"Have you thought about writing your family history, but found yourself stuck from the start? Writing a family narrative can be a daunting task, but Karen Jones Gowen found a way to bring her mother's story to life." (Homespun Magazine)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Lost Art of Writing Letters

Let's say you want to write a memoir for publication, or a personal history for family use. One of the best sources of material is LETTERS. Too bad letter-writing is such a lost art. Hopefully, you have saved your letters and those of your family members.

I have postcards written by my grandmother in the early 1900's. The handwriting is a bit difficult to decipher but worth the trouble, as it gives a clue to what mattered to her. Who visited, what gifts she received at Christmas, what was served at a special dinner. These are the kinds of details that are precious gems when writing from life. Because our memories can't be trusted. But letters, diary entries, and photographs can keep the accurate record of daily activities. Even a grocery list from 50 years ago can be a valuable resource.

Gone are the days when people communicated via letter. Unless you have a son or daughter at boot camp, that is. So this topic gives me an excuse to share some precious letters that arrived at my house this week. They're from my 18 year old son who's been at Marine boot camp in San Diego for 3 weeks. Each segment tells a little story:

Dear Mom and Dad,

"I have only wondered why I am here a few times, and only on certain hours of really bad days. Overall it isn't super duper bad. Today we got haircuts, and the barbers are super angry Italians who have no idea how hard they are pressing that razor against the heads of recruits."

"Today we practiced drill with rifles and it was pretty sweet, but holding an 8 pound gun right in front of you for an hour is super exhausting."

"I have yet to be IT'd, which is where a drill instructor takes you aside and makes you do pushups/situps/jumping jacks and running in place while he is yelling at you and making you shout things."

"DI's hate whistling more than Mom does. Getting caught whistling is like condemning yourself to only eating steamed carrots for time and all eternity."

"The one thing I will look forward to when I get home other than the lack of swearing, abundance of females, no more group showers and eating a Snickers, is taking my time while eating and not getting shouted at while eating."

From these letters, I'm getting a picture of what it's like for him at Camp Pendleton. Sometimes I wish email and cell phones had never been invented. It's convenient and cheap sure, but it has turned letter-writing into a rare thing indeed.

Another letter came today! Here are more excerpts from Recruit Gowen:

Dear Mom and Dad,

"Who would have guessed that drill instructors say 'heinous'. I don't even know how to spell that word." (Yes, he did spell it correctly!)

"Grandma's house is great and I love it here. (When he was preparing to leave, I couldn't say 'boot camp' so I said he was leaving for 'Grandma's house.') I get to drink apple juice every day and I get pudding almost every day. I sure wish that I had eaten a Snickers before I left because I have wanted one since Day 1, so don't forget to bring one to my graduation."

"I decided that my last letter lacked stories and adventure, so I will tell you about my adventures today. I spit up blood, did push ups on a red ant hill, learned about Marine Corps history, ate pudding and did drills. One of the best times was when a few of us recruits were cleaning outside, then a DI jumped through an open window to tell us that we were moving too slow."

I'll admit I had tons of anxiety about my youngest boy going to Marine Boot Camp (which is why I called it 'Grandma's house') but after getting these letters, I am comforted and even entertained. I know he's doing well. And the letters he gets from home will keep him going strong.

This post brought to you by the proud parent of a U.S. Marine


  1. Wow! What a tough life at boot camp! Getting yelled at while eating! Good grief!!! I wish your son all the best!!!!

    I love letters like these - and letters kept for posterity! I'm grateful that my mum kept all the letters my dad wrote to her - it's a joy to read them and I never tire of reading them - they really do give you an insight into lives now gone.

    Take care

  2. I wouldn't really want to be going through that sort of camp! Shouted at while eating . . . I knew Marines went through a lot, but geez!

    There's just something about letters that's different from an electronic message. It's more personal, and they're not stored in the cloud somewhere.

    I'm here as a part of Theresa's Halloween Haunting! :)

  3. I have heard about boot camp. But, Wow! That is tough. I send best wishes to your son.
    Many, Many years ago, I used to write letters, too bad it is a dying art, it is so personal and I always felt closer to the person when I read them.
    I'm hear as a part of Theresa's Halloween Haunting!

  4. oh the poor dear, Is mom allowed to send him a batch of homemade cookies?

  5. the 'lost art' is alive and well with me. I still write letters! I have a friend who is sensitised to electricity and has to live in a house without it. We have corresponded for about thirty years. Then I have another friend who hasn't seen any need to acquire a PC. And, believe it or not, I correspond by letter with another friend, in addition to emails. We just like it.

    Your poor son! I am shocked that the recruits get shouted at while eating. How you must treasure his letters!

  6. Christine, That is awesome that you still write letters.

    Joanna, No packages allowed! But he said he's getting lots of pudding, so he likes that.

    Choices, I used to write them too, which is why I guess the idea is nostalgic. Then years later, the friends or family members would give them back to me so I'd have a record, which is really a wonderful gift.

    The Golden Eagle, Welcome! "stored in the cloud somewhere" LOL.

    Kitty, how wonderful that you have those letters from the past!

  7. Boo! I came over from Theresa's Haunting Halloween post. I look forward to reading more of your blog...I am big on memoirs too!

  8. All my best wishes to your son. Praying for him. Boot camp is AWFUL! :)

    I am following from Theresa's Halloween Haunting. Love your blog. :)

  9. I'm following you from Theresa's haunting too.
    I like your blog and as a mail delivery man I lament the demise of personal letters too.
    My delivery bags are now filled with magazines and junk mail which nobody wants,letter writing is becoming a dying art so its good to find people keeping it alive :)

  10. I love writing letters, too! My Mom and I wrote to each other, every week of the 20 years that I lived in Maryland. I still have all of them, hers and mine, and treasure them, as they are a record of our lives, during that time.

    These letters from your son are priceless! I must say that boot camp doesn't sound like much fun, though. Wishing him all the best in a difficult situation!


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