I've just finished typing a letter to my friend Jerry. We've been corresponding for over a year on paper folded into envelopes that we stamp and send through the mail. I read an article about gratitude and, as is our habit, wrote my letter on the backs of the pages of it. I'll post it tomorrow on my way to work.
I recommend the practice of writing letters to better learn the craft of writing.
Writing directly to someone develops a sense of audience and reminds me that writing isn't just about me. When I write to Jerry, I think of him, picture him reading with his head held in one hand, a trace of a smile on his lips and in his eyes. I write for him and my letter is an act of giving. That doesn't mean it's selfless. Hell no. I get as much out of writing as he does reading because I know my ideas will be read. And after writing to him, I write more like someone will read what I'm saying. I find myself trying to make them smile or nod and hoping they will write back.
So why not just email Jerry? Letters are cumbersome, inconvenient, expensive, and slow.
Email is too quick. I want things such as this to be cumbersome, inconvenient, expensive, and slow.
It took time to print the article and roll each page into my typewriter. Jerry handwrites because he's sensible enough not to own typewriters. The cumbersome printing and then writing is time away from television, news, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. Where's the loss?Most time I "save" through email is time I waste elsewhere.
The inconvenience makes it special. Writing a letter requires focus on my ideas and on the person to whom I'm writing. Inconvenience such as that is too good to waste.
Letters cost the price of a stamp and envelope, something I can offer and which makes it more valuable to receive than email, most of which is less than worthless because it's so cheap. We often spend to get value.
The best part about writing the letter is the speed at which it moves. There's no immediate feedback other than maybe a paper cut when I lick the envelope. I let the writing go as a gift to Jerry rather than as some way for me to receive approbation. Jerry won't get the letter before Wednesday and may wait to read it and wait some more before writing back. Time passes. What a lovely novelty.
I still write email, but not as much as I used to and most falls into two kinds. One, the quick response, businesslike and clipped, mostly saying yes or no. Two, letter-like messages I take time to craft and in which I'm thinking about the person at the other end. Letters are still better for that second kind of writing.
Letter writing _feels_ better in part because it's a more writerly way of communicating and being in the world. Letters make me a better writer. They might even make me a better person. They certainly make me a better friend.
Who is your next letter going to?