by George Bishop, author of Letter to My Daughter: A Novel
In my novel Letter to My Daughter, Laura, a middle-aged mother, writes a long letter to her runaway daughter. Early on in the story, she bemoans the fact that letter writing seems to be a dying art: “In this hyperactive age of emails and text messages, the kind of correspondence that Tim [her boyfriend] and I shared must seem like an anachronism to you . . . But I sincerely hope, dear Elizabeth, that someday you might have the pleasure of such an anachronism; that one day you’ll experience for yourself the irreplaceable joy of receiving letters from a lover.” Much like my protagonist, I too appreciate the value of letters as a form of communication, and for this reason I’m always looking for ways to incorporate letter-writing activities in my English classes.
Unlike an electronic message, a letter’s a tangible thing; it’s got heft and substance. We can hold it in our hands, turn it over, smell it even. We appreciate the extra time it took the sender to write out their thoughts on paper, put the paper in an envelope, address, stamp, and mail it. A letter says, Listen to me. I’ve got something important to tell you.
A letter begs to be preserved, too, as a kind of historical document. In a cedar trunk in her closet, tied up in pink ribbon, my grandmother saved the letters she exchanged with her husband while he was away entertaining troops in Europe during World War II. In this respect, a letter is both more private and public than forms of electronic communication: private because of the intimacy we associate with letter writing, but public because we recognize that our letters may one day be read by others after we’re gone. Will children sixty or seventy years from now read the emails and text messages their grandparents sent when they were first falling in love? It’s possible, but I somehow doubt it.
Because a letter seems more important and more lasting than other forms of written communication, we tend to take special care with its composition. I’ve been thinking about personal letters so far, but this holds even truer in the business world, where letters can be binding documents. I once had a temp job in the legal department of Pacific Oil and Gas Company, and my boss, an attorney, would spend an entire day writing and re-writing a single one-page letter for me to type. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, I learned, could hinge on the use of “the” or “a” as an article. Business people, like lovers, know how crucial it is to get the words exactly right in their letters.
So for all these reasons, but mainly because I find it to be a fun and useful way to get students to put pen to paper, I like to practice letter writing in my English classes. I’ve used letter-writing activities across a wide range of levels and settings, from beginning EFL classes for young teens in a Turkish elementary school, to Business Communication classes for adults in a community college in North Carolina. Some of my favorite letter-writing activities over the years, and ones that almost always prove popular with students, are:
- letters asking for and giving advice (a la “Dear Abby”);
- letters of complaint (to a school official, city department, store, etc.);
- letters of request (to a local business or government agency requesting information or brochures, for example);
- letters of introduction (of yourself to a potential employer, or a friend to a host abroad);
- letters to the editor (addressing some issue in the news);
- a letter to a friend or family member that you’ll never send; and,
- a letter to yourself ten years from now.
In all of these activities I like to make the letters as genuine as possible: students write letters that if not actually mailed, could be mailed. Or I’ll exchange the letters between students, or between classes, or even between different schools, and then have other students write replies. The critical thing for most of these activities is that students should be able to see some response to their letters. My young Turkish students loved getting replies from students in the US, for instance (“Look! English works!”). Teenage students everywhere, I’ve found, enjoy coming up with and writing answers to “Dear Abby”-style letters. And, most impressively, I know of one high school teacher in the US who’s had an amazing rate of success in getting his students’ letters printed in The New York Times.
The advantage of letter-writing activities like these is that they engage students in real, purposeful communication, with clear audiences in mind. (Contrast, for example, the instruction to “Write an essay about an important experience in your life” to “Write a letter to your best friend telling him or her the most exciting thing that happened to you over the summer.”) Good letter writing requires the same attention to skills that we look for in all academic writing: things like organization, evidence, grammatical accuracy, awareness of tone and audience, and so forth. These elements are also important in business communications, so students who learn how to draft a good letter or memo will be prized in almost any line of work. But finally, and most importantly, letter-writing activities like these are enjoyable and meaningful for students.
Letter writing doesn’t have to be a dying art, not if we teachers don’t want it to be. I believe it’s something well worth practicing and preserving in the classroom. As a final testament to the value of letter writing, let me turn again to my novel. When Laura first realizes that her daughter really has run away from home; when she understands how distant she and her daughter have become; when she sees at last that the very survival of their family is at stake; she turns to the one thing that she believes will save their relationship—the most powerful and intimate demonstration of her love that she can think of: a letter.