First, do not be afraid to imitate, in fact, imitate when you can (classical education is built upon imitation). If you are reading and you see an interesting sentence structure, use it in your next letter. An interesting word? Use it. Interesting thoughts are the best things to imitate. If you are every distracted from what you are reading by your thoughts about what is read then you probably have the germ of a letter in your mind, your own thought built upon another person’s thought. Not only will it give you something to write which was interesting enough to distract you from good writing, but if will even give you a format which avoids the look of being preachy. ‘I read something interesting which made me think along these lines, what do you think?’ would be the general outline of such a letter. Second, start as small as you like. Slightly more than a note, perhaps. On my smallest stationary I can fit about 400 words, that is only a brief though slightly developed or a few connected thoughts. Third, no thought is too small. Fourth, read letters by Waugh, essays by Orwell, reflections by Hopkins, et cetera; they will help form your style in writing on everyday matters and also boost your confidence—even the best writers scribble off notes that you can surpass while still teaching you something about the art of writing. I’m sure there are better suggestions than these, but these aren’t shabby.

      • etomaria

        Thanks for the ideas! :] My writing itself — the grammar, mechanics, form — is decent enough, it’s the substance that I have a hard time with. But I think you’re right, maybe just thoughts on paper that would also interest the other person would be good for a subject, I suppose the discussion doesn’t have to be strictly something I’ve been asked..

  • Bob Ewald

    I was born in the 1950’s when note & letter writing were more in vogue. Thank You notes, birthday & Christmas cards etc. were important and, dare I say, exciting to write – it was grown-up. I have written countless notes & letters to my wife and daughters over the years and will do so until death. And they have kept each one. The great thing about a note or a letter is that the reader can finish it, put it aside, then go back whenever they choose and still see the same words (without the spin of memory or lapsed memory) and hear your actual thoughts. The reader can let your thoughts percolate or take root or find deeper meaning. I use a fountain pen every time – it’s special, it’s traditional and it helps to express the importance and care that went into it.