The Case For Longhand Letter Writing
My grandfather never would have texted while driving. True, he never understood text message technology. But that’s not why. It’s also not because texting and driving is massively unsafe. People of my grandfather’s generation did lots of unsafe things. They smoked around babies. They fought Nazis. They barely had seatbelts, for goodness sake. People of an older generation still seem to have an attitude of: “I’ll get back to you when I get back to you.” It’s an attitude that my generation has lost, if we ever had it at all.
Cellular phones, smart or remedial, enable us to stay in contact with each other in myriad ways from nearly any location. We can text, e-mail, blog, and (weird that this came fourth) have spoken conversations, even face-to-face ones. This versatility creates the expectation of immediate access to both friends and professional contacts. If you send a text, and the recipient does not respond within two hours, you assume either…
- That person is trapped under a boulder in a mineshaft with zero bars of reception. Or…
- That person hates you.
The anxiety of “waiting by the phone” no longer exists because our phones come with us everywhere. The new neurosis is constantly looking your phone in public. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. I have a rotation. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, repeat. It’s as if I think receiving a message the moment it’s sent will make my life perfect and complete. What I’m really doing, though, is creating a constant state of anxiousness over not knowing something in time. If I wake up in the middle of the night, I’ll check my e-mail. Why? No one needs me to write back at three in the morning. For some reason, though, I feel like I have to care. If I can get a message at three, I should get a message at three.
For me, the handwritten letter is a temporary relief from the daily onslaught of mandatory information. I love handwritten letters. I love getting them, and I love writing them. It’s a pretty new thing for me. As a kid, I hated writing notes by hand. I resisted my elementary school’s pen pal program, and I put off sending thank you notes for gifts as long as I physically could. But that was back when people still wrote letters out of necessity. It was a heady time known as the early nineties, when e-mail was a novelty that required sitting through the “weee-unnnnngghhhh-gadung” of a dial up modem to send even the briefest correspondence. It goes without saying that many of my relatives did not even really know what e-mail was at that time. Letters were still a practical way of conveying necessary information.
Now, in 2012, letter writing is pretty much divorced from most practical functions. I still mail my landlord rent every month, and I get checks from freelance jobs, but letters are different than mail. Mail can be addressed, “To Current Resident.” Letters come from your beloved who is stranded on a Civil War battlefield. My point, guys, is that since “snail mail” is so inefficient to send, it doesn’t have the same urgency or anxiety attached to it as an e-mail, a text message, or even a telephone call. As technology has made our lives “easier,” a strange side effect has been the written word becoming the domain of pleasure and luxury. Because you can’t use a letter to say what you need to say, all that’s left is saying what you want to say.
I first got into letter writing in college. The summer between my sophomore and junior year, I was in a long distance relationship with someone who lived three time zones away. She worked nights at a bookstore, while I had an office job during the day. Phone conversations were all but impossible. To fill my weekends and evenings, I started writing insane, elaborate letters to her as well as other friends. Letters written as the president of a Bon Jovi fan club. Letters rolled up and tucked into glass bottles. Letters written on unspooled tape measures. Writing letters gave me a creative outlet and a method of communication that freed me from waiting by a phone or computer.
Most wonderfully, written correspondence gave me something to look forward to. When you send a letter, there’s the initial anticipation of waiting for the recipient to get it. It’s the same thrill you get while hiding in the dark at the beginning of a surprise party. Then you have the palpable excitement of waiting for your own letter in return. It’s the best. Checking your mailbox with eagerness rather than dread. Finally getting that envelope or package or postcard. It’s such a great feeling to know that someone spent time doing something for you just because. There’s no small talk in a letter. Just warmth.
I realize the irony of writing this on the internet. And I realize I sound like an old man. Just do this for me. Next time you’re in traffic texting: “What r u doing 2nite?” just know that you could have it so much better. You could be writing a cursive missive from the Battle of Bull Run. Or at least a birthday card to my grandfather.
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