A Case for Letter Writing (and a letter from Mark Twain)

Creative Commons

Remember the days before email? Hard to imagine people using ink and paper to express their love, thoughts, and opinions. But it wasn’t all that long ago when instant email and instant everything were not a thing. 

Let’s wonder together. When people forced to slow down, think, reflect, and pen their thoughts to one another. Was this a superior form of communication?

My working assumption is humans have always been sinful and rotten at the core. No one good, not even one. You don’t have to agree, but that’s where I start. 

A second assumption, similar to the first, I don't suggest the medium of letter writing with ink and paper is superior by nature. People are flawed and use any means possible to hurt, demean, and ridicule people whether through 140 character tweets, handwritten letters, or conversations in the workplace. All mediums of communication can be used for good or evil.

A third assumption, every generation has to use the mediums of communication afforded to them. I don’t suggest past generations limited to letter writing or chiseling on walls were morally superior. The people groups of the Third World who don’t have email or Facebook or pen and paper are not better, or worse off. 

Okay, foundational assumptions laid out. Is writing with pen, pencil, and paper a superior form of communication? Does instant communication such as social media and email create more opportunities to harm people, or less? Do they enhance communication or diminish? When we have the loaded gun of social media at our finger tips is the potential for harm heightened, or not? Does the medium of instant communication by nature make us lazy in thought, reflection, and tone?

I don’t know. Not pretending to be an expert in communication or digital technology. 

But what I know… Letters force you to think deeply and clearly, because mistakes are costly, and the space for expression are often limited. In our digital landscape the runway is long and potential for inserting foot in mouth heightened. We rant, rave, and give our opinions with little thought of coherence, and/or who it may offend. 

When we take up pen and paper, the recipient is often the only audience. Social media communication and other forms of digital verbal vomit are most often public. Once we hit publish on the inter-webs, its forever and permanent. Not always bad, but more often than not, terrifying. 

So what’s this about? Am I suggesting shifting back to the days of chisel and carving out notes on the cave wall? Am I suggesting moving back to ink and parchment? No. 

I’ve been experimenting with letter writing. Wife, kid’s friends, family, church family, and even strangers. I will say, one challenge is my terrible handwriting. The cursive game is gone, and the penmanship is a cross between a doctor’s script, and a shaky grandmother wishing you a happy birthday.

So, for those who might receive a letter from me, I hope you have a translator.

I’m writing more handwritten letters not because of moral conviction. Not because I’m a hipster, and that’s what you’re supposed to do (I look awful in skinny jeans, pretty sure I’d have tattoo regret, and flannel shirts are itchy).

Maybe letter writing is a search for more stillness. A fast from instant communication and light reflection. 

Maybe letters are an attempt to love people well. Not throwing around flippant comments on digital media and taking the time to think about what I love about the people in my life. 

Slowing down to write a short note to a friend takes more effort and energy and reflection than a text or email. Nothing wrong with these forms either. But when I take up pen, card, and brain… I’m forced to think about the recipient and only the recipient.

Letter writing will not cure the worlds ills. But maybe it's a revolutionary act for stillness, quiet, love, and reflection. 

I won't embarrass myself with a personal letter written to a loved one. Why not see the power of letter writing from Mark Twain. This was a letter written to his wife on her 30th birthday:

Hartford, November 27, 1875

Livy darling,
Six years have gone by since I made my first great success in life and won you, and thirty years have passed since Providence made preparation for that happy success by sending you into the world.
Every day we live together adds to the security of my confidence that we can never any more wish to be separated than that we can ever imagine a regret that we were ever joined. You are dearer to me to-day, my child, than you were upon the last anniversary of this birth-day; you were dearer then than you were a year before—you have grown more and more dear from the first of those anniversaries, and I do not doubt that this precious progression will continue on to the end.
Let us look forward to the coming anniversaries, with their age and their gray hairs without fear and without depression, trusting and believing that the love we bear each other will be sufficient to make them blessed.
So, with abounding affection for you and our babies, I hail this day that brings you matronly grace and dignity of three decades!
Always Yours,
S.L.C.

(Source: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2013/12/always-yours.html)