The handwritten letter: dead or alive?

I used to sit in the back row of my university math class — or in the corner of a quiet coffee shop — writing poetry in a Mead 5-Star notebook.

Writing that way — inky pen to paper — was as much a part of the poetry experience as the words themselves, my inner voice overflowing to the page in quick, staccato sentences or pouring out slowly in deliberate, inky curves. Sometimes sideways, sometimes straight, sometimes with a doodle or a scribbled out passage. It was all part of the art.

Now, with the ease of a lap top and a more modern typing habit, I haven’t written that way for years. Sometimes I miss it — the slowness of it, the effort, the way thought leads to thought without the perfection of a delete button. The writing being an end in itself.

Author Wendell Berry says, “At first glance, writing may seem not nearly so much an art of the body as say, dancing or gardening or carpentry. And yet language is the most intimately physical of all the artistic means. We have it palpably in our mouths; it is our langue, our tongue. Writing it, we shape it with our hands.”

And we do — like potters at a wheel, the writer who prints with a pen grasped by bent fingers — is leaving a history of themselves. Handwriting stays with us: I can still close my eyes and picture the handwriting of almost all the people I love, even how my best friend wrote in 6th grade. Berry continues, “All good human work remembers its history.”

I thought about this last week while shaking my hand in the air. It hurt. I had been addressing Christmas card envelopes with a nice, slick pen, and my hand was out of shape. But the handwritten letter — which some have said to have died — is one of the most alive things I can think of. It lives on, even after its author has passed. I have many, in fact, stored in a box in my drawer that seem to speak to me in the voice of the author, like those Hallmark cards that sing when you open them.

And I do find myself at times, whether it’s dramatic or not, sort of grieving the mainstream loss of handwriting for my children.

Not just handwriting, really, but mostly, the more intimate, personal communication that comes with it. For as a generation growing up with courtship by text message and friendship by Facebook, I long for them to understand the anticipation of snail mail, the joy of a thank you card, the palpable thrill of a love letter, the nourishment of crafting words that don’t just disappear in a scrolling feed, but that stain the smooth surface of empty paper, waiting to be held, smelled, touched, folded, kept and read again years later. (My husband and I did write most of our early love letters via email, but even that seems to be dying in the wake of text short hand.)

My son penned a letter last week to a big fat man in a red suit.

He wrote the letter himself, addressed it to the North Pole, folded it up, stamped the corner and put it in the mailbox. I kicked myself when I realized I had not snuck out in the night to acquire it for keeping.

It was not spell-checked and clearly legible in Times New Roman. It was not fussed over and perfected. Rather, it was a misspelled, wrinkled hand-written note in the 6-year-old font of my first-born. And in looking at that letter and all that it contained when he handed it to me, it was as if time froze. I was able to see him as he is at this very moment. A part of his heart was captured on that paper with the carefully penned words he wrote and crossed out and then wrote again.

It is the same with the post-it note stuck above my sock drawer with a few simple words scribbled by my husband. And the note card that was tucked inside the heirloom necklace my grandmother gave me for my high school graduation. The inner front page of a book my mom saved from my childhood where she gently noted my name and the date I received it. Or the yearbook message from an old friend I no longer keep in touch with, but can still vividly recall in the dramatic loops of her L’s.

Those hand-scripted words are more than an art, but an artifact of the time and place they were written, an extension of the person who wrote them. Perhaps that’s why, even with the typed form letter, we still write (or at least copy) a hand-written signature at the end — as if to remind a world reading in print that the words come from a breathing, warm human.

As if to peek from behind the page and say:

I am here.


One Comment

  1. I agree. There’s something nostalgic and bittersweet about the handwritten letter, and I long to share the experience (it -is- and experience) with my kids. I received a letter from a great-uncle for Christmas and it reminded me how we’d written back and forth for years until I had kids and my brain could hardly handle more. Your post has given me new resolve to write to him again. Thanks for sharing!

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