By: Eva Derzic
My life is a joke and rife with coincidence. I was walking to the mailbox earlier to drop off a letter, and I found this book on top of the mailbox, along with a post-it note that said “free” on it.
Some kind and thoughtful soul evidently wanted to share the book with anyone who was interested. It’s a compilation of written correspondence bridging the Iron Curtain. This amuses me on two levels: 1) I’m mildly obsessed with the Cold War era, 2) I’m currently on a crusade to revive the lost art of Writing Letters. I can’t wait to read it.
Let’s breeze past my obsession with Soviet history.
Letters seem to be a dying art, and I completely understand why. We live in a digital age — people are captivated by technology and speed. We can’t be bothered to read the paper, so we get our news from tweets. Faxing takes too long; we prefer to send scans. Paging was cool in the 90s, and then we decided that it took too long to wait for somebody to call us back and started using cell phones. Phone calls take too much of our time: we prefer to circumvent the obligatory “Hello, how are you?” or the possibility that we might get forwarded to a voicemail box and simply text our friends and acquaintances when we need something from them. Instead of taking the time out of our day to call and chat with friends, we prefer to stalk them on Facebook and occasionally become passively involved in their lives by “liking” their status updates if we can find time away from broadcasting our own narcissism into the virtual ether (no, I’m not bashing Facebook. It’s practical and convenient and I use it a lot). Sadly, In such an age, letter-writing (completely understandably) falls to the way side.
Now, here’s why I think people should still write letters:
- It takes time. It forces you to slow down and smell the proverbial roses. You have to sit down and collect your thoughts. You have to disconnect yourself from the fast-paced digital world for a moment and remember that there is a life outside of the internet (I know. It’s an earth-shattering concept). Because it takes so much time, it shows that you truly do think and care about the recipient. If you want to write a good and thoughtful letter, you simply cannot do it in two minutes. You’re probably going to be sitting there for at least twenty if you want to produce a piece of writing that somebody else is going to want to read.
- It’s a mental exercise. Sure, you can still write a thoughtful letter to somebody via email. There’s a crucial difference between writing something on the computer and writing something on a piece of paper, however, and that is the backspace key. You can fix an error on the computer very easily: a few key strokes, and voila! Not so when you’re writing a paper letter — it turns into a very unpleasant and messy process involving gloopy, gunky, sticky, yucky correctional fluid. This places emphasis on getting things right the first time — something that we don’t seem to worry about much nowadays. (Just think of digital photography: once upon a time, taking crappy pictures cost a lot of money — you had to buy film and pay to have them developed. Nowadays, you easily end up with megabytes upon megabytes of shitty photos you’ve forgotten to delete off your harddrive). Granted, it’s great to be able to fix your mistakes on the computer, but the relative easiness of doing so causes many people to become complacent and slack off in terms of accuracy. Additionally, there’s something satisfying about the act of holding a pen to paper, and you’re more likely to remember what you’ve written if you’ve taken the time to actually physically write it down.
- It’s aesthetically pleasing. On many levels. There are numerous considerations that go into creating a letter: 1) you have to select a paper, 2) you have to select a pen, 3) you show off your penmanship, and 4) you have to choose a stamp. Paper alone is a difficult choice — there’s different textures, colors, and watermarks from which to choose. You can even opt to have it scented. Pens pose another serious dilemma — will you opt for the elegance of a fountain pen, or are you going to go with the more practical and simple ballpoint pen? What color ink will you choose? The way you form your characters (is it cursive or print? are you writing hurriedly?) reveals a lot about your state of mind. If you’re feeling super classy, you can give the envelope a wax seal and gild it. Finally, you have to choose a stamp. There’s many variables that show off various aspects of your personality and the degree of involvement that went into creating the final document. With an email, you’re limited to choosing a font, how you’re going to format your paragraph breaks, and deciding whether or not you’re going to insert images.
- There’s no immediate gratification. It takes time for the letter to reach the recipient, and it takes additional time for the recipient to draft a response. Depending on where you’re sending the letter, this can be a few days or a few weeks. You don’t get an immediate confirmation or receipt, or an immediate gleeful outburst of “THANK YOU! YOU’RE AN AWESOME PERSON FOR DOING THIS!” You simply have to hope and trust your efforts will be gratified with a response. This teaches you two things: 1) patience, 2) suspension of expectation. Emails and text messages kill our realization that people have lives outside of our own, and Facebook seems to have convinced us all that realtime status updates necessitate replies. Just think of how many times you’ve been angry at a person for not immediately replying to your text message, or how many times you’ve neurotically refreshed your email inbox when you were expecting an urgent email. Mail is only delivered once daily, and checking your mailbox neurotically is futile and inherently idiotic (something you realize perhaps only when you catch yourself doing it).
Yes, the act of writing a paper letter is an involving and time-consuming process. Yes, it’s a bit old-fashioned and definitely not a practical way of communicating urgent information. There are undeniably a thousand and one additional arguments you can make against the act. Nonetheless, I think it still has a place in contemporary society. Next time you’re feeling bored, maybe log off Facebook for a moment and try walking into a paper store. They are actual places that do exist, and they are not merely havens for hipsters, snobs, and relics from another century. See what you end up walking out of there with. You’ll realize that the post office has many uses besides distributing bills and junk mail. I can guarantee you there’s really no better feeling when you open your mailbox and see a letter from a friend.