I wrote a letter today

I wrote a letter today.

By “wrote a letter,” I mean that I sat down with a notebook and a pen, and hand-wrote a letter. It’s been a long time since I’ve handwritten a letter, other than short notes for work or in greeting cards… things like that. But today, I decided that I wanted to reach out and make a physical, tangible connection with one of my oldest and closest friends.

I’ve never had the best penmanship, but I think that it has to have regressed. I think that my friend will be able to decipher it well enough, but I am not proud about the quality of my handwriting at the moment.

This is the first real letter that I will have hand-written and posted in years (I plan on buying a stamp and dropping it off at the post office tomorrow morning, since it’s already a bit too late to make the last pickup). As the many forms of social media have taken over our communications, “writing a letter” has almost universally been replaced by “sending a message electronically.” Email, Facebook’s different messaging options, tweets, text messages, and smart phones have soundly relegated physical notes and letters to the bargain bins. Letters are the quiet minority, an old-fashioned medium from days of yore. People like my parents still write letters occasionally (although I’m pretty sure that most of their correspondence is electronic at this point), and official letters are still sometimes created and mailed in physical form, but it seems that the vast majority of interpersonal communication is done via satellite and the internet.

Using the post office for communication certainly has its disadvantages. I’m not sure how it works in other countries, but in the U.S. there is almost always an overnight waiting period, minimum, between the time that the mail was posted and received – even within the same city – while electronic messaging is relatively instant. Mail also uses paper, a resource that costs money, and letters require the effort of forming the letters of the alphabet, by hand, into legible words and sentences that can be read and understood by the receiving party. Admittedly, this is no small effort for people like me, for whom penmanship was never a strength. Additionally, a letter currently costs $0.44 to mail in the U.S., and while that’s a paltry sum compared with the costs of most other products and services that we purchase, it has become a largely unnecessary expense, given the advantages and availability of “free” electronic communication.

However, letter-writing has its advantages as well – or, if nothing else, it has its unique features. For one thing, hand-writing is generally a different process than, for example, composing with a word processor. When I write blog posts or compose emails*, I tend to write, read my work, edit, cut and/or expand, reread, rework, etc. until I am satisfied that I’ve said what I want to say. With hand-written letters, editing is tougher, and, unless I commit to writing, editing, and then rewriting a letter, I have to be somewhat more focused as I compose the actual text. This forces me to concentrate on how my sentences and paragraphs flow, look up words that I am unsure of (with regard to spelling or meaning), and think about how the letter will be read by the person to whom it’s addressed, as I write.

*Yes, I do all of this even when I send emails. To me, it feels disrespectful to send someone an email with a lot of mistakes in it. Just as important, though, is ensuring that something isn’t left out (or in), like a negative, which could convey a completely different meaning than that which you had intended. I don’t claim to be perfect, but I shudder to think about how embarrassed I would have been if I hadn’t proofread and edited countless emails and blog posts.

In addition to the distinct compositional experience, handwritten letters have both a sense of permanence and personality that electronic communication struggles to approach. Someone reading a letter can get of a sense of the writer’s personality and emotional state from a letter. Furthermore, letters have their own versatility: paper is also a medium for art, and I have received letters with drawings, diagrams, tables, and notes scribbled along the sides of the text. Letters are also real, physical things, and are able to be kept, filed, stored, and reread without the burden of another device. Like vinyl records, a letter can be something that is neat to have: it’s something that someone took the time to create, to express any number of ideas, or to entertain you.

Now, I’m not bashing electronic communication – I use it every day, and appreciate its conveniences and advantages – but I had a good time writing this letter today. It was an old, familiar process, but also one at which I am definitely rusty. I am determined to write more letters this year, both to my friend and to others. Perhaps he will write me back, and we can correspond with some regularity – that would be fun, as well as good exercise for the brain. It may also become something of a luxury sooner or later – with the way that things are going with the USPS and its heavy financial burdens, our concept of snail-mail (a term that I detest, by the way), which we take for granted now, could change drastically over the next several years. I’m going to write some letters this year, and send them through the post office while I still have the chance.

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