“A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence, but also as a work of art. As beauty of words, tone, and manner adds a charm to speech, so elegance of materials, writing, and general appearance, enhances the pleasure bestowed by a letter.” 
(J. Willis Westlake, How to Write Letters, 1876)

I know of a couple who met via postcard. She was overseas for a couple of years, and he, enamored by the stories he had heard of her, began sending postcards. One every week. Some were quirky, some poignant, some vintage, some cheeky. On the back, he would write favorite passages from a book he was reading, curious things he’d observed that week, lyrics from his favorite songs, or small words of encouragement. Each week it was something new, and over time, through these postcards they fell in love.

I have a friend in France, an eighty-six year old woman, who has no email address, no cell phone to text me from or What’s App me from. Every once in a while, I receive letters from her. Real mail letters, in her beautiful French scrawl. She is polite, clever, and playful in these letters. Once she included a photograph of her garden. I have it framed in my home, with her sweet note attached to the back.

In a book review forum, I recently read this line, which I love:

“Having abandoned pen and paper for keyboards, we have lost one of the ways by which we come to recognize and know another person.”

Yes, handwriting letters is antiquated. We don’t need to use that mode anymore, thanks to tech. But instead, we have the luxury of using it not merely to relay information, but to come to know one another better. Another way to create meaningful points of contact with those we love. 

To me, there are three things I love about writing letters—things that make it truly an artform and an experience worth having regularly.

1. Tactile Interaction

For all the liking, commenting, swiping, and networking we do on our phones, when boiled down, the only tactile experience we are actually having is touching a piece of glass, over and over again. Strange isn’t? This is one of the reasons I love the physical intentionality of handwriting letters. You get to be intentional about your choice of paper (Lined paper torn from a notebook? Thick watermarked stationery paper? The back of a receipt?) You choose the pen you use, for how it feels in your hand, how thin or thick the point is, how well the ink glides, and so on. Though tiny, these are all very tactile decisions—decisions that communicate to the letter’s recipient something of your intentions and state of mind while writing.

2. Slow Storytelling

One adjustment you have to make when writing a letter is settling into the fact that it will take you time. You have to think through what you’re going to share, then spend the many minutes it takes to write it out by hand (something that feels so sluggish after years of whipping out emails and shooting off texts). It is a different form of storytelling. You get to take time to highlight the details of the stories you write about. You get complete control over how you craft and unfold your tales.

3. Handcraft

There is art in handwriting, as much as in painting, sculpting, weaving, or any of the other visual arts. You are making something with your hands, and even for those with the “worst” handwriting, that is something worth celebrating.

Part of knowing someone is knowing their handwriting. Could you recognize the handwriting of your three closest friends? I don’t know that I could, though I would like to. 

I like to think I can tell a lot about a person by their handwriting. If someone’s script is upright and confident, or loose and carefree, or methodical and exacting. I have yet to meet a punctilious person who didn’t have the handwriting to match. In reading a person’s words, written in their one-of-a-kind handwriting, I get a better look into their heart, a backstage pass to the person behind the words.

Who could you send a postcard to this week? Could you scrawl a note to a friend during a commercial break? While waiting for the popcorn to finish popping?

There is an elegance to the sincerity of a handwritten letter. You give up efficiency for closeness, for personability. In writing notes, letters, journal entries—in writing—we come to recognize and know each other, and recognize and know ourselves too.

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