The Lost Art of Handwriting a Letter

Do you remember the last time you received a handwritten note? I do. I had just crashed through the door, out of breath and frayed around the edges from the exertion of pushing two small boys uphill in a buggy with a wonky wheel.

There on the doormat, in my dear friend Hen’s unmistakable cursive script, was an envelope addressed to me. Even seeing my name in her spiraling print brings a smile to my face; such an antidote to the pile of bills and junk mail, a waste of trees on which so often my name is incorrectly spelled.

Hen is adept at the lost art of letter writing. She needs no excuse to write, and often does so “just because.” Her choice of card is always guaranteed to make me laugh out loud. I have a growing collection of little notes gathering dust in a cherished shoebox in my room, many of which begin with the immortal line “I saw this and thought of you …”

All this from the mother of a toddler who gets up at 4 a.m. to go to a demanding job in journalism. I’m inspired and challenged by her in this regard, because how often do we think of people whose lives have taken them just out of reach of daily contact, and yet isn’t it the case that we so rarely make the time to let them know they danced across our thoughts? What a shame. Hen’s gift in this regard is impressive, and I appreciate it beyond words. But … I don’t think I’ve ever told her this.

So there’s my case in point. How many thoughts or gestures do we abandon which, if thoughtfully transformed into a hand-scribbled note might just have touched someone else’s day? And all because we tell ourselves we’re too time-pressed to use our words.

On the other hand, when was the last time an e-mail touched your heart? Don’t get me wrong, e-mail has its uses. I’ve made transatlantic friends thanks to the wonder of the blogosphere, one of whom I even have to thank for linking me up with, and if it weren’t for e-mail we wouldn’t be able to share our lives cross-continent in the satisfying ways we do.

Sometimes, too, my husband e-mails me a quirky note, knowing I am never far from my beloved laptop. The ping of a personal e-mail, winging its way through cyberspace to brighten up my tantrum-filled day (I’m referring to my beloved toddlers here, not me) is a lovely thing, and likewise my mother-in-law’s fabulous private comments on my blog are the stuff of legend, and often hold they key to my sanity.

But still. There’s something special about a personally written note. My husband has a favorite fountain pen; it’s his tool of choice for writing letters. A couple of years ago our lives passed through some stormy waters, and for all the heart-felt tear-strewn talking that we did, nothing signaled the end of the storm quite like the poignant letter that he wrote for me with his favorite pen. That note has pride of place on my dressing table, and I re-read it at least once a month.

Sometimes I still lose sight of the sentiment that he took time to put into words. At those moments, I re-read his letter, and it grows in depth and meaning every time I read it. An e-mail just wouldn’t be the same, and the nuances of a conversation would have been forgotten long ago.

Around the same time I began a new tradition of writing him a letter every New Year’s Eve, and apart from giving him the pieces of my heart, weighted down to earth with my words, the process also served to help me reflect on what I feel for him. As much as it touched him, it also helped me to focus on the important stuff of life that all too easily gets overlooked or goes unsaid.

And at its heart, that’s the real value of the lost art of letter writing. It’s less about what we say, and more about the fact that we’ve invested time to communicate. If you’ve ever been the lucky recipient of a child’s scribbled picture, you’ll understand what I’m getting at; it’s not the detail that matters, impressive though it might be, but it’s the fact that someone thought of us, and took the time to convey their affection.

Julia Cameron puts it like this in “The Right to Write,” her seminal guide to carving out time to communicate in the old fashioned way: “Taking the time to write in our lives gives us the time of our lives. As we describe our environments, we begin to savor them. Even the most rushed and pell-mell life begins to take on the patina of being cherished.”
While Cameron is specifically referring to her “morning pages” exercise, which involves writing daily for 30 minutes, the principle of what she says applies to letter writing, too. When we make time to say “I thought of you today,” we somehow become more mindful of the things and people who matter.

So with this in mind, I’m here to encourage you to unleash your inner letter-writer. I’m throwing down the gauntlet and setting you a challenge; take Julia Cameron’s sage advice and try this simple exercise in putting pen to paper. I’m sure it will raise a smile somewhere, and maybe even come back to you full circle when an envelope in a familiar print lands with a satisfying swoosh on a doormat near you sometime soon.

Buy five postcards and five stamps. Locate the addresses of five people you love but don’t take time to stay in touch.

Set the clock for fifteen minutes. Using two to three minutes per card, write out loving greetings to your friends.

Stamp the cards and mail them.

Go on, do it. Do it now.


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