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…

  1. That person is trapped under a boulder in a mineshaft with zero bars of reception. Or…
  2. 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. TC mark

image – Vinni

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  • katie

    awesome

  • guest

    I share this sentiment, i always write letters to people because its personal, caring, intimate 

  • Valerie

    my boyfriend is in basic training for the army. phone calls are infrequent and short, and even worse, i’ve missed most of them. writing letters is our communication method of choice. it is pretty enjoyable because i get all excited to choose fonts (i hand write letters some as well) and doodle in the margins.

    • Person

      I found myself in that same position. We had always been a long distance relationship but were able to rely on email/text/call/skype… writing letters was something that we really took to quite easily. There’s room for much more intimacy as well and reading something is like listening without interrupting. When he finished basic training, we came out stronger than we were at the beginning. I also doodled in the margins and liked writing in some of my favorite lyrics or stanzas from poems…

      • Anonymous

        ahh, basic training. I hand-wrote all the lyrics to the new blink182 album for my best friend when he was at Ft. Benning last fall. It was so fun doodling the words & inserting my little comments. He posted them up in his locker & was the envy of all the platoon, apparently. 

        we had also gotten into a massive fight right before he left (we blame it on nerves) and writing letters gave us the necessary room to regroup,  communicate & forgive each other. I’m dreading when he has to ship out, but a small part of me is also looking forward to writing letters again. 

  • http://twitter.com/geology_rocks Haley F

    Earlier today I was tasked with writing a handwritten note to a client and oh man. It was so stressful making my writing look nice!

  • Sonia Thomas

    I was having a similar conversation with my friend the other day, over e-mail. For some reason, we preferred talking that way over IMing. It was so much more personal.  I think missing letters is a sign that we’re missing out on something in life. I have never receieved a handwritten letter from anyone, though I love to write letters. I hope this convinces people to send some now. 

  • http://www.about.me/tanyasalyers Tanya Salyers

    I want to go buy stationary now!

  • Anonymous

    If you had written this post long-hand, we could have posted it at myownhand.com…

  • Anonymous

    I would like to write letters to people, but I know no one’s addresses.  I would like to send letters that would be a surprise to that person, but asking for their address seems to spoil that sentiment. 

    • guest.

      I definitely used to feel this way, but then I found that a lot of people forget that you asked for their address by the time the letter gets to them. Especially when they don’t usually receive mail, and you don’t always send the message right after you ask for their address.

  • http://twitter.com/Amphx AnnamariaPhilippeaux

    You most certainly do not sound like an old man! I value letter writing for the same reasons you describe here and I plan on attempting to send letters with my college friends over the summer, but I’m already dreading the realization that no one’s interested when I’m waiting endlessly for some to be sent back. 

  • http://twitter.com/dietblonde Elizabeth

    Yes!! I too crave the moment when you check the mailbox to find that some long lost love has written you a letter. Heck, I’ll take a frenemy! I just want a handwritten letter to be delivered to me. please.

  • guest

    Thanks for sharing, I thought I was alone in the letter-writing world.  I own rubbermaid bins full of stationery and write several letters a month.  In high school, I met a friend on a cruise, and we continued to communicate through snail mail for a year. Even planned the logistics of my trip from NJ to Oregon via handwritten letters.   Throughout my four years at college, my 96 year old grandfather and I exchanged letters monthly.  I also wrote to several friends who were at distant schools.  It is becoming a lost art, as a teacher, am trying to instill a love of the written letter in my ten year old students.  We start our penpal exchange with German students in a couple weeks!

  • Tess

    Virginia Woolf would have strayed from texting and driving as well: 

    “Let us consider letters–how they come at break-fast, and at night with their yellow stamps and their green stamps, immortalized by the postmark–for to see one’s own envelope on another’s table is to realize how soon deeds sever and become alien.  Then at last the power of the mind to quit the body is manifest, perhaps we fear or hate or wish annihilated this phantom of ourselves, lying on the table.  Still, there are letters that merely say how dinner’s at seven; others ordering coal; making appointments.  The hand in them is scarcely perceptible, let alone the voice or the scowl.  Ah, but when the post knocks and the letter comes always the miracle seems repeated–speech attempted Venerable are letters, infinitely brave, forlorn, and lost.  

    Life would split asunder without them” (Jacob’s Room 102).

  • http://www.facebook.com/brandonlowry Brandon Scott Lowry

    who wants to be my pen pal?

  • guest

    “weee-unnnnngghhhh-gadung” made me smile! those days… 

  • Bealtaine

    This made me smile…My friend and I are planning to write to each other when she moves abroad for college.I’m really psyched for it-I love getting real mail!:)

  • Aubrie

    Let’s be pen-pals!

  • Andrea

    heck yes! you don’t realize how much i agree. i’m almost 19 years old, a few years ago i got into writing notes, then letters, and i love it! i send letters whenever i can. one of my many life mottoes is, “i’ll get to you when i get to you”, which of course many friends don’t get. 

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