The Return of the Handwritten Letter

It's becoming a thing again to write letters and drop them into a physical mailbox.

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When I was a magazine editor, prisoners often sent me letters. Nearly all asserted they were wrongfully convicted, sometimes in way-too-colorful detail. What grabbed me, however, was that the screeds were handwritten. Passionate, personal, brimming with emotion. Lots of free-flowing anger there. But again — handwritten. Delightful.

So, who says the art of hand-penned letters is dead? Just about everyone, actually. At least until recently. Inmates are no longer among the few who put ink on paper to share their most urgent thoughts. It’s becoming a thing again to write letters and drop them into a physical mailbox. I approve. Early in my journalism career, over a period of several years, I maniacally scribbled literally thousands of letters and notes to virtually everyone who I thought could give me a break. (It worked.)

In explaining the revival of letters, Laura Stickney, contributor to Her Campus, a website for college women, observed that “part of what makes receiving a letter so special is the fact that someone took the time to actually sit down and write you a message.” Well, yeah — that’s completely, obviously it. If you love someone, or even if you’ve had a brooding beef with them, sending a handwritten message may be the most effective way to unload. Better than emails and texts, which have their place and are the reflexive go-to these digital days. But they conspicuously lack any sense of heart. No feels. It’s undeniable that when you hold a pen in hand, you will express yourself with greater honesty (if not dignity).

For those who choose to handwrite letters (question: does that make you old-fashioned or, conversely, a forward thinker?), the first decision that must be addressed concerns tools: the writing instrument, the ink, and the paper. If you’re going to commit, do it right. Experts say you will want to select pens and papers that most perfectly align with your winning personality. It may take some trial and error, plus receptivity to a little tough self-analysis.

All this prep is maybe more involved than you imagined? Of course it is. “A good handwritten letter is a creative act, and not just because it is a visual and tactile pleasure,” a New York Times writer said a few years back. “It is a deliberate act of exposure … because handwriting opens a window on the soul.”

How so? you ask, wisely. Perhaps because, according to Brett and Kate McKay, editors of the online magazine Art of Manliness, “ink from your pen touches the stationery, your fingers touch the paper, your saliva seals the envelope.” Your DNA is effectively merged into the letter. I find that both creepy and satisfying.

Now, in business correspondence, or a letter to the editor, let’s agree that evidence of your DNA is not a good thing. Too much “soul.” In a personal letter, particularly a love letter, sure. Why not?

One more thing to bear in mind: Some handwritten letters — hard as they may be to decipher if your cursive is a blizzard of weird strokes — may one day have monetary value. Especially if you are a VIP or, heaven forbid, the victim of a historic calamity. Collectors seek those. For example, a letter written by a Titanic passenger just before the ship sank recently sold for $166,000. What mattered was not penmanship, but rather that someone composed a sweet, detailed letter to a family member during his final voyage. As such documents go, one can hardly find another that so powerfully evokes true-life heartache — and thus perfectly captures the import that only a handwritten letter can embody.

 In the last issue, Cable Neuhaus wrote about the smartwatch.

This article is featured in the July/August 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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Comments

  1. My hobby is hand made cards. Not only do I design them but also construct, build and personalize each one for the “special recipient.” They are a gift to that person and are my way of showing “love on paper.” Many are kept as mementos for years…occasionally, one might be placed in a frame (I am told).
    Is a wonderful hobby for me, an artistic outlet and a special gift for the recipient.

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