When was the last time you got a communication that you didn’t delete or close as quickly as possible?
You can always tell the level of appreciation a person has for an author when they read beyond that writer’s most famous works to lesser-known novels, essays and letters.
Someone truly interested in the depth of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing, for example, wouldn’t stop reading him after the Lord of the Rings trilogy. If they did, they would miss out on insights into Tolkien’s worldview and philosophy that can only be found in the letters he wrote.
Sometimes I wonder if 19th and 20th century writers like Tolkien were alive today, would they still write letters, or instead adopt modern methods of communicating through email, text, or even Skype?
One of my favorite quotes from fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis may help answer that question.
“We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” – The Weight of Glory
If C.S. Lewis felt that way in his time, I can’t imagine how he would feel about the way we communicate today.
Here’s why I think we should all commit to writing more letters…
It requires time and attention.
Most of us have heard older generations lament the distracted, impersonal nature of modern communication. While we may roll our eyes, I think we’re not truly honest unless we admit there’s some truth to the notion that our day-to-day interactions, especially with the people we care about most, are often hollow and rushed.
With so much of our decision-making predicated on what will cost us the least amount of time to produce the desired result, how much more does it mean to the person you’re writing a letter to that you have made the time and set your attention on writing to them? I think a lot more than it did when Tolkien and Lewis were alive, and writing letters was more or less the way you communicated with people when you weren’t meeting face-to-face or on the phone.
It can communicate emotional closeness between people far away.
While much can be said for face-to-face call services like Skype for people separated by oceans and continents, a letter received from someone living far off takes on an extra level of meaning because of the distance it travels.
When I was in college, I studied abroad in Russia for three months and I remember the excitement I felt in receiving mail on a few occasions. Although it took up to a month for a letter or package to arrive, if it came at all, knowing the letter had originated in the hands of a family member or loved one living across the globe was pretty special.
It’s tangible; something we can hold, unfold, and hang onto.
For most people, the delete button in our email inbox is our loyal ally. We receive so many messages that, by the end of the day, we can’t get rid of them fast enough, if for no other reason than we know our inbox will be full of new messages in the morning.
But for the notes and messages we really care about and want to save, having them live forever in our inbox or in a saved folder on our computers doesn’t seem like enough.
A hand-written letter can fold inside your favorite book, a pocket of your journal, or a shoebox under your bed.
It preserves our ability to write legibly; or at least improves it.
It may seem like a trivial boast, but I remember feeling really proud when I was in third grade and was selected to do the written copy portion of a major class project.
Pretty much since third grade, my penmanship — once a point of pride — has vastly deteriorated to the point that I sometimes struggle to read my own writing.
Whether it’s keeping a journal or writing letters, we can go a long way in resuscitating our ability to write clearly by hand.
Salutations and letter closings can help us define our relationships.
Ending a letter can be tough. Especially if you’re writing to a significant other, the options can seem overwhelming. If you haven’t said “I love you,” to the person, “Love,” might be too strong of an ending. But “Sincerely” could be too casual. So maybe you settle on “Yours,” or some combination thereof.
When we open or close a letter we are addressing to someone, it consciously, or perhaps subconsciously, forces us to examine that relationship and define it. At a time when some are complaining about a trend of ambiguous romantic entanglements, letters force us to think carefully about what words mean and plan accordingly.
It’s just archaic enough to be cool.
There’s a line to be toed when it comes to reaching back and reliving the experiences of past generations. What can appear noble and sophisticated to some, could be phony-eccentric to others. But letter writing, while decidedly past its prime, is truly a timeless venture.
So if you want to write your letters while smoking a pipe and listening to your favorite record, all the power to you.
There are lots of ways to make letters more awesome.
It’s hard to visually personalize a text message. Even emails, once you get past bulleted lists and hard-to-read multi-colored font schemes, leave much to be desired for the true aesthete.
With letters, you have a number of options for what to write with and what kind of paper to write on. Letter writing can be a great opportunity to explore the art of calligraphy. Or, you can find an antiquated, parchment-style paper, giving your letter some added character.
I’m again taken back to elementary and middle school and reminded of those little, square, intricately folded notes that would get passed around from desk to desk. I could never figure out how the girls folded their notes that way. Maybe your next letter is the perfect opportunity to rekindle past paper-folding prowess.