In my latest NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Inbox email, I got this article about kids at summer camp who are getting the experience of writing letters to their parents. Many of them have never written letters before, but at camp they aren't allowed computers or cellphones, and many camps require kids to write at least one letter home a week.
This article made me smile and brought back memories from my childhood. No, I didn't go to summer camp, but I did go to boarding school, and we, too, were required to write letters home. When I was very young, letter-writing was a classroom activity, first thing on Monday morning, and the teacher read what you had written for correctness. Later on, we wrote on Sunday mornings and I don't think anyone was reading what we wrote before posting. In high school (by this time I was at a different boarding school), nobody really checked to make sure we were writing, but we were still expected to do so. (At the summer camp in the story, "computers are as exotic as boys"; at my high school, neither computers or boys existed, either - computers because they hadn't been invented yet, at least not in the form that regular people used, and boys because - well, it was a girls' school.)
As a child, I would think about events in terms of how I would narrate them in my letters to my parents. I think this is what made me into a writer. While it's true that there's something special about a physical letter, I find email an acceptable substitute these days. But writing a letter - or an letter-like email, as opposed to one sentence for informational purposes - is not at all the same thing as composing a Tweet or a Facebook status or a text message. It's a much more sustained exercise in writing, and it requires thinking about the person you're writing to for more than a few seconds. I think that's what the 11-year-old in the article means when she says of a letter, "It feels like it's really for you."
At camp, kids are learning such skills as addressing envelopes and writing in sentences, and that's all great. But I am even more happy for them that they are learning about what it is like to conduct relationships through writing; to share thoughts and ideas, to narrate what's going on in your life for someone who wasn't there, and then in turn to read about that person's life. To me this is a great pleasure, and it's a shame that it's a vanishing one. It's good to know that it's not completely gone yet.
5 hours ago