The Quiet Power of Writing Letters

In an age that values endlessly refreshing feeds over slow and careful thought, breaking out a pen and paper is all the more valuable.

My day job is in education, teaching tech-obsessed kids. And here's something they don't realize: their social media posts have an expiration date measured by the century – maybe the millennium. With enough dedication, just about anything you put online can be dug up. But it's also true that the majority of what we all push online is lost, quickly and swiftly, with the flick of a thumb on the “Refresh Feed” button. Gone in the noise and size of the digital frontier.

Expressing our passing experiences in life this way is a disservice to the language we write in. It can cheapen the value of our words, and blunt the impact of our stands when we have the convenience of easy expression and easier dismissal.

But what can be done about that, really? When I really started to ramp up my complaints on life, the universe, and everything, I was reminded by those same students I was complaining to that I should bring a solution to any problem party that I throw. So, if I believe words to be used cheaply, what’s the process for reinvesting some meaning into mine? What if I went back to basics: good old ink on paper? It might provide a pathway to some meaning. Plus, it could bring my penmanship game up from where it had been languishing in the pit I call “Post-Graduate School Scrawl.”

Seemed a sound enough idea. But what would I write, and for what purpose? I first thought to write diary entries or future book ideas, but the success of that first attempt can be measured with about 5 diary entries and one tepid book idea, which I then promptly copied into Microsoft Word for safekeeping.

I eventually hit upon writing letters to my sisters and brother. As the oldest of the four of us, I thought that it might give me that practice that I was looking for, set up another line of communication amongst our far flung tribe, and throw a little incremental financial aide at the Postal Service. Three birds with one stone sounded pretty good to me. So I sent my first awkward missives, attempting to explain why a letter showed up and for what reason, not really knowing what the result would be. My siblings, to my utter surprise, embraced the idea and now we’ve been exchanging letters on as consistent a basis as those living in a post-paper world can.

I’m happy to report that letter writing, long-declared dead in favor of the email or text, can be revived with some paper, a little ink, and a target audience. In these last few months, here’s what I’ve learned about this process, and why I think it lends itself towards preserving the immortality of the written word.

You Need Practice, Thought, and Lots of White-Out.

Electronic media encourages us to be glib and flippant, with a nearly inexhaustible set of emojis at our fingertips. But, words do still have power, and much of that power lies within our ability to stop, think, and deliver a well-shaped thought in sentence form. This is really, really difficult.

When I took this idea on, at first I spent a good hour writing one stupid sentence after another, and then crumpling it up and throwing it away. My brain refused to let me hand get anywhere close to the sentiment I wanted to convey. Looking back, that’s actually a really good thing, because it made me stretch for real meaning. Right now, I’m using my White-Out number as a measure of progress. The fewer times I have to mark something out, the better I’m getting. I’m hoping to beat 10 with the next round. The good news in regards to White Out is that I don’t have to junk whole sentences anymore, just pieces of them.

Stock Up on Supplies

Electronic media requires an internet connection. Writing a letter requires, pen, paper, envelope, stamps, a creative idea, and if you really want to get fancy, some sealing wax and a cool imprint stamp. Let’s face it, if you’re going to all this effort, you want sealing wax and a cool imprint stamp.

Most of this stuff I had, one place or another, simply from collecting over the years. But as collections of stuff tend to shift, most of the necessary elements were all over the place. I remember the first attempt taking two hours or more, and a healthy chunk of that was digging around for envelopes, stamps, and all the things which I hadn’t thought about since I learned how to write letters in second grade, which was a while ago.

Right now, all of the necessary accoutrements are in a box so that I’ve narrowed the hunt for supplies down to one location. The next goal is to find a big, antique writing desk, complete with cubbies. My wife and I are still in negotiations regarding that item. I say it’ll help continue this letter-writing awakening, she says that it’ll just become another junk bunker in the house. We’re probably both correct.

Find a Safe Place to Keep Them

This is probably the most important point of all: you have to have a good place to keep the correspondence that you receive back. There's something genuinely satisfying about having a binder or journal filled with snapshots in time that you can return to as often as you like. As with the authenticity of people’s words when they're confined to a piece of paper, the level of truth never leaves either.

There exists an entire project to bring Hemingway’s letters together, and it currently sits at four volumes with more planned. As a big Hemingway fan, I have a mental image in my head of the gruff old codger, rocking away on his porch in the Florida Keys and petting his cats. When you dig into his correspondence, a wholly different character emerges; one who’s anxious for news of his friends, vulnerable and self-effacing. This excerpt from a letter to Gertrude Stein is particularly funny for me because the entirety of the indestructible, confident man completely falls apart as he talks about a story he wrote in Spain.

“It is about 100 pages long and nothing happens and the country is swell, I made it all up, so I see it all and part of it comes out the way it ought to, it is swell about the fish, but isn’t writing a hard job though? It used to be easy before I met you. I certainly was bad, Gosh, I’m awfully bad now but it’s a different kind of bad.”

Sentiment like that is well worth keeping.

We largely experience History through the writings that others left behind. And while that might sound a bit grand for beginning a letter-writing habit, i's true: people will remember you and what you thought largely from what is left behind. If you’re like me, you change your Facebook profile once a month, if not more. The letter I wrote to my little brother this morning may well be with him forever. Which of those two is going to leave a larger imprint of who I was?

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