Saturday, October 5, 2019

Unsent letters...

HALLIE EPHRON: Recently I was reading an article  by Meredith Goldstein who writes an advice column in the Boston Globe. She was pondering unsent love letters, and asked her readers to send her theirs. Expecting a few, she received a deluge.

Reading her article got me thinking about the therapeutic power of writing, and how I often don’t know what I think about something until I write about it. I have no unsent love letters but I do have unsent letters I’ve composed when I felt the need to explain myself to someone whom I’ve managed to piss off.

Writing itself is a voyage of discovery—not because it’s a way to get down in writing what I think, but rather as a process for figuring out what I think. Usually the best thing to do with the finished letter is… nothing. Save it, of course, because as a fiction writer I save everything. Most of the time when I reread it days or weeks or years later, I’m so glad I didn’t send it.

Do you write letters you don’t intend to send, and does writing help you figure out what you think?

JENN McKINLAY: *snort* No, I don't have any unsent love letters, because in my madly, passionately, crazily misspent youth, if I wrote a love letter, I sent it -- whether the recipient wanted it or not.

Sadly, I'm not much of a letter writer. Quick notes dashed off to be included with a mailed package seems to be the most I can manage. I do, however, journal quite a bit. And while I'm not as on top of it as I used to be -- volumes were dedicated to the Hooligans' younger years -- I do still try and get the funny things that happen written down, as well as, my frustrations, worries, and sadness when they need to be let out but not leaked all over everyone else.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, I read that column!  Fascinating--I was so surprised that so many people have unsent letters. Not me,  No way. Plus, if I wrote a letter to someone, they wouldn't be able to read it, anyway.

I do write things down to try to figure them out--usually a list of stream of consciousness what-ifs. And that truly works!  (And every time I try to journal, I completely fail.) Hard enough to remember not to hit reply all, you know? So, no letters here. And if I had them, I wouldn't be able to find them.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I was both a prolific letter-writer in my youth, and, like Jenn, recklessly free with sending them, so no, there are no unexpressed thoughts lying around waiting for my kids to unearth them. Somebody ELSE'S kids may get a surprise, though.

One thing I've observed is how my letter-writing and card-sending has slacked off with the normalization of online communications. There used to be a real pressure - if you didn't send a birthday card or a love letter, there wasn't going to be anything. Now... you can wish your loved ones Happy Birthday on Facebook and fire off emails, texts and messages to anyone far away.

I'm embarrassed by how few real letters I've sent to the Sailor, but since he's had access to FB Messenger for some of his deployment and has been able to make phone calls every few weeks, I haven't felt the need to put pen to paper. (I'm somewhat absolved of guilt by the fact his sweetheart Veronique has been a faithful correspondent.)

RHYS BOWEN: I have often lamented that there will never be bound volumes of the correspondence between two of today's writers. No one will ever do their Phd thesis on the interactions of the Jungle Red Writers, because nothing is permanent (apart from Hillary's emails, apparently!)  I used to love getting letters. When I was at college my boyfriend used to write to me once a week, even though I saw him quite often. Really funny creative letters. I kept them all until I decided that I was not going to marry him and then I burned them. Now I wish I had kept them.

But these days I do enjoy putting down scathing thoughts about the current political situation, but never sending them. I agree that the act of putting pen to paper is cathartic.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: No letters here, I'm very sorry to say. Letter writing is one of those things I've always wished I did, and did well, and have never really managed.

The only time I ever wrote them prolifically was when I was living in the UK and phone calls to my folks were too expensive. I wish I had saved those, and my mom's letters to me. She used to clip the Cathy comic strip from the paper on Sunday and send it to me.

Nor have I been tempted to put things better left unsaid in a letter. Maybe some of that unexpressed angst has found its way into my novels! I do journal sporadically, but not usually about anything significant, and I'm sure the contents would bore any reader to tears.

LUCY BURDETTE: No unsent letters from me either. My dad and my uncle were huge letter writers. I still have boxes of correspondence from them, along with my older sister, a few notes from my mom, and tons of birthday cards. What is the statute of limitations on keeping those? I can't imagine anyone else would want to sort through them so I suppose I should do it.

Rhys, I love the idea of a PhD thesis on the Jungle Reds. Could the student simply study the blog, or would she have to read all our emails too??

HALLIE: What about you? Do you have a drawer (or hard drive?) with unsent letters? When you go back and read them, what do you think? Ever sent one that you wish you could UN send?

60 comments:

  1. I was reasonably good at writing letters when we lived in on the other side of the country from the rest of the family. I was even better at writing them when John was off somewhere with the Navy and, yes, those letters were saved. Nowadays, though, with all the ways of instantly sending a message, I find that letter-writing has become something that’s done when saying something carries some importance, when it deserves something more than a quick text. [Written thank-you notes are alive and well here, but there’s no drawer filled with unsent letters.]

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    1. thank yous are great as real letters Joan. And sympathy cards too...it's a shame to try to comfort someone with a big loss by text!

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    2. Lucy, I can't even wrap my mind around the idea of sending a text in place of a sympathy card . . . .

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  2. My father was a major letter writer and I have a few of his many-paged single-spaced typewritten letters to me. I also have his and my mother's correspondence while he was in the Army and in India during WWII. My sons both live elsewhere and we sometimes write letters on paper, but yeah, between messaging and phone calls, we keep up with each other. Unsent letters? Nope I was in the wild and crazy camp with Jenn and Julia - send them!

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  3. Hallie, I know what you mean about figuring out what you're thinking/feeling about something by writing a letter. Not a drawer full, but tucked in the pages of some of my journals are letters I've written to express myself to certain people. Coming across them again, some I think I should've sent--others, well, better left where they are.

    And I think I've mentioned this before--I have letters written to me from my mom, my dad, my grandmothers--rereading those is like hearing their voices again. Such treasures! I'm afraid today's texts and Facebook messages will never have the same impact for me.

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    1. Flora so interesting about the letters in the journals that you didn't send. Now I'm super curious about what was is the ones you wish you'd sent. That makes for a great story beginning, don't you think?

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    2. One of my favorite novels by Mary Stewart, The Ivy Tree, contains a letter sent, but which never reaches its intended recipient. I've always loved that scene where the writer finds the letter. Mine wouldn't have been earthshaking--just honest expressions of emotions.

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    3. The TV show As Time Goes By has the same premise of a letter that never reached its intended tecipient

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  4. It is sad that so few write real letters any more. Electronic communication is so ephemeral. Even if emails are kept assiduously, attempting to move them from outdated devices can end with unreadable nothing on the new one. And that's assuming they got saved at all.

    I have kept every letter and card I've ever received, and going through and weeding them out is a winter project I've set for myself. It will either be fascinating, or boring drudgery. We'll see.

    My father-in-law was a prolific letter writer, and he kept carbon flimsies is every single one. Last year Steve and I went through fifty years or more of them, boxed by year, and stored randomly in the attic in open cardboard boxes, sometimes chewed by mice, sometimes filled with birdseed, courtesy of those mice, and often infested with all kinds of insect life. And dust, lots of dust.

    He carried on weekly, and sometimes more frequent, letters with many, many friends, some of whom lived right here in town, and many whom I'd known when they were all alive. Those were the ones I found the most interesting, how much affection was shown between two men who were great friends. The jocular tone of most of his exchanges was still wryly funny, just as they were in real life.

    Another interesting aspect to reading this much correspondence in a short time was seeing how the files slimmed down through the years. First, the carbon copies were replaced by printed copies of email, but eventually there were nearly no copies of personal correspondence, only cursory business letters, although these sometimes had personal notes added. We've lost this resource to the past.

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    1. Amazing Karen that he kept carbon copies. And really wonderful that you and your husband read through them all. A very special link to the past! I hate to ask, but did you then throw them out?

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    2. There was SO much paper to go through--they kept every utility bill and invoice, as well as every letter, for over sixty years. We did throw some away, unfortunately, before Steve realized he needed to save stuff.

      His dad was a pioneer in nature photography, and one of the very first to use color film for nature. He was part of the Disney team for their nature programs, back in the 50's, some of which received Emmys. (Remember those on Sunday nights? Some of them were done by Steve's dad Karl.)

      Steve is now, as a result of that correspondence, working on a documentary of his dad's life, and his influence on natural history education throughout his lifetime. He wrote a weekly column in the Cincinnati Enquirer that ran for more than 50 years, the longest run of a column by a single author in that paper's history. A record that will always remain, I'm afraid.

      You hate to ask, and we hate to think what we threw away before we wised up.

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    3. That sounds like a documentary I'll want to see. Fscinating.

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  5. I've kept every letter I've ever received in my life - and every diary/journal I've ever written. I've even printed a few emails that I want to keep forever.
    I still write letters too even though I also email. Everyone I write to loves receiving an actual letter although I've never asked if anyone keeps the letters. I have several friends who are PhD historians and I've often wondered how future historians will do their work with no written record to sift through. I suppose in some way, I'm hoping my correspondence will mean something to someone in the future.

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    1. Wondering, do you make a decision when you're about to write a letter whether to type it or hand write it? I love a handwritten letter. It's as if it adds a layer of emotion. However I do miss the 'delete' key.

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  6. Like, Jenn, I sent all those letters, and how I wished I hadn't. Let's hope they weren't saved.

    I consider e mail letters, and I have files with saved ones. Two of my favorite correspondents have died within the past three years, and I wish I'd saved more of their letters. However, one of them saved every single word, and her son sent me the file. Some days I go back and read our correspondence and miss her so very much.

    I also keep most FB messages, and I like the notion of being able to review the last conversation before the next commences. I remember the first time I got one from a writer. I was gobsmacked at that. It was a thank you note for a review I'd written! At the time I thought that he must not get many if he had time to write notes of appreciation. This made me pledge to write a review more often, not needing to be thanked but to let my favorites know they were being read.

    While there may not be packets of correspondence to pour over for all those PhD students who are developing their dissertations, I bet their search engines are working overtime. There is so much more access to things of this sort now than ever before.

    I haven't lost hope.

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    1. Ann, your story about getting the correspondence from your friend's son. So moving.

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  7. This post brought to mind that I have a little batch of letters and poems that I wrote as a teenager, unsent and unseen for decades.
    Since many years now, writing down what is bothering me and my feelings helps me to get a clearer view and to go through life.

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    1. Me, too. And lists. I like to make lists. Reasons go "A" - Reasons not to "A"...

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  8. I didn’t write letters when I was upset. Any letters I wrote were mailed and they typically were newsy. If I’m mad I’ll go on a rant but I’m not going to write it down! In college I had an economics professor who was way past retirement age but he was still teaching for the medical benefits. His wife was ill. He had served in the Kaiser’s army in WW1. He said if the officers were upset they were to write it in a letter to the Kaiser and hold on to it for 24 hours. Then they could send it. Dr Coper claimed no one ever sent that letter.

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  9. I keep a few truly outrageous letters and I have a stash of my daughter's handmade/painted birthday cards, which are always a treat to receive. Our courtship was conducted entirely by daily letters (on different coasts, long-distance phone calls prohibitive). I haven't seen the box during our last moves, so maybe I pitched them.

    I always sort out a dilemma pen on paper (usually a plotting dilemma, sometimes a chart of holidays and far-flung children...if we're here we'll see x and y, if we're there we'll see x and z, but what about y?

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    1. I have most of the cards my kids have made me. And of course all my husband's hand-drawn cards.

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    2. Oh yes, cards my kids made for me are definitely kerpers

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  10. Wow. Much food for thought. For people who keep ALL their letters, where on earth do you keep them? Curious minds... I just came across a trove of correspondence my dad sent to my mother while they were married but apart for an extended period. So banal!

    And I wonder about "author's papers" that get donated to institutions of higher learning... for me it would be a pile of random indecipherable scribbles. Any manuscript edits will have been long gone to digital heaven.

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    1. John hates looking at letters he wrote to his parents while in Vietnam--not very insightful, I guess. Most of us know ourselves better after a lot of years under our belts. I hope:)

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  11. Great topic. I certainly remember some work emails that I wished I hadn't sent. As I got older, I would sometimes write a scathing note at the end of the day, save it overnight as a draft, and review it before sending it in the morning.

    During the year before we got married, I lived a couple of hours away from my sweetie. This was back when phone calls cost money and we didn't have much. We wrote each other frequently that year and I still have those letters.

    During gradual school I used to write to my parents occasionally. Once, at the end of a couple of pages of complaining about the food and the weather, I mentioned that I was spending a lot of time with a young woman from North Carolina. My mom held onto that letter and Gabe it to my wife thirty years later.

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    1. What a smart woman your mother was! She knew you very well indeed.

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    2. That's a lovely story, Jim. And I've sent a few emails I later regretted. I wish I had thought of unsent emails, Hallie - I've had plenty of those over the years after finally absorbing the dictum: If you write an angry email, walk away for 24 hours. If you still want to send it then, do so." I never have.

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  12. I don't have any unsent letters but I am fortunate to have boxes of letters saved by my Uncle Bob. Letters from the great-grandmother I never met written to her daughter, letters my grandma wrote to Uncle Bob while he was in New York during WWII, letters from friends in service in WWII to Uncle Bob, etc. What a treasure! Of course, I also have the letters my husband and I wrote to each other before we were married and he was in law school in another city.

    Nowadays I'm like everyone else, I send email and ecards. I do use writing to help me organize my thoughts and ideas. I also write to try to put my emotions into words. That's hard for me but necessary because my husband isn't intuitive about emotions and I have to find a way to explain how I feel and why. Occasionally I journal but I never stick with it.

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    1. My husband isn't a big talker. Sometimes actions speak louder...

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  13. No, unsent love notes, but letters! I was seven when I first started boarding school, and the rule was once a week letter writing to ones parents. This continued till I was fifteen, when I left school and joined them in Ghana. They in tern wrote to me. I still have some of those letters. I do find it very hard to destroy them. Now I also have around a year and a half’s set of letters from my husband, before we tied the knot, and he has mine. This could be considered the start of our USA life together; he was on assignment here and I was still in London. The letters led to a breakup, and then to a marriage. But I have written letters and emails too which I will keep and review before sending or deleting. I am a correspondence pack rat! Oh dear, I think I just wrote a break through. Writing here may turn out to be as good as therapy. I write very little nowadays, though I try to hand write condolences, thank yous, and cards with more than my name. Oh, and I write a Christmas letter for each year we have lived in the USA. I guess this year will be my fiftieth letter.

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    1. We also write a Christmas letter but now it goes out mostly as an email

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    2. I love getting Christmas letters... a topic for another day.

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    3. Save them, Celia! Your life is someone else's historical research!

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    4. Celia - save your letters! They sound like treasures.

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  14. No unsent letters here. And sadly, I occasionally get the declutter bug and may have tossed some letters I used to exchange with friends from far away. I wish I still had the beautifully handwritten notes my great aunt used to send to me along with gifts of scented handkerchiefs.

    My husband is dyslexic and can't read my handwriting anyway, so I've never written one to him (other than notes like "remember to feed Kensi" left on the kitchen table on my way out.) I do journal, although more for documenting events than feelings. Torturing my characters in my books, though, has proven very therapeutic.

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    1. Did you keep the scented handkerchiefs?? My mother-in-law had a huge pile of embroidered handkerchiefs ... we saved them after she died, and my daughter put one underneath each of the vases of flowers on the tables at her wedding. After that, I have no idea what happened to them.

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    2. Handkerchiefs are coming back! They're greener than tissues, which are one-use and almost always made from first-cut pulp. Also, much less packaging than tissues.

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  15. I actually do have a few unsent letters - usually written when I'm extremely angry or hurt, and I need to get the feelings out. I'm very glad I never sent them, because while the act of writing is very helpful in getting my thoughts in order (and yes, is very cathartic) I believe I'd probably do more harm than good if those letters were actually sent.

    I was cleaning our attic and found a box of letters my grandmother wrote me when I was in college, before the days of email. And The Girl has saved all the letters The Hubby wrote to her while he was deployed to Iraq. I think she even took the ones he wrote to me.

    I do try to send cards, but I admit I'm quite bad at it.

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    1. Liz, when my mother dies, I got a box of letters - from mu father when they were courting, hers to her mother when they were living abroad, and mine from when I was in college and living in London. What a treasure, and every time I look at them I feel guilty for using ephemeral emails, messages and texts to stay in contact with family.

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  16. I still try to do real birthday cards and close to 100 Christmas cards

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  17. I always sent them, even when maybe I shouldn't have. On at least one occasion a letter I sent was read by someone else and that caused all sorts of problems.

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    1. Oh dear... and THAT is another great start for a mystery novel.

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    2. OMG yes, that's a good one! I'm taking notes...

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  18. Wonderful topic today. Like Rhys, I love writing letters and receiving letters. However when I was in college, my boyfriend spent his junior year abroad in France and I wanted a postcard. He sent me letters. LOL . I was so disappointed not to receive a postcard from France, though I loved getting letters from him. When I was a young child, I used to write letters to my grandfather, to my Aunt, to my Uncle and cousins. I remember my Mom, an English teacher, correcting my grammar then I rewrote my letters before sending them. I thought it was a given. Now I write letters and people are surprised by my excellent grasp of the language. LOL.

    And I love getting Christmas cards/newsletters. I am surprised by how many people dislike getting Christmas newsletters because the Christmas newsletters that I receive are always entertaining and interesting. Perhaps I know people who know how to enjoy life? And I just discovered cute Halloween postcards that I plan to send in the mail.

    Besides letters, how many of you still write and send postcards? Do you enjoy receiving postcards?

    Hallie, since I live in the SF Bay Area, I read the Dear Amy (used to be Dear Abby/Dear Ann) column and the Carolyn Hax columns. I enjoy reading these columns.

    Diana

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    1. I still send postcards to the older generation--there aren't that many left though! Everybody else catches up on FB or Instagram

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    2. My grandkids LOVE getting cards in the mail. Sadly I am lousy at sending them. But I have a sister-in-law who's absolutely terrific (thanks, Pat!) at sending them.

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    3. Lucy, I started Instagram only two years ago after I got a new smartphone. In college, I did not have a personal computer so I used the computer at school and at that time I was still writing letters. No email until after I graduated from college when I finally got an Apple Mac, which was user friendly.

      Hallie, I love getting cards in the mail. That's wonderful about your sister in law. I am trying to get better at sending cards in the mail.

      Diana

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  19. Hub and I started our courtship with copious emails! I have them printed out somewhere. I’m sure the Hooligans will be delighted to inherit them someday. LOL.

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    1. How excruciatingly embarrassing it will be for them. Heh heh heh.

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  20. Shalom Reds and fans. I currently correspond with a young man in prison. He is in for a very long time and we have been doing this for somewhat over a year. Christmas past, he family got him a tablet. So, now, most of our correspondence is like email. Now that I have a scanner, I probably should scan them into my system and I should also copy this year’s emails which are stored on the prison’s connections network. I should probably send him an “email” today. And I should probably scan and read over again, all of the letters from the past year.

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  21. Looking through the paper possessions of my youth, including college, one of my favorite pauses is to read the letter correspondence I had with friends and family. It was always a treat finding a letter in my mailbox at college. And, my earliest letter writing involved a pen pal from Denmark when I was in elementary school. One special collection of letters I keep in my mother's old sewing box. Those are my "love" letters as such, missives from a young man who is still one of my best friends to this day, even though our love story didn't work out. There's even a couple of poems he wrote me. It's rather nice to have a written record of how special someone thought you were. I so lament the dying practice of letter writing, and I'm to blame, too, as I've let it lapse in my life. That there won't be letters between important and/or interesting people in the future to study and catalog and learn from is sad. Emails just don't measure up.

    No unsent letters actually written out, just some composed in my head but never written.

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  22. I have boxes and boxes of letters from Steve that he began writing to me after we met one Christmas Eve many years ago. He wrote them until we were married and afterward while I was away at school and when he had to travel for work. He always sent postcards while away too. Now I am sad, too sad to read them, but I sometimes hold and even kiss one to touch him again.

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  23. We wrote thank you letters as kids. The letters had to be more than Dear Aunt Edris, thank you for..... Love..... We had to include what we might do with the gift, especially since it was normally a small money gift. We also had to include a little about what we were doing in school or reading. We had to write it within a week of receiving the gift. Grandma would hear about if the letter wasn't received in a timely manner. My stepfather used to keep copies of everything, some of which was before he was part of our lives. I honestly have no idea what happened to them after Mom died. Mom and stepfather got me my first laptop, which I took to my stepfather when he was on hospice so he could send an email to his son in Europe. I used to print out emails from a family friend because my mother non-tech. Then she would write them back via slow mail.

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  24. I send notes every week to 3 older women and a few every month, also the holiday letters. I don't know why people complain about the newsletters unless the friends are lying because wouldn't you want your friends to do well? Now that we're older, the letters aren't always so happy but I still want to hear from people. I use the computer because I can just change names and adapt to each person but also because my writing is horrible. I wish the few people who write to me would use the computer or typewriter because I can hardly read some of them.

    I also do a diary-like e-mail that I send friends and family once a week. This is helpful in letting me vent and consolidate my thoughts.

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  25. I don't write many letters at all these days so if I'm moved to write one it is with the intention that it will be sent.

    I don't have any unsent letters hanging around in a drawer in the house either. I suppose if I did then I might go back and read them when I remembered they were just sitting their in the drawer before shredding and tossing them out.

    As near as I can figure I never sent a letter that I now wish I didn't.

    Wow, I'm really rather boring for this day's topic aren't I?

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  26. Unsent love letters? No, those get sent. because love is for sharing. Now, unsent ANGRY letters are something else again. I discovered I could write them as e-mail on my phone and store them as "drafts." Those of us who are very good with words need to be careful with barbed ones. I'm pretty sure I can wound, not sure some wounds couldn't be fatal, at least to the relationship.

    Lawyers learn to figuratively bite their tongues. So when I recently sent a brief letter that says (without actually using those three words), "Go to hell," I think-- I hope-- the recipient knew me well enough to realize it was a very long time in coming, and that when one says this in old age, the likelihood of it happening soon increases exponentially.

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  27. I have received emails that that should never have been sent, but fortunately I always think and reread my own emails before I hit send or delete.😆

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