The Art of the Handwritten Letter

I’m lying in a well-stained cot in ninety-degree heat while allowing a small child to draw Pokemon on my leg in black Sharpie. Around me, I hear the whispers of little girls as they squeak from bunk to bunk during our quiet hour. Still, I am at peace. In my lap lies a spiral notebook– the spiral notebook that kept me sane all summer. I craft a letter to my fiance, trying to find just the right adjectives to describe the three mile hike I took uphill with a child on my back.

This summer I had the honor to work at a wonderful privately owned summer camp near my hometown. While the days of being eaten alive by mosquitoes and wrangling homesick children were tough, I wouldn’t change any of it for the world. Yet, I still look back on those days and think of my life-line– my notebook. Because while the campers were absolutely wonderful, it often was difficult to find a moment of peace and quiet. As someone is who generally more introverted (albeit not shy), I craved those moments I could spend alone with my thoughts. Letter writing did that for me.

Letter writing was one of the few “camp activities” that never grew old. My boss had encouraged all the counselors to write someone home, as the campers would often take note and then write letters back to their parents as well.

What had started out as a chore soon turned into my retreat. At first, the letters were boring: “Dear Matt, We had sloppy joes for lunch today. Then we went on a hike. Now I’m going to sleep.” Stamped, sealed, and mailed a measly 30 minutes away, these letters dripped with monotony, so of course I never got a reply. As my fellow counselors started getting letters from parents and significant others, I didn’t get quite as jealous as I did competitive. I mean, I was an English major from WIU! I knew I could write well enough to earn myself a stinking letter.

The letters following this I call my “details” period. Primarily sent during the second week of camp, these letters took entire break hours and quiet times to write: “Dearest Matthew Aaron, Today we canoed across the murky depths into unforeseen lands uncharted along the Illinois river. With my trusty backpack and leaky canteen in tow, we embarked on adventure.” I swear, it sounded like something out of a Dickens’ novel.

These letters grew tiresome to write. By week three of camp, all I wanted was to use my quiet hours to sleep. On top of that, the heat had reached blistering levels, and I needed an outlet for my less than chipper-happy-camp thoughts. The letters then became less Dickens, and more “Hello Mother, Hello Father.” Each day I sent a new list of “Things that Happened at Camp,” sprinkled with different outrageous sayings as to provoke a response. Even in week three of camp, I was still determined to get a letter during mail call. Here are a few of my favorites:

“3. Today lunch was a can of dog food and a bag of Skittles from 2006.”

“10. For a fun camp activity, we burned a blood-soaked oar over the creek as a sacrifice to the forest god Timituit.”

“6. The evening activity options are either a camp dance or playing volleyball with a hornet’s nest. I’ve been assigned to supervise volleyball.”

“2. Two counselors went missing in the woods. When they returned they foretold prophecies as their eyes rolled into the back of their heads. They also found the missing fishing pole.”

“11. Beeeeeeees.”

“9. Today on the hike I taught the kids to never trust the forest spirits, lest they cut off our hands in the night.”

I wrote these listacles in hopes of spurring a shocked reaction from the recipient. Something along the lines of “What is wrong with you?” or “My sister found this letter and now she’s concerned.” I wanted a reply that played along with the gimmick, or made guesses as to what I really meant, or even just a sarcastic remark about how I need to read less American Gothic literature.


My bunk at camp

Soon my older teen campers caught wind of the letters, and the dark-humor I had been hiding that whole time became a camp hit.  Each day they would surround me at campfire time and beg I read the letters out loud. Obviously, I didn’t read the edgiest of my entries, but the silly ones about eating dog food and whatnot I figured were camper-appropriate.  Letter writing had morphed from my daily solace, to another special inside joke between my campers and I. If I wasn’t already excited to enter into the world of English education– a career based on drawing groups of people together using the power of language– after my time at camp, I couldn’t wait to head back to school to block teach. (Although, when I teach I doubt I’ll encourage my students to write letters riddled with violent dark-humor).

Oh, and side note– my fiance never wrote back.