A handwritten letter on crisp sheets of heavy stock paper is an uncommon and cherished possession in this day and age, a tangible sentiment, a time capsule. It is a substantial artifact to be kept near at hand: in a nightstand drawer, folded in a book, stored in a collection, held in a box with other pieces of a treasure trove, hidden in plain sight in one’s personal “Room of Requirement,” or under a floorboard. It is only to be brought out once in a while, to recall a poignant memory or valuable confirmation. Letters we write and receive change our story; they penetrate our surface existence and reveal our identity, what we love and what we scorn.
There are few opportunities to sit down and write a long letter. The rarity of handwritten notes in our modern times confirms our general bewilderment and cursory lifestyle. We are starved for meaning, true communiqués, beauty, order, expressive language, refined discourse. We do not know where to find these words, where to find spaces of silence; we can only look to the past. The digital age has ruined genuine interaction. Philosophical and transcendent discourse has been replaced by candy, in the form of scientism and technology. Words have become wilting and lifeless; they are replicated across multiple platforms, on multiple screens. There are no more panegyric odes to democracy, ink-stained pages, meanderings or earnest scribbles on lost loves, just meaningless, impersonal boilerplate – a quick text or a quick e-mail straight to the point, tout de suite. The postman is no longer the wandering bard traipsing door-to-door in costume carrying his bag of letters and old songs – eager to pass along correspondence to the likes of the fictional but beloved Beatrice, Juliet, or Kate, or the scholarly Eleanor Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass, Alexis de Tocqueville, or Alexander Hamilton. He is not bringing mail from Verona, Aix-en-Provence, Boston, upstate New York, Washington D. C., Paris, or Budapest. The postman is currently the lonely purveyor of Visa bills, Amazon boxes, catalogs, and junk mail. Handwritten letters rarely travel across the country or around the world. Instagram, Twitter, Text, e-mail, and Snapchat rule the conversation — quick, easy, painless, perfectly curated, and non-committal – the slow, tedious roll.
If you want to do something original, not practical in the least, but fervent, intelligent and artful, and perhaps life-changing — learn how to write a well-written letter. Research how it was done with aplomb and substance. Peruse at your leisure the letters of J. R. R. Tolkien to his children. Be amused and tickled by Gothic illustrator Edward Gorey’s artful notes to his friend Peter Neumeyer. Explore famed Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov’s beautiful love missives of half a century to his wife, Vera. Review with sadness the Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s farewell (near death) message to his best friend, the author of Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie. Appreciate the lifelong friendship of pianist Clara Schumann and composer Johannes Brahms through their myriad of moving letters. Relish the starry-eyed discourse of two influential 20th-century philosophers, Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. Envision the correspondence of the artist Henry Ossawa Tanner while in Morocco and France painting Gateway, Tangier. And finally, savor the tender and funny letters of artist Georgia O’Keeffe to her love, photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
Once you know how beautiful letters have been composed with sparkle, sincerity, ardor, or wit, write a letter; do not send a text. And if you are going to write a letter, write a decent one with candor and depth. Take a risk. Shock someone and change how their story ends. Get out the ink pen, some proper stationery, an envelope, and a first-class stamp, and begin in silence and wonder. Know and believe that, more times than not, the person receiving a long handwritten letter will be moved, cured of what ails their spirit, and given an unexpected gift for which they are grateful beyond measure and beyond telling.