When was the last time you wrote a letter? Not an email, not a text, but an honest-to-goodness, pen-on-paper missive of a full page or more, folded, sealed, stamped, and placed in an actual—not virtual—mailbox. When, for that matter, was the last time you received a letter?
That old-fashioned mode of communication seems to be a vanishing species these days. The average American household receives only ten pieces of personal mail per year (not counting holiday cards and invitations), according to a New York Times article by Susan Shain.
That's a pity. Letters have worth far beyond the paper they're written on, offering intimate musings and glimpses of everyday life that can't be found in brief dispatches or even impassioned Facebook posts.
"A letter is, after all, a piece of writing in which we give ourselves the space to reflect—to distill our emotions and reactions, to choose the things that are important and flesh them out in detail," writes Cristen Hemingway Jaynes in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers magazine. "Without the more intimate form of writing letters, I drift apart from those who are not in my daily life."
Reflecting on her communications with one friend who still writes letters but never sends emails, Jaynes observes, "I know more about her thoughts and her relationship with the world—how she is actually doing—than I do about most of my other friends."
I thought about that kind of connection recently, when my friend Laurel gave me a packet of letters I'd written to her in the 1970s and '80s. Reading through them, I found verbal snapshots of that period of my life: vivid descriptions of my friends, amusing anecdotes about everyday incidents, accounts of the books I was reading, ramblings on romances, ruminations on my college and grad school anxieties.
For instance: "I'm feeling very anxious about my entomology project and I want to make sure I have something done before Dr. Hurley gets back. I'm trying to get my equipment together this week so I can start the project next week. So far my equipment is a cake pan with the bottom cut out of it and a sieve. I have fears that the whole project is going to be about that sophisticated. I'm very nervous about it. I will enclose some of my bitten off fingernails if I remember."
Segues were seemingly unnecessary. I followed a discussion of travel plans with this news flash about my cat: "Ooooh, the most creepy thing just happened. Zeke has been sitting next to me on the couch, watching the birds outside and chattering his teeth at them. Then he lay down and went to sleep and chattered his teeth in his sleep. I CAN'T STAND IT!!!"
Some letters included funny drawings; others carried silly variations of my return address: "Sunset Avenue Circus Museum," "Sunset Avenue Center for the Development of Better Sleep Habits."
Reading the Laurel letters inspired me to haul out a box of letters that friends and family members had written to me over the years. Just the act of taking the letters out of the box gave me a deeper satisfaction than I've ever gotten from an email popping into my inbox. Seeing my brother's artsy, backhand cursive trailing across an envelope; recognizing a friend's old return address, noticing the stamp she selected, the kind of paper she wrote on, all felt like little homecomings. And the contents of those letters took me to times, places, and crannies of my friends' hearts and souls I couldn't have visited—and revisited—any other way.
Among those treasures was a note written on a Buckaroo Club napkin by my friend Darwin in 1981, shortly after he'd completed a 300-mile kayaking odyssey on the Yukon, Porcupine, Sheenjek, and Kongakut rivers, culminating at the Beaufort Sea.
"Though very maladjusted and in a state totally unfit for normal upright society except for that of Alaska, which I hate the city part of, I'm alive and back in Anchorage," he wrote. He went on to recount seeing hundreds of caribou, five grizzlies, two moose, and one gyrfalcon; tipping over twice, but righting himself before swamping his kayak; and sharing bowhead whale meat and blubber with local indigenous people on Barter Island.
Even accounts of my correspondents' less adventurous experiences were a treat to read. My friend Barry's dispatch from college in 1969 was just as keenly observed:
"Right here you have a prime example of a Communications 301 class," he wrote. "Notice the yawns and the chins propped drowsily on hands. Notice the blank sheets of paper without any notes. Notice the guest speaker getting shook. Notice chair #213 back there writing a letter to some girl in Oklahoma."
Old letters preserve daily details that now seem quaint. Writing in 1971 about her employment woes, my friend Wendy lamented "I really want to get out of the $1.65/hr range. It's a drag." In the same letter, she included sketches of a denim coat and paisley dress she'd managed to buy on those skimpy wages, and added, "I've ordered rain boots from Sears (pg. 555, Fall-Winter book, item 5, on sale for $8.94 in one of their sale books)."
Over the years I've sometimes chided myself for holding onto mementos like these old letters. But a single snowy afternoon spent reading them—even if that happens only once a decade—is more than worth the closet space my box of letters occupies. I'm reminded of how long my friendships have endured and how they've sustained me.
Letters enhance connection and contentment, to be sure, but they're also good for creativity.
"When I write longhand each pass of the ink on to paper is a physical creation. And as with sculpture, textiles, painting, and furniture, it contains remnants of myself," notes Jaynes, whose great-grandfather Ernest Hemingway was also an inveterate letter writer. "The exercise of writing, whether it be in the form of a letter or a story, is all good practice. As my great-grandfather demonstrated in his colorful letters to friends, there can be just as much creativity in letter writing as in any other form. Similar to freewriting exercises, writing a letter loosens the knots in neural pathways, leading to subjects and characters lying just below the surface."
I know it did for me. I learned to write largely by crafting letters to everyone from grandparents to pen pals with whom I connected through a kids' magazine.
After all I've said in praise of letters, you probably think I'm going to end this post with a pledge to write more of them. I could, but I know it would be a hollow promise. Truth is, I've never been that great a correspondent, even when letters were my main form of communication. I wrote tons of them, but I always seemed to have a stack of unanswered ones nagging at me (kind of like my email inbox these days).
So rather than make a promise I'm not likely to keep, I will resolve to keep writing an occasional letter, and I'll encourage you to do the same.
After all, as Hemingway once wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald, "it's such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you've done something."
Need more inspiration? Check out Letters of Note, a website that "offers an intimate window into history and the characters who shaped it."
Or write a letter to a stranger who could use an encouraging word. Find stories of deserving people, along with where to send letters, at More Love Letters.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.