D. Andrew Jones on Why I Don’t Handwrite Notes & Letters
Handwritten letters are considered an antiquarian art, a relic of days gone by, like rotary-dial phones and push-button cash registers. They’ve become an endangered species, being steadily eradicated by technology, laziness, and sound bites. Even if I wanted to write one, I’m not sure I have stationary, envelopes, or stamps on hand.
I recently noticed that the Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis has been published. In the future, will they publish the Collected Emails, Texts, and Tweets of notable individuals? It is difficult to capture, but the letter crafted by hand has a personal and emotional quality that our modern forms of communication cannot rival.
Letters in the Bible
When my paternal grandmother passed away, I became the guardian of the family Bible, a larger-than-normal edition of the Scriptures commonly passed down through successive generations of a family (especially southern families) and containing pages to record births, deaths, marriages, and other family news. I guess our family Bible was given to me because I’m a pastor and my relatives suspected I had training in the care of such things.
This Bible is old and tender, dating back to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Besides the Scriptures and family history, it contains mementos that some thought worth preserving in it. Among these are strands of hair and pictures.
But my favorite relics are the letters handwritten by my ancestors. The Scriptures themselves are full of letters—from fathers to sons, from pastors to congregations, and even from Jesus to seven churches—all handwritten by the author or his secretary.
The letters stored in our family Bible bring me the closest I can come to hearing the voices of my ancestors, to meeting them, and to having a sense of knowing them. Among the most treasured is a letter written by my great-grandfather (whom I never had the pleasure of meeting) to my great-grandmother before they were married. Written on pages that measure much smaller than our customary 8.5-by-11 and held together by a nail woven through the center at the top, it is a love letter from a young man courting a young woman. This was before phones were common in homes. Letter-writing was the equivalent of texting back then, the quickest means of communication available.
A Personal Quality
In this letter, my great-grandfather informs his future bride of his recent activities, but also that his family will be traveling on Saturday in their surrey past her house. He bids her to keep watch on the front porch so that the two of them can enjoy a passing wave. I wonder if she eagerly checked the mail in the hope of receiving such a letter and if her parents were aware of the contents. One gets the impression that this was not their first correspondence, nor that he anticipated its being their last. Did he have to write multiple drafts before sending it? Was his family aware of this drive-by flirtation, perhaps even taking this route to accommodate that very purpose?
The prose wasn’t complex. The penmanship wasn’t calligraphy. Yet the letter contains a personal quality that eludes the word processor. Thanks to high-speed Internet and my laptop, I can talk to multiple people, even thousands, on any given day and from just about any location, from my office at home to a hotel room in India. Yet with all our efficiency, there is something deficient about our electronic letters and notes, especially compared with the careful craftsmanship of those from previous eras.
As a minister, I regularly send email messages to people in difficult circumstances, assuring them of my constant prayers on their behalf. What if I handwrote letters to each person instead? My messages would be delayed by 48 hours, but would they be received with more warmth, thoughtfulness, and sympathy?
I think so. Handwritten letters don’t simply take more time, energy, and intention. My penmanship, the way I cross my t’s and slant my letters, is like a fingerprint, something that is unique to me, like my DNA. For a person receiving my handwritten letter, it would be as if I had dropped by his house.
A Physical Encounter
When I was in college, my maternal grandmother would send me a handwritten letter about once every other month, with some money enclosed (which I was always excited to receive because then my wallet would be less empty). She wrote everything by hand except her return address; for that, she used the free labels that marketers once included in junk mail as an enticement to purchase more personalized products. Typically, the substance of her notes was about the weather, since everything else in her life was routine and predictable.
She wasn’t Flannery O’Connor, but those personal messages meant more to me than any email. I could envision the chair she was sitting in, the table she wrote on, and even her gait as she walked down the driveway to the mailbox. Reading her words formed by her fingers gave me the momentary illusion that she was with me, or at least wished she were.
On many occasions, my wife has slipped handwritten missives into all sorts of surprising places: books, luggage, clothes, cars. They are all timely reminders of her unique love for me that is known only between us. She and I also exchange emails and texts on a variety of practical and personal matters, but something is special about these messages, and it stems in part from their being handwritten. There is an emotion and intention in them that Times New Roman cannot convey. A handwritten letter is, like a hug or a handshake, a physical encounter.
I’d like to say that I am a habitual composer of handwritten correspondence—as I type this on my laptop. I am not. It takes time I feel I don’t have, hurts my hand, and requires focus I don’t want to give.
Interestingly, all the things that keep me from writing letters by hand are all the things that make them special. The time, personal artistry, and focus are the ingredients that give these notes their well-pleasing aroma. Communicating with people is something my generation has mastered, but personal communication is another matter altogether, and one that I fear may soon be extinct. It will be a loss.
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“Special Delivery” first appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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