It’s outdated. It’s slow. It takes time, concentration, and forethought. But it is incredibly worthwhile — especially if you’re on the receiving end.
Handwritten letters are nearly a thing of the past. Emails, texting, and social media have made them unrealistic for common, everyday use. While these faster forms of communication are wonderful in many ways, the long tradition of handwritten letters should not be forgotten or merely looked back on as something people “used to do.” Writing letters should be something we continue to do — and teach to our children. And when I say “handwritten letter,” I don’t mean a “thinking of you” note. No. A handwritten letter is long, filling both sides of a page — or six pages. “Six pages?” you ask. Ridiculous. “Handwritten?” you say. Utterly impractical. But let us pause a moment and remember that everything need not be “practical.” It should, however, be meaningful.
Have you ever marveled at the beautiful process that is letter writing? It is a form with decided rules, but they allow for a multitude of variations. The opening salutation alone could be any number of things, from “To Whom It May Concern,” to “My Dearest,” and many more. Then comes the body, a kind of give and take between asking and telling. When we were young, our letters consisted mostly of these types of questions: “How are you?” “I am fine.” “Yellow is my favorite color. What is yours?” Children are still learning the form of letter writing, along with handwriting, spelling, and grammar, all while trying to do the impossible: write in a straight line. When they aren’t asking questions, their musings are quite matter of fact: “I like pineapple pizza. I swam in the pool yesterday. It was cold.” These letters are charming, and the more we write, and the older we grow, the more our thoughts, vocabulary, and sentence structure expand. Finally, as adults, our questions take on a deeper nature, as do the musings about our lives.
These questions and musings must be handwritten. Typing would be sacrilegious, because writing a letter isn’t just about the words. Handwriting makes you slow down and order your thoughts. You can’t erase as easily as you can backspace, especially if you write with pen. And pen is a must! What kind? Well, that depends on the letter. Take Anne Shirley’s remarks to Gilbert Blythe on the subject:
In daylight I belong to the world . . . in the night to sleep and eternity. But in the dusk I’m free from both and belong only to myself . . . and you. So I’m going to keep this hour sacred to writing to you. Though this won’t be a love-letter. I have a scratchy pen and I can’t write love-letters with a scratchy pen . . . or a sharp pen . . . or a stub pen. So you’ll only get that kind of letter from me when I have exactly the right kind of pen.
After finding the appropriate pen, you realize that pens imply the act of handwriting — a touchy subject for many. Before you complain about your illegible scribble, though, remember: Letters take time, concentration, and forethought for a reason. The less you care about your handwriting, the less legible it will be. Handwriting gives you time to form your prose, strengthening it and refining it as you move from one sentence to the next, varying the pace, playing with tone, and doodling. Yes, doodling is an undeniable part of handwriting, and it helps with the next reason for why letter writing is deeply important.
To write a letter is to tell a story, to share some of our life with someone dear to us. It is the story of those important and mundane events that shape our everyday lives. Letters take forethought and concentration because they are a process, a kind of reflection. Because of the travel time and response time, weeks can pass between letters, and these weeks are full. Claim to lead an uninteresting life? Think again. Stories surround you, and it all depends on the perspective you take. Too much to write about? Choose the most important events and, in reflecting on those, you may discover some smaller and more important ones hiding in plain sight. And those doodles? Well, sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.
Letters are also a peek into the writer’s personality. Mine, for instance, lack transitions between topics (sometimes I have to write an outline for my letters!), have scratched-out words, and contain more misspellings than I care to acknowledge (sorry, Mom. I know you tried). Perhaps my favorite example of epistolary personality is from letters my parents exchanged while they were dating but working summer jobs in different states. Dad’s would always have his return address written tidily in the upper left corner, but with a funny name where his own should be. They ran something like:
Shiny Heads of America Club
2169 Timberman Rd.
Bald and Beautyless
420 Marycrest Hall
The Dead Roach Farm
Mary(Scary)crest University of Dayton
Well-placed humor at its best.
Instant communication is here to stay, and it is undoubtedly a blessing to long-distance family and friends. Even a quick text from a dear friend brightens the day immensely. But sitting down and handwriting a long letter shows an even deeper level of care, that touch of the personal we all crave. So continue sending silly emojis to your family group chat and reconnecting with that old high-school friend over email. But maybe one month, turn that two-hour phone call with your sister into a letter, or that Skype call with a dear college friend into a ten-page epistle. Reminisce. Joke. Talk about pipe dreams, ask for prayers, or describe a struggle. Doodle in the corner. And then pay that 55 cents. It’s worth every penny.