When We Were All Writers

Hey all. Gerry Boyle here, with my other hat on this morning. When I’m not writing my mystery novels I’m the editor of the Colby College magazine. (My alma mater; bit of a labor of love). As a former journalist, I still like learning new things, meeting interesting people, writing about stuff that’s real. And the other days I’m home making stuff up.

The past few months I’ve been putting out special sections for Colby’s bicentennial, 50 years at a whack. For several weeks I’ve been researching the period from 1914 to 1963. Fifty years. Three wars.  The Depression. Civil Rights. Fascinating stuff gleaned from the Colby archives, including notes on students who left cozy Waterville to go fight in France, Sicily, the South Pacific. Many of them didn’t  come back but left behind were now-yellowed news clippings, handwritten letters, faded photographs, even notes to the college from the students’ parents, reporting that their sons (and a few daughters) would not be coming back to Colby because they had been killed in action.

It is all very poignant and dignified and sad, with soldiers writing back to the school, saying they couldn’t wait to be there again (but never would); college administrators writing condolence letters. One quoted the poet Whittier. Another wrote of World War I, in which he was immersed, like he was a war correspondent.

In the Trenches Somewhere in France

Jan. 13, 1915

Dear Friend Capt.,

 I will now start you a letter which may not be finished for some days as I am a very busy soldier just now. First the scene: a valley just below our trenches which are on the crest of a ridge, and which have cost many a life to take. This valley is called “dead ground” which you from your military experience will understand. Just beyond the ridge, about 400 yds, are the Germans, and they furnish the illumination by their numerous flares. Immediately behind us are howitzers of large caliber and are called “Lazy Lize” from the noise their shells make traveling though the air. Now imagine a great hole in the ground, in the side of a hill, reinforced by numerous sand bags filled with Belgian farms, the hole filled with numerous rats, more numerous lice, and a couple of dozen men grouped around a few braziers filled with burning coke, and you have a picture of my habitation tonight. Later.

Murray Morgan 1915

Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry

Morgan, who hailed from the Maine’s St. John Valley and had Canadian citizenship, had enlisted after his sophomore year. He died at the Battle of Verdun in March 1916, after penning quite a few letters to his friends back home. He was perceptive and ironic and a very good writer. He probably would have been one.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I’ve come away from my days in the archives thinking that people of these earlier generations were wonderful writers, even those who didn’t consider themselves to be. And I wonder what we’ll leave behind. Tweets? Emails? How will that be preserved?

What form does our correspondence take today, even those of us who write for a living? A longer email if the subject is important? A call from a cell phone while we drive? A text message?

Lately I’ve been reverting to old-school correspondence. I had to find some actual note paper. I had to relearn penmanship. When I was done writing a letter my hand was tired. And then I licked the envelope, stuck the stamp on. Walked it up to the mailbox and dropped it in. The recipient, a family member, was very surprised to find an actual letter in pile of bills and junk. She emailed me to say so.

I found that I wrote differently. I thought before I put the pen to paper. It was like I was using another part of my writer’s brain. And if the result wasn’t as eloquent as Murray Morgan’s notes from the front, but it wasn’t an email, either.

So if you’ve lost the art of letter writing, I recommend that you find it again. I think, like me, you’ll be glad you did.




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4 Responses to When We Were All Writers

  1. Deanna says:

    My handwriting is very poor and would be a trial to anyone trying to read it. To those I wrote to, I typed on the computer and printed it. That way both of us were happy. Dee

  2. I’m with you, Deanna. My squiggles are almost illegible, even to me. LOL
    But, Gerry, you raise a serious question. What will be left to show us not just as writers but as people? Those of us fortunate enough to have books published will have those.

    Of course, I’ve heard nothing that goes out in cybersphere is really lost. Which is why we have to be careful what we put out there. (Something, I’m afraid some folks will never learn. And I don’t just mean young people!)

    What fun (and sadness) it must be to pour over the records. It’s wonderful those bits remain. Is Colby celebrating it’s bicentenail in a particular month? In college, I joined Sigma Kappa. If memory serves, Colby College is where the sorority began. Thanks for a meaningful post.

  3. Brenda says:

    How interesting & how poignant! It is so nice that the ones who died left behind letters & that there were writings about them that give an idea of what they were like. From the many old letters I have seen that is a big thing we’ll be missing I think — any idea of what a person was like that makes them more than a one dimensional name on a piece of paper.

    We print out some of the more treasured e-mails but things happen (like the e-mail provider mysteriously erasing a 60th anniversary picture before we printed out our copy of it and its accompanying e-mail) and some not that old fade with time (and not much time either for the ones with dot matrix). I still write letters occasionally, intend to write more, used to write oodles of them.

    I am fortunate to have a personal archive of wonderful letters from various family members including many from my late father to me and to his mother. There is a charming letter my paternal grandfather’s first cousin (who later became a pen pal of mine) wrote to my paternal grandparents about my great-grandfather’s funeral. She mentioned who her favorite uncle was & he was the one I thought would have been mine too, that great-grandfather.

    I am curious what your alma mater’s policy on collecting letters from this era is and whether there have been any/many.

    Again, thanks for a fascinating post. Do write about this again & let us “hear” from more of those who lost their lives in World War I.

  4. MCWriTers says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m another of the lethal penmanship crew. All those hours using a chainsaw before the anti-vibration handles became common sure didn’t help hand flexibility and steadiness. I’ve seen a scary trend from letters to emails, from emails to Facebook posts and tweets, from those to text messaging. With each change, there seems to be less personalization and even less thought to the content. I agree that letter writing requires a heck of a lot more thought than the more recent forms and in many instances is much safer in terms of how the writer comes across to the recipient. Instant when it comes to communication, often equates with hostile insulting or just plain embarrassing.

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