We are a society obsessed with communicating quickly. News barely happens before there is a story about, and whole conversations happen via text message. Electronic communication has evolved so fast that email already seems antiquated. But in a sea of messages zooming around invisibly from device to device, the handwritten letter still manages to survive—even if its not nearly as popular as it once was.
I admit that I regularly use text and email to communicate with people. Three of my best friends and I are spread out around the country and regularly have a conversation going that bounces back and forth between group text and email, and I like how easy it is for us to be present in each other’s lives because of technology. But sometimes the urge to slow down pulls at me, and I pick up pen and paper and write.
It’s strange to think of a time when the primary form of communication was the handwritten letter. Rather than checking Facebook or even picking up the phone, people would rely on the mail to deliver news of major events in their loved ones’ lives. I think this is part of what has contributed to the thrill of seeing a letter in the mail. Even when I was in college in the mid-90s, my friends and I would still exchange letters. But with email quickly gaining popularity at that time, letters started to become infrequent and much of what used to be written by hand was typed out and sent off through cyberspace.
Because so much communication happens electronically now, mail is mostly junk and bills. It has become rare to see the familiar writing of a friend scrawled across the front of an envelope and tucked amidst a stack of grocery store ads and requests to donate to a wildlife charity. Finding a handwritten letter in the mail brings a smile to my face, and I find myself rushing inside so I can curl up in a chair with the letter. It does not matter that I saw pictures of that friend’s latest trip on Facebook earlier that day or even if we exchanged a few texts the day before.
Writing by hand requires a different kind of thinking than typing on a keyboard. For one thing, it is a slower process, and I think that is what makes it more meditative. Writing by hand also takes away the distractions that often come with staring at a screen. Gone are the temptations to check Facebook or to watch cute puppy videos. It’s just you, a pen and paper. To write someone a letter is to say communication with them is worth your undivided time.
I have a few friends who appreciate the handwritten letter, so we try to exchange letters on a regular basis. I have to admit that I have been lax on my letter writing in the last few months, so I have made an effort this week to get caught up. Two nights ago I sat with a friend’s letter from September in front of me. Yeah, that is way too long without writing back. I cleared my desk and focused on the page in front of me. It was a relaxing process. Online communication is busy and full of flashing lights and noises. Letter writing carries none of that and it felt quite freeing to get back to that form of communication.
When I did a semester in London back in college, I often wandered through the British Museum and looked at the old manuscripts and letters of some of the greatest British writers. They were beautiful handwritten records of the creative process and the lives these great minds lived. I think we lose out on that in an era where most of our writing happens on computers, tablets and smart phones. I save the handwritten letters I get from people, and I enjoy going back through them years later. It is as though a part of that person from that particular moment is captured in the loops and lines of their handwriting—you just can’t get that same feeling from an old email.
Set aside some time to write to a friend. Even if it is a note that you write to someone you live with and slip into their bag or a letter that you send to the other side of the world, take a moment to put pen to paper.
Photo by Tim Pershing