The Troy University Writing Center is hosting a letter-writing workshop on Saturday, April 15, from 10 a.m. until noon.
Participants in the Writing Center’s “The Art of the Letter” workshop will have the opportunity to learn about the history of letter writing using examples from several literary figures.
In addition, attendees will get to write three letters; one of these letters will be a response to a letter from a student in Nairobi.
Patricia Harris, the Writing Center coordinator, said she wondered what would make students want to attend the event. She reached out to a friend who had contacts in refugee schools in Kenya, and soon found a package of letters from students in Nairobi.
“We have these letters, and they’ve come to us, and they’re each written by students in Nairobi,” Harris said. “So we’ll each have a real letter from a real person, and we’ll be able to write back to them.”
She explained that the Kenyan students were usually about 15 years old, but because they live and go to school in a war-torn country, they may be only in their equivalent to the third grade.
The letters written by the Kenyan students are part of their English lessons. The students are told to write letters to imaginary friends, but they never know what actually happens to those letters.
The letters written during the workshop will be sent directly back to the school in Nairobi.
It’s a pen-pal situation, she explained. Not only will the letters written during the workshop be sent back and read by the students in the school in Kenya, but they will also be used as classroom materials in future lessons.
“I would love to have one of these (workshops) every month, year-round, because the letters will be there,” said Harris. “I think the reason that students might want to come is to start a relationship with other students on the other side of the world, and to do it in a way that they don’t typically communicate in anymore.”
Taylor Bottoms, a junior English major from Columbus, Georgia, who has volunteered as a tutor at the Troy Public Library for the past year, has seen the effects of personal interactions with younger students.
“One of the best things for a student is to be validated,” he said. “So, getting these response letters shows them that there is someone listening to them and paying attention to them.”
Along with the letter to a Kenyan student, Harris explained that participants will be invited to write two other letters as well: one to a loved one and one to a past or future self.
“We’re in a distraction culture,” she said. “We text and email, and everything is disposable.”
“Emails and other electronic forms of communication do not resonate with us on a personal level,” she said. “When we have an exchange that is handwritten words on a piece of paper—it’s something that we don’t have anymore.”
“I have all this other paper around here, mass-produced paper in print,” she said, while gesturing around her office.
She then reached for a postcard in a plastic holder and held it up. “It’s the notes, well, like this,” she said. “This (the postcard) is really cute, but the thing that matters is this: When I was first here, somebody gave me a superhero card, and it’s got two sentences (handwritten on the back), but it means everything.”
“We need to have expression that has a duration that persists past the moment,” she said. “We need to start thinking about posterity communication instead of instant communication.”
Letters are an extremely effective way to do that, she explained.
Harris recalled the famous writer T.S. Eliot and how he wrote letters to many other famous people of the time. After he died, his surviving wife published the letters in volumes.
“He opened up in a way that he didn’t in his journals; he didn’t in any of his essays,” she said. “But in the letters, he’ll just let loose because there’s just this freedom with the ideas.”
Unlike today’s social media, a letter to a specific person can be extremely in depth, Harris explained. Facebook requires an author to write to a large audience, but a letter is to one person and can be extremely personal.
She also explained that letters can open doors that a phone call cannot. Aunt Ethel (a fictional character Harris created for the sake of conversation) may only like to gossip about her neighbors on the phone, but in a letter, she may be far different.
“In the letter, she (Aunt Ethel) is a different person,” Harris said. “When she writes you back, she’ll give you some personal history that you would have never known otherwise.”
She further explained that Aunt Ethel’s letter would also be in permanent ink to help save the information.
Hal Fulmer, the associate provost and dean of undergraduate and first-year studies, spoke of his historical research on letters.
“We can go back and read the works of Shakespeare or Cicero or all these people because that kind of writing got into more permanent forms,” he said.
“A lot of the writing that is happening right now is essentially lost. I mean, it is transitory… Essentially there is no repository for (emails) unless I print it and put it into a file.”
Letter writing is also good practice for other writing, according to Fulmer. Becoming a better letter writer means becoming a better writer in general because it forces the writer to capture what he wants to say for a specific audience, according to Fulmer.
“Part of this event’s purpose is to reach out to students and encourage them to write letters to ultimately become better writers,” he said.
According to Fulmer, writing letters helps students save their ideas to create much more detailed records of their lives than if they simply tried to write about several years in one sitting. Through this, letter writers become part of something grander and bigger.
“Letter writing ties us, connects us to something that is truly historic and global,” he said. In addition, writing is also a valuable skill in the workplace and can often lead to jobs.
For more information or to register to attend, contact Patricia Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Writing Center’s Facebook page.