Thursday, September 15, 2011

Writing by Hand, or, Why I Love the Mail

The same day that I began my latest writing project, I heard a story on NPR about the many financial woes of the United States Postal Service.

This struck me as ironic because my project was to send one postcard, by mail, per day for at least a month, to all of the friends and family who had given me their addresses.

It also struck me as sad, because the financial problems experienced by the postal service sharply demonstrate the apparent reality that 'snail mail' (a telling nickname) is going out of style and out of use.This isn't exactly a breaking news update, but people don't write letters much anymore. 

Now, understand, I am not someone who hates technology. Long before web communications was actually my job, I used it like it was. I've tried nearly every social media website at some point in my life, and I think that it can make great things and the sharing of great ideas possible. I check my email borderline obsessively (sometimes too much), and probably send upwards of 50-100 text messages each day. It's a big part of my life, as it is for so many other people.

So with access to and love of all this wonderful technology in front of me, why do I go home from work at night and deliberately write a postcard to drop in the mailbox the next morning? Why did I write the first draft of this article with the humble pen and paper, eschewing the computer that sat right in front of me?

I still believe that the handwritten letter has value for us as human beings. I believe that writing with pen and paper is good for the soul. 

The proof of this idea is the joyful smile that appeared on my face when I checked the mail yesterday and found a letter from one of my regular pen pals. I know I'm not the only one who feels this way when a letter that is not a bill arrives just for me.

So why is this? Why is the hand-written word still so powerful in an age of almost overwhelming technological capability?

I've read articles suggesting that writing down plants ideas more deeply in our memories-- in fact, some research has apparently suggested that writing might help in preventing the onset of Alzheimers disease. I don't really know anything about that,  but I do know that (at least for me) putting words on a page in my own handwriting connects me in some deeper way to those words. I wrote those words; they are in my penmanship; they belong to me.

I think that it is good for writers to have that kind of stake in their words, that kind of ownership. Others have discussed the disconnect that technology has created between people, who can become insulated and isolated in the glow of a computer screen. The TV show "Big Bang Theory" has turned this into a consistent comedic moment when the characters reference all the friends they have on Facebook, and continue to only hang out with basically the same four other people in person. But writers must ask the same question: how do we avoid hiding behind the font we choose to type in? Fonts are impersonal, and have been since the advent of the book. We rely on our 'writing voice' to speak for us, and while many writers have mastered that ability in light of our inability to easily publish the handwritten word.

On a related note, sending 'snail mail' is a much more intimate form of communication. You can pour your heart out in an email, but I think that words have even more power when they appear in someone's unique handwriting. 

Additionally, the process of exchanging letters forces us to temporarily slow down the busy pace of our lives. You cannot receive an instant response to a letter, even if the person receives it and immediately writes a response. You still won't get it until at least two days after it is written and dropped in the mailbox. So you practice patience. You lower expectations and go about your other daily routines, manically checking emails and text messages and social media. At the same time, though, you anticipate the arrival of a response to your letter-- and thus the rush of pleasure appears when you open the mailbox to find a personal letter there.

In some esoteric way, we own the words we write down. They become a part of us. Writing letters is a way to connect more deeply with family and friends, a way to take time out of a hectic world and engaging in an activity that requires patience and deliberate activity. We avoid the awkward silences of phone calls and the passivity of Facebook connections, along with the instant-reply expectation of email or the aptly named Instant Messenger. 

With these words, I may be marking myself as one among the last letter-writers. I'm okay with that. I'll be the one single-handedly trying to keep the US Postal Service in business. And as long as there is a way to send mail, I'll be writing the handwritten letters that bring me so much joy to send and receive.

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