The winding trajectory of letter writing


Please Read the Letter”  Robert Plant and Alison Krauss

Having written almost prolifically about postage and the controversies of postage stamp motifs, it occurs to me to write about the corollary of postage stamps – letters. We need letters to mail if we are going to get excited about postage stamps. Sure, a lot of people do not mail anything any more – and in fact, many young people apparently don’t even know how to mail things — but if you are going to “go postal” (in the literal sense, not in the violent figurative sense), you might as well do it in a visually appealing way, with fine, varied stamps (after all, someone has gone to the trouble of designing and producing them!). And while you’re at it, you can revive a nearly lost art – letter writing. Don’t use stamps to mail bills (yeah, yeah, I know most of us are paying bills the virtual way these days): fill mailboxes with lovely cards, postcards and handwritten letters. “The letter is dead; long live the letter.

“…newly shaken with the power of so seemingly simple a thing as a letter — a medium that’s always held enormous allure for me, a humble page that blossoms into a grand stage onto which great romances are played out, great wisdom dispensed, and great genius manifested. But what exactly is it about a letter that reaches such depths, and what ineffable, immutable piece of humanity are we losing as the golden age of writing letters sets into the digital horizon?

That’s precisely what Simon Garfield, who has previously explored how our modern obsession with maps was born, seeks to illuminate in To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing — a quest to understand what we have lost by replacing letter-writing with email-typing and relinquishing “the post, the envelope, a pen, a slower cerebral whirring, the use of the whole of our hands and not just the tips of our fingers,” considering “the value we place on literacy, good thinking and thinking ahead.” (from “The letter is dead, long live the letter.“)

The beauty of the art of letter writing – the anticipation and the intimacy – is captured both in the article I cite and the book the article writes about. But it’s not something one really understands fully unless s/he has been immersed in this “otherworld” of letter writing. It’s still appealing in some way, but the magic it used to hold over me has faded. I don’t know whether this is because of the ease and immediacy of digital communication (against which I fought tooth and nail for such a long time, which one would never guess now) or because of age (that is, life and priorities shift to such a degree that sitting down to devote time to letter writing – which used to be a large chunk of many an artist or writer’s day – seems wasteful).

I don’t know if it is a byproduct of becoming more “worldly” myself – as letter writing was one of the major ways in which I felt I could reach out into a wider world and experience new languages, new cultures, new countries. I could get a glimpse of Communist-era Eastern European countries, just on the cusp of a democratic shift. I could admire the philatelic sensibilities of the French. I could note the similar curves and twists familiar to a country’s handwriting – as though everyone in that one country had been taught to write and form letters and numbers on a page in exactly the same way (a letter could arrive, and even without seeing the stamp, I could usually identify whether it came from Germany or Italy or Japan – how similar the graphology).

There is still something very intoxicating about the idea of having to really want to communicate with someone else so badly that you will make the effort of putting pen to paper and go through the motions of packaging and posting a letter to some other place in the world. It is not really a massive effort – but it is becoming a less and less likely occurrence all the time. When I mail my quarterly CD mixes and sometimes even handmade cards, many people (non-pen pal people) who make it onto the mailing list often express such shock that they received a real, genuine piece of mail. “I haven’t received a personal letter since the 1980s!” they exclaim.

And frankly, I don’t think most people have much experience receiving personal letters. Maybe people’s grandparents are still clinging to the postal service, along with outliers like myself. Everyone seems to enjoy receiving, but like a lot of things in life, people are too lazy or disinclined to reciprocate.

But there are those among us who keep this hobby – passion, even – alive. I can’t say I have been particularly good at it in recent years, having said goodbye to a number of my longtime pen pals because my global bounding and bouncing around has not been conducive to keeping regular contact. There are a few people I will never say goodbye to – and it is funny to imagine ever saying goodbye to anyone, given how protective and “into it” I was in the old days. In the heyday of my pen pal life, I had more penfriends than I could count, all over the world, and counted them among my best friends (despite a few horror stories – which is entirely another story). They were my window to the world, and the daily visit from the postman (whose name was “Maynard” haha) was a lifeline for me throughout my adolescent and teen years. It seems so strange to me that I was checking the mail every ten minutes back then, wondering why the mailman was late, whether my letters were lost, etc. – when now I could go days without checking. And to imagine that the biggest problem in my whole life back then was managing to get enough stamps. I never had enough stamps or money for stamps. And any stamps I was given were gone as soon as I had them in hand. Now I have piles of stamps (that I, perhaps ironically, order online and have shipped directly to me!).

There were “pen pal migrations” over the years. I found that when high school and/or college ended, a lot of pen pals disappeared because they “got on with their lives”, so to speak. Careers, marriage, children, just not being interested in writing or maybe just not wanting to write to me. Fine and dandy. And then there was a mass migration to online communication – many people, citing convenience and expense (envelopes and stamps, once again), shifted entirely to email, and for me, that pretty much ended a lot of friendships because there is nothing about instant email that rivals that sense of excitement one feels when receiving an envelope from somewhere across the world, savoring the reading of every word, setting aside some huge chunk of time to write back and sending off a response, not knowing when you’d get a reply.

It is, it’s worth saying, also intoxicating to think that you might have to wait to get an answer. You might ask a really burning question – and at best, you could expect an answer in two weeks. And at worst – well, who knows? Months? We’ve sort of lost the charm of anticipation – we expect to have everything immediately and instantly, and that instant gratification culture has perhaps spoiled us and made us far less patient, treating others as disposable and thinking of ourselves as much more entitled than we actually are. Letters manage somehow to humanize and slow things down.

The whole thing about letters and parcels – it is just a wholly different feeling, a wholly different world. I will never completely stop with my postal entanglements; it will just continue on this meandering, winding road.