Thursday, March 15, 2007

The lost art of letter writing

Recently I read a wonderful memoir by an elderly friend of my mother's: Russia and Beyond: One Family's Journey 1908-1935 by Margaret Zarudny Freeman. It tells an amazing story of her family's survival during the Russian revolution. She was the oldest of six children and wrote with amazing detail how they coped in western Siberia, helped by a couple of loyal servants after their father fled the country to work first in China, then in Japan. While he was away their mother was arrested by the Bolsheviks and later shot.

Here's a description of the book from Amazon:
Russia and Beyond is a young woman's account of herself and her family in
the chaotic years surrounding the Russian Revolution and Civil War of 1917-20,
followed by a long self-exile in Russo-Chinese Manchuria, and the beginnings of
a new life in America in the 1930s. A child's-eye view of violent military
events, and of unflinchingly practical responses to personal emergency and loss
- with five siblings in tow after the death of their politically victimized
mother - matures to an understanding of homeland loyalty, displacement, and
expatriation, in a more international arena. The author, now aged 97, has left
us an inspiring, sometimes chilling, but forever positive narrative of this
harsh intellectual coming of age, and of the mutual love and perseverance that
sustained her, and her young fellow survivors. A comment from Nadine Gordimer
(Nobel Laureate in Literature, 1991): "Dear Margaret, I've read your book with
growing interest and fascination, page after page. It's a remarkable evocation,
a double one: a revelation of the profound meaning of emigration not written
before, and a picture of family relationships enduring the disruptions of
historico-political disasters in what must be no less than a unique survival by
trust and love." Johannesburg, South Africa 10 August 2005

Mrs. Freeman does not spare herself in her portrayal of childhood selfishness, sibling rivalry, and conflict with adults. Her portrait of her father and mother and the servants is the stuff of great literature. One thing that struck me in reading the book was how many letters this family wrote each other. The father wrote as often as he could, even when strife, famine and dislocation made the mails unreliable. He encouraged his children to write him often, and saved the letters. First of all, it amazed me how much family togetherness was stressed no matter what distances separated people. Today, we may live in the same house, but so often everyone's in their own room with their own computer or TV set, often not even having meals together.

Secondly, those letters, saved through periods of unemployment, uncertainty, travel and danger, provided a treasure trove for Mrs. Freeman when she wrote this wonderful memoir.

What's happened to letter writing today? We send emails now, but mostly emails are short, a paragraph or two. And how can we depend on saving them? I have lost my saved email when hard drives have crashed. I have other saved email on hard disks that are soon going to be obsolete on new computers. Many of us have the little portable hard drives that look like squat pens, but who knows how long that electronic format will last.

We are in a period of such rapid technological change that even trying to write a memoir or a novel that specifically mentions a certain kind of technology can either date you pretty fast, or confuse readers. How many teenagers today would know what a floppy disk is? Or an eight-track tape?

I find it hard and cumbersome to write letters. I send the occasional hand written card, but even that is difficult. I am addicted to convenience and have trouble slowing down to write a long, thoughtful, observant letter. What I used to devote to letter writing, I now devote to blogging.

Maybe I have a wider audience in the blogs, but who knows whether 25 years from now, any of what I've written here will be accessible.

We're paying a price for convenience and today I confess my addiction to it. And, this Lenten season, my feeling of contrition makes me aware this addiction is not a good thing. The book also made me realize is that too often I don't take the time to get to know the people I meet. For example, I had met Mrs. Freeman several times over the years and had no idea of her remarkable story.

As we live in our virtual worlds, are we taking time to connect with the real people in our midst?
How alive will our writing be if our main contact is through computers, monitors and appliances? Do you miss the days of letter writing?


Deborah said...

Hi all,
I didn't realize I had somehow ended up posting two pictures of myself. And I tried to delete one, but couldn't so I have shrunk it.

Technology. It's biting me back I guess for lamenting the loss of lettr writing.

N. J. Lindquist said...

Hmm. Blogger let me delete the tiny picture. I guess I have the Power. :)

Very interesting post - something I've thought of once or twice, too. With all the reams of writing out there, who will save the valuable bits?

N. J.

Anonymous said...

Hi Deborah. I'd like to chat with you privately. I'm doing some research and I'm hoping that you might be able to help. Please visit

As you can see from the URL, there's a connection to your March 15, 2007 blog entry. Thanks -AZ

P.S. Rest assured, no spam, scams or phising, just genuine interest in discussing any and all things Zarudny.

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