I've Started Writing Letters Again, and It's Awesome

Letters make me feel like I am whispering to a friend on the riverbank on a hot summer day, the air alive with the smell of bay laurel and the water so still that it looks like glass.
Publish date:
August 2, 2012
letters, nostalgia, mail, pen and paper

I’ve started writing letters again.

In high school and through college, I had a passion for pen and paper that couldn’t be slaked. I sent letters to pen pals, to friends who’d moved away. In the hot summers between terms, I’d pound out letters on my typewriter late at night, taking advantage of the cool of darkness to get a chance to think. I’d stuff odd little things into the envelopes; receipts, pressed flowers, pennies crushed by the train, found objects.

My artistic skills are rather limited, but I’d draw things on the pages and on the outside of the envelope, add stamps and stickers, use multicolored pens. I tried to turn each letter into something thrilling to get, something that would be instantly recognizable when someone got to the mailbox and pulled it out.

And I haunted the mailbox waiting for things in return. Sometimes I’d get a couple of letters in one day, and other times, a week would go by with no mail. People made envelopes out of magazines, stuck overexposed photos of their college roommates into the envelope, drew tiny miniatures under the flap. Each letter was a treasure on its own just to handle and look at, and then I got to read it.

Some of my correspondence through the years

After college, I started writing letters more and more infrequently. Few of us were old-fashioned enough to stick it out with pen and paper when email was so much easier and you could dash off a quick note instead of taking more time to write something. My schedule grew too busy to assemble works of mail art.

My hands grew too damaged to write letters, too. As repetitive stress injury spread across my hands, through my wrists, up my arms, and into my rotator cuff, writing by hand became an exercise in strain. My fingers would cramp almost immediately because they weren’t used to it, and the callus on my right ring finger left by the pen started to fade. Assembling a letter could take me an hour or more, and it just didn’t seem worth it.

Why not dash off an inane email instead?

A few days ago, I went to the post office. The usual clutter of bills and election circulars exploded when I opened the door of my box, a reminder that I should probably check the mail more than once every two weeks. The check I was hoping for wasn’t there, although my insurance company had helpfully sent a bill.

And there was a little tiny envelope, so small it was almost lost inside all the other crap. I looked at it in puzzlement, because I didn’t recognize anything about it. I wasn’t expecting anything that would come in an envelope like that. It looked like personal correspondence, complete with hand-drawn stars. I flipped it over to see the return address and a huge smile spread across my face.

The letter that (re)started it all

It was a friend in Germany who’d written me a letter out of the blue. No particular reason, he just felt like it.

I wanted to rip it open and read it but I was on my way to a dinner with friends so I tucked it into my purse to read later. And I remembered the anticipation that used to come with letters, how I used to set them on my desk to read and savor when I had a moment, instead of diving in when I might be distracted or forced to stop reading. How toe-curlingly sweet it would be to think about those letters waiting for me until I had time to read them. All night I had a little secret smile on my face, all because I’d gotten a letter.

When I got home, I made sure everything was put away for the night, and I pulled out the letter and carefully slit the top, preserving the return address, and pulled out the pages. They fanned out in a peacock display of colorful inks, and I settled myself down with a giddy sigh and started reading. The paper rustled as I turned it, and the dull glow of the bedside lamp slanted across the pages, making the yellow ink a bit hard to read, but I squinted through it.

I nodded to myself now and then, and smiled at other times, and said “oh, yes!” at others, and when I was done I read the letter all over again to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, and then I tucked the pages away, back into the envelope.

The next morning I drank my tea and ate my yoghurt and fruit at the kitchen table, watching Joy and friend roam in the pasture. I had lots of things to do but I wanted to take a moment to bask in the morning sun instead of setting immediately to work. Unusual for me, actually; usually I am eating over my keyboard while frantically answering email.

I pulled out a notepad and my friend’s letter, and I started writing. And writing, and writing, and writing. I wrote about things I haven’t told anyone, I expanded on a theory my friend had brought up in the letter, I wrote about what it was like at my house at that precise moment in time, the dust-filled sun flooding through the windows while the train chuffed by outside. And I drew little illustrations at the bottom of each page with the numbers so he could keep them in order, and I decorated an envelope, and I tucked it all away in a neat little package to mail the next time I went into town.

The graphic side of old letters

I used to know the international postage, and I could have told you postage to any number of places without looking it up, but it had been too long. It cost me $1.05 to send that letter flying back across the country and the Atlantic to Germany, so it could land in my friend’s mailbox and surprise him someday soon.

Because getting letters is always a surprise, since you might know they’re coming, but you never know exactly when. That’s the magic of them.

And it made me realize how much I miss writing letters, how the medium makes me say things I wouldn’t otherwise say. Email often feels banal, a series of somewhat pointless exchanges, pings back and forth to say “yes, I know you’re alive, I’m thinking of you.”

Letters are a slow-motion conversation, one where every word matters and you carefully consider what you want to say. One where discussions evolve over the course of months rather than hours and days. There’s a strange solidity to letters that doesn’t exist in email. I feel more committed to what I am saying even as I am more confessional.

Letters make me feel like I am whispering to a friend on the riverbank on a hot summer day, the air alive with the smell of bay laurel and the water so still that it looks like glass. Writing them is like wriggling my feet through hot sand, and reading them is like eating cherries and spitting the pits up the bank, tasting that sweet burst with a hint of tartness that leaves my mouth smeared with red juices.

It was this that made me decide to write letters again. I stared at my notepad and realized I didn’t even have physical addresses for most of the people I know who live far away, because I was used to interacting with them in a purely digital context. But then I remembered that someone had mailed me something a few months ago, and I checked the address, and I wrote a letter and sent it off.

These envelopes are waiting to be filled.

I can’t write as many letters as I did in my letter-writing heyday. But I think I can set aside the time to write a few each week, to reach out with a pen and brush someone who will open a mailbox somewhere and react with giddy surprise when it contains a real letter, actual mail, honest correspondence. And that person will get to unfold the letter and read it over; maybe sitting on a porch, or lying in bed, or flying on a plane.

And maybe, that person will write me back.