Could the lost art of let­ter writ­ing be mak­ing a come­back?

ELLE (Canada) - - Contents - By Sarah Laing

con­fes­sion time: I have a se­cret shame hid­den in the bot­tom of my dresser drawer. Ev­ery time I reach in for a pair of socks, there they are, hun­dreds of them, their num­ber mul­ti­ply­ing with each pass­ing month. They are blank greet­ing cards, and I don’t know what to do with them.

It wasn’t sup­posed to go this way (and, fine, there aren’t hun­dreds of them—prob­a­bly more like 50 or 60). When I signed up for a monthly sta­tionery sub­scrip­tion called Happy Mail last fall, I was ex­cited, an­tic­i­pat­ing the warm glow I would feel when I turned into one of those peo­ple who dash off thank-you cards and witty bons mots to far-flung cor­re­spon­dents. (An en­graved Mont Blanc foun­tain pen fea­tured heav­ily in these fan­tasies.)

The sub­scrip­tion was a new launch from a crafty blog I’ve long loved called A Beau­ti­ful Mess, and the $15 I’d be spend­ing each month seemed like a small price to pay for up­grad­ing my in­ter­na­tional re­la­tion­ships from epic What­sApp chains chock full of emo­jis to proper “cor­re­spon­dence.” Af­ter all, what’s the use of hav­ing best friends in Aus­tralia and fam­ily in South Africa if it doesn’t gen­er­ate an epic pa­per trail and a stamp col­lec­tion that would make a phi­lat­e­list sali­vate? And, if we’re re­ally get­ting sen­ti­men­tal, I sup­pose it also felt like a way to make those re­la­tion­ships seem a lit­tle more tan­gi­ble—re­ceiv­ing some­thing that a friend or my grand­mother had ac­tu­ally han­dled, touched and writ­ten on might make it feel a lit­tle less like those bonds were loos­en­ing over time. h

Six months later, I have used maybe three of the cards (one wed­ding, two new ba­bies) and sent ex­actly zero through the ac­tual mail. And be­cause I signed up for a year, each month a card­board en­ve­lope ar­rives, filled with a dozen or so adorable, cheery cards em­bla­zoned with such en­dear­ingly pun-y sen­ti­ments as “Wink­ing of you” and “You’re Swan­der­ful” (ac­com­pa­nied by graphic eyes and swans re­spec­tively). I feel like the ul­ti­mate cur­mud­geon for not do­ing all I can to re­lease that sort of in­fec­tious, joy­ful thought­ful­ness into my uni­verse.

For the first few de­liv­er­ies, I’d tear open the en­ve­lope as soon as I got it, sift­ing through the cards and men­tally book­mark­ing friends who would get a kick out of a card with a pret­zel on it that says “You’re twisted…but I love you” or one that has “You da best” in big block letters. I’d even pop a cou­ple in my bag so that I could write them out on the train on the way to work—only to find them, crum­pled and stained, at the bot­tom of my bag three months later. Lately, though, I’ve been dump­ing the new un­opened in­stal­ments di­rectly into the re­cesses of my cup­board be­cause hav­ing them out re­minds me that I’m an aw­ful hu­man be­ing who can’t get off In­sta­gram long enough to con­grat­u­late a friend on her en­gage­ment in a way that doesn’t in­volve an iPhone. My spirit is will­ing, but my will to go out and ac­tu­ally buy stamps is weak.

And I’m not alone in my in­abil­ity to send out letters. Canada Post is ex­pected to de­liver 25-per­cent fewer items in the next five years—and that in­cludes the grow­ing num­ber of pack­ages that online shop­ping is in­ject­ing into the sys­tem. At the same time, re­ceiv­ing letters is be­com­ing less con­ve­nient (and a lit­tle more soul­less) as hulk­ing com­mu­nity mail­boxes are phased in and door-to-door de­liv­ery is phased out—si­lenc­ing, for most Cana­di­ans, the thunk of a pile of bills and fly­ers land­ing on the door­mat.

While that’s hap­pen­ing, how­ever, there has been an in­crease in opeds and think pieces mourn­ing the death of the let­ter-writ­ing tra­di­tion: The Guardian’s Char­lotte Higgins not­ing how her own “letters from friends” drawer stopped fill­ing in 1997, around the dawn of email, and mourn­ing that loss; The New York Times’ Ma­son Cur­rey de­vot­ing thou­sands of words to his wor­ries over the ef­fect that let­ter writ­ing’s de­cline is hav­ing on the cre­ative lives and lega­cies of writ­ers; Vogue’s Jami At­ten­berg rais­ing the alarm over the re­place­ment of love letters with sex­ting. The same ral­ly­ing cry, over and over again: We need more letters! Some­body write more letters, for the sake of the planet! Any­body?

This is why a mini-re­nais­sance in all things hand­writ­ten al­most feels in­evitable. Many of us have felt the hol­low­ness of the “like,” and some are ac­tu­ally putting pen to pa­per to do some­thing about it—or are try­ing to.

TO THE LET­TER Take An­drea Ray­mond of Toronto, for in­stance. It wasn’t out of char­ac­ter for the 39-year-old to send out a card or two “just be­cause,” so when she saw a “write a let­ter ev­ery day for 60 days” chal­lenge on In­sta­gram, it piqued her in­ter­est. It was Jan­uary 2014, and she thought it would make a fun New Year’s res­o­lu­tion. So fun, in fact, that when Ray­mond man­aged to com­plete the 60 days— aided by writ­ing prompts and ideas is­sued daily by the New York sta­tionery com­pany run­ning the chal­lenge—she and a group of women she met on so­cial media through the chal­lenge de­cided to see if they could make it 365 days. Over a year h

later, Ray­mond has found her­self with a daily-let­ter­writ­ing habit.

“It’s a time for me to be med­i­ta­tive,” says Ray­mond, who cor­re­sponds with be­tween 20 and 30 peo­ple ev­ery month. “Putting pen to pa­per forces you to slow down, pause and re­flect on what you’re go­ing to say, which you might not do if you’re dash­ing out a text.” She also feels that us­ing ink ver­sus a key­board changes the qual­ity of what she writes, since there’s a per­ma­nence she as­so­ci­ates with pa­per that makes her con­sider her words more care­fully. (Science backs Ray­mond up, by the way: A 2008 study in the Jour­nal of Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science had a group of adults learn new char­ac­ters and re­pro­duce them ei­ther by hand or on a key­board; they were then asked to dis­tin­guish be­tween these new char­ac­ters and their mir­ror im­ages. The par­tic­i­pants who’d pro­duced the char­ac­ters by hand, rather than by key­board, seemed to have a longer­last­ing recog­ni­tion of them.)

While a por­tion of Ray­mond’s cor­re­spon­dents are fam­ily and friends, many of the peo­ple to whom she writes are fel­low let­ter lovers she met via a small but vi­brant online let­ter­writ­ing com­mu­nity. (Just search the hash­tags #snail­mail, #write_on and #snail­mail­rev­o­lu­tion or visit the web­site for the Let­ter Writ­ers Al­liance or LWA, which was founded by friends Kathy Zadrozny and Dono­van Bee­son in 2007, to get con­nected.) Many of her con­ver­sa­tions—like the on­go­ing one she has with a Ger­man au pair liv­ing in Swe­den—are what she calls “cul­tural ex­changes,” a shar­ing of each other’s cus­toms and tra­di­tions. When com­menc­ing a new cor­re­spon­dence, Ray­mond and other let­ter writ­ers of­ten rely on “mail tags,” a se­ries of ques­tions to an­swer (like “Cho­co­late or vanilla?” and “4 things you do on a lazy day?”—you can find more ideas on the LWA web­site) that serve as an ink-based ice­breaker of sorts. “It struck me that we have to use tech­nol­ogy in or­der to con­nect not us­ing tech­nol­ogy,” she says. “Be­cause how else would you re­vive snail mail now ex­cept through the In­ter­net?” Ray­mond, who works full-time in the arts-and-cul­ture sec­tor, en­joys dec­o­rat­ing her en­velopes and loves think­ing about the joy her pen pals get when they open their mail­box and see some­thing other than a bill. She is also con­tribut­ing to the com­mu­nity in another way: This year, she launched Q&A Let­ter­box, one of Canada’s first sta­tionery-sub­scrip­tion ser­vices. For $12.50 to $15 a month, sub­scribers get three Cana­dian-made cards and one “goody,” like washi tape or a pen. Re­gard­less of whom Ray­mond is writ­ing to, she fol­lows a sim­ple mantra: “What can bring a lit­tle love to their mail­box?”

In many ways, Ray­mond is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of let­ter writ­ing’s real fu­ture: peo­ple for whom it is a “hobby”—a cre­ative en­deav­our rather than a prac­ti­cal ne­ces­sity. There aren’t enough peo­ple like her to re­ally call it a “move­ment,” but a com­mu­nity of the com­mit­ted cer­tainly ex­ists online, knit to­gether by or­ga­ni­za­tions like the LWA. With a cur­rent mem­ber­ship of 8,000, the web­site cre­ates a space where let­ter lovers can meet and ar­ranges pen-pal matches be­tween mem­bers based on their in­ter­ests. Even though they add about 20 mem­bers a week—from tightrope walk­ers to farm­ers—the founders are re­luc­tant to call let­ter writ­ing “a trend.”

“Letters have been around since pa­per was in­vented!” says Zadrozny. “Where I do see in­ter­est grow­ing is with kids. When we did a let­ter-writ­ing event at a fes­ti­val re­cently, the ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple in our tent were un­der the age of 15. It was amaz­ing to see these young kids get inspired while tap­ping out a note on a type­writer or dec­o­rat­ing an en­ve­lope to mail off to a friend. There is a mo­ment where it just clicks—there is this light of h

ex­cite­ment in their eyes that is just stun­ning.” That said, the ma­jor­ity of LWA’s mem­ber­ship is be­tween the ages of 18 to 27 and 45 to 65.

“This book­end of ages makes sense when you think about it,” ex­plains Zadrozny. “The younger group is when you go away to col­lege and right be­fore you start your ca­reer. The other end of the age group is when your kids go away to col­lege or when you re­tire from your job.”


Bri­tish his­to­rian and au­thor Si­mon Garfield has found another way to draw peo­ple to letters. Not only has he writ­ten a book called To the Let­ter: A Cel­e­bra­tion of the Lost Art of Let­ter Writ­ing, where he pays im­pas­sioned trib­ute to the value of hand­writ­ten com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but he’s also one of the minds be­hind Letters Live, a hugely pop­u­lar event in the U. K. that re­cruits celebs (Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch! Jude Law! Ian McKel­lan!) to read pas­sages from fa­mous epis­tles past.

Over the phone from his home in Eng­land, Garfield as­sures me that I’m not alone in my de­sire to write letters yet com­plete in­abil­ity to ac­tu­ally do so. He de­scribes the peo­ple who come up to him af­ter a Letters Live event, and it’s like he is de­scrib­ing my own thought process: First, they be­moan the fact that all we do these days is email. Then they say how inspired they are when they hear a fa­mous let­ter read aloud and how it re­minds them of what we’re los­ing in our age of in­stant, easy com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“Peo­ple re­al­ize that they miss the warmth of letters, the phys­i­cal­ity of ac­tu­ally writ­ing and that real sense of de­light you get when you re­ceive a let­ter be­cause it’s such a rare thing,” says Garfield, adding that so much of this is tied into our gen­eral anx­i­eties about tech­nol­ogy and the mod­ern push for faster and quicker.

“Emails are al­most a past form them­selves,” he con­tin­ues. “The trend is to­ward tex­ting, tweet­ing, Snapchat and Skyp­ing—forms that ei­ther leave no trace or the trace is 140 char­ac­ters or less. Which leads us to ask ‘What are we leav­ing for the next gen­er­a­tion? What will our fam­i­lies know about us in 100 years?’” (Yes, yes and yes: I got a teensy bit sniffly the last time I re­ceived a let­ter from my grand­mother be­cause it was such a lovely sur­prise, and I feel like my dig­i­tal foot­print con­sists of texts about meet­ing for cof­fee and tweets about Char­lie Hun­nam. Not ex­actly how I want the great-grand­kids to re­mem­ber me.)

“Letters have an in­di­vid­u­al­ity to them, and they give you so many clues about the per­son writ­ing them: Is it tear-stained? Is it rushed? What’s the spell­ing like?” says Garfield. “And you can hold a let­ter to your breast, burn it if you hate it or kiss it if you love it.” (Yes! A sig­nif­i­cant spark to my own let­ter-writ­ing urge was get­ting a Christ­mas card from a friend I hadn’t seen in two years and re­al­iz­ing how much I missed her from see­ing her hand­writ­ing, once so fa­mil­iar from our pass­ing notes to each other dur­ing univer­sity lec­tures.)

In­evitably, says Garfield, the con­ver­sa­tion ends with the au­di­ence mem­bers telling him that they are de­ter­mined to write more letters, and of­ten they do—un­til they run into some com­mon pit­falls. “You can be seen as a bit of a retro odd­ity if you sud­denly start writ­ing letters,” he says. “Although peo­ple are thrilled to get stuff, most take ages to get around to re­ply­ing.” Ba­si­cally, it’s not that we don’t ap­pre­ci­ate letters; they’re just not a con­ve­nient part of our lives any­more. Garfield makes the point that in the past, the vast ma­jor­ity of letters were writ­ten to make ar­range­ments h

(“Din­ner at our house on Tues­day?”) or share news (“We’ve had a baby girl named Es­mer­alda”), and it would be silly to use them for that pur­pose now. (That’s what In­sta­gram is for, peo­ple.)

That’s not to say they aren’t a valu­able or worth­while en­deav­our, but the letters we write to­day are go­ing to be dif­fer­ent from the one your great-aunt wrote to con­firm that your grand­mother was bring­ing the ap­pe­tiz­ers and even dif­fer­ent from the emails we write to­day.

“I won­der how keen we are to com­mit our­selves emo­tion­ally and hon­estly in emails?” muses Garfield. “Even be­fore Ed­ward Snow­den, we were aware of how easy it is for emails to go astray or to ac­ci­den­tally hit ‘re­ply all.’ Are you re­ally go­ing to trust your­self to a key­board and screen in the same way you do to a pen and the postal ser­vice?”, says science. Fears of hack­ers or the Google al­go­rithm’s spy­ing eyes aside, the phys­i­cal act of hold­ing a pen in your hands has been shown to stim­u­late high­er­level neu­ral ac­tiv­ity than typ­ing. In a study pub­lished in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Science in 2014, re­searchers at Prince­ton and UCLA found that stu­dents who took notes with pen and pa­per re­mem­bered in­for­ma­tion bet­ter than those who typed it. It’s not a stretch to won­der whether that wouldn’t also ap­ply to the mem­o­ries we make—and the bonds we then deepen—when we sit down to up­date our bestie, who’s off trav­el­ling.

There’s also science to sug­gest it may make your friends like you bet­ter: In a study con­ducted at Lon­don Metropoli­tan Univer­sity, a small group of par­tic­i­pants re­sponded that re­ceiv­ing a let­ter (rather than an email) made them feel “sig­nif­i­cantly” more ap­pre­ci­ated and re­spected and over­whelm­ingly more “pos­i­tive” about the sender.

And even if no one ever replies (let’s be re­al­is­tic), the ac­tual act of what sci­en­tists call “ex­pres­sive writ­ing” (writ­ing about emo­tional events—not your gro­cery list or to-do list, es­sen­tially) has phys­i­cal and emo­tional bene­fits: A 2005 study pub­lished in the jour­nal BJPsych Ad­vances re­vealed that study par­tic­i­pants who spent 15 to 20 min­utes pro­cess­ing a trau­matic event on pa­per later re­ported im­proved mood and mem­ory and fewer vis­its to the doc­tor.

cam­paign this fall)—to the highly or­ga­nized, like The World Needs More Love Letters, which is a web­site that con­nects de­serv­ing re­cip­i­ents (teens be­ing bul­lied, can­cer suf­fer­ers un­der­go­ing treat­ment) with strangers who’d like to send along a hand­writ­ten pick-me-up to that per­son in his or her time of need. The site’s mis­sion state­ment is, in part, to spread “Ridicu­lous, ooz­ing, can­not pack this thang into 140-char­ac­ters kind of love.” It’s a chal­lenge to which over 10,000 peo­ple have ral­lied thus far.


But back to my own sob story about be­ing buried un­der an avalanche of cards I never get around to send­ing. I called up Emma Chap­man, one of the two sis­ters be­hind the Happy Mail ser­vice I sub­scribe to, to do a lit­tle prob­lem solv­ing about my writ­ing woes.

First, I thought the prob­lem was maybe that I wasn’t ex­actly the right tar­get mar­ket for the ser­vice. Chap­man ex­plained that the mail-sub­scrip­tion idea came from want­ing to give the cre­ative, crafty, mostly fe­male read­ers of their blog A Beau­ti­ful Mess an easy, in­ex­pen­sive way to do what they al­ready do, which is make gifts for their friends.

I wouldn’t call my­self a crafter (glue guns ter­rify me), but since I have ro­bust enough as­pi­ra­tions of thought­ful­ness, we de­cided that that wasn’t the prob­lem. Could it be that I wasn’t us­ing the sub­scrip­tion the right way?

Chap­man ex­plained that most of the 5,000 and count­ing sub­scribers seem to want to use the sta­tionery to “celebrate those lit­tle ran­dom events in peo­ple’s lives,” like get­ting a new job, selling a house or even just com­plet­ing a pro­ject at work. Par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar are the cards they’ve re­leased that are in­vi­ta­tions to have brunch or go shop­ping. In other words: You don’t need to be Jane Austen.

“It doesn’t feel as thought­ful when some­one wishes you happy birth­day on Face­book,” the­o­rized Chap­man. “But if you get a happy-birth­day card, it means some­one sat down, wrote on that card, knew your ad­dress, bought a stamp. It’s sim­ple, but it’s that ex­tra mile that says ‘Oh, you didn’t just press “like.”’”

It was around this point in our chat that we re­ally drilled down to the nut of my re­luc­tance to send out my greet­ing cards: pure lazi­ness. Get­ting ev­ery­one’s ad­dresses would be, like, such an or­deal.

“I know how you feel,” said Chap­man, be­fore shar­ing that one of her own New Year’s res­o­lu­tions last year was to send all her friends birth­day cards. She sent out a mass email an­nounc­ing it and also asked for ad­dresses and dates. “I put them in my cal­en­dar, and I just started do­ing them,” she ex­plained. “I did okay, but then I missed a fe­male friend’s in late sum­mer and, very lov­ingly and jok­ingly, she was like, ‘So...I didn’t get my New Year’s res­o­lu­tion birth­day card this year.’ And it was awe­some be­cause it made me think that peo­ple are lik­ing it and it’s not weird.”

Chap­man went on to say that do­ing that has ac­tu­ally had un­ex­pected div­i­dends in her re­la­tion­ships. “The thing I al­ways hear is how sur­prised they are that I sent some­thing. It re­ally does feel like we are a lit­tle bit bet­ter friends, which is silly, be­cause it all sounds so sim­ple. All I did was send a card, but it has re­ally changed some of my re­la­tion­ships this year, and it has been re­ally, re­ally cool.”

This is when I should tell you that I sent out a whole bunch of cards, it changed my life and now I’m mov­ing to an ashram to de­vote my­self to giv­ing sem­i­nars on the art of let­ter writ­ing....

That’s not quite what hap­pened. What has hap­pened is that I’ve writ­ten three cards—one to wish a friend well on her wed­ding day since I won’t be able to be there, another to a friend who just moved to Lon­don and might be a bit home­sick and then a su­per-quick note to tuck into a book I’m send­ing to a friend.

It felt a bit funny be­cause I’m in con­stant text or email con­tact with these women any­way, and I can’t pre­tend I said any­thing par­tic­u­larly pro­found. But I did feel a lovely lit­tle surge of warmth as I stuffed the en­velopes, re­call­ing some­thing Dono­van Bee­son of the LWA said: “Many peo­ple talk them­selves into not be­ing ‘good enough’ or hav­ing ‘bad hand­writ­ing’ as a way to pro­cras­ti­nate. Write a let­ter! Write it now! You don’t need any­thing spe­cial. You just need to take a lit­tle time and re­con­nect with your world, with your­self and with some­one else. Pretty pow­er­ful stuff for just one lit­tle let­ter. You have to write a let­ter to get a let­ter.”

And now my letters are sit­ting on my desk wait­ing to be mailed. But it’s a start, right? n

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