Creative Letter Writing: Reflections on Stationery, Penmanship, Post Offices, and More

I sometimes fear that, as our communication becomes little more than a flurry of zoomed emails and quickly forgotten cell phone exchanges, the art of letter writing will become a lost one. Even twenty years ago, when few people had computers with printers, they handwrote more letters than they do now. And I’m talking about actual handwriting – with a pen and some stationery. Sure, we still sign our names to the occasional greeting card, but those are storebought sentiments. Creative letter writing and all its considerations – including stationery, penmanship, and even a trip to the post office – represents a worthy but endangered means of expression, more potent and powerful as we move through a clinically electronic age.

Creative Letter Writing: The Letter Itself

Letter writing forces you to choose words carefully and think about what you want to say. The structure of the medium imposes restrictions that shape the meaning. You can’t simply erase whole sentences with the tap of a delete button, and word choice becomes more important than little emoticons to convey sentiment. The result is something purposeful yet organic, a lovely marriage of slow craftmanship and immediate expression. On one hand, you have to pick words carefully. At the same time, they’re also more permanent. Ink is, after all, largely indelible.

Letters have a keepsake quality, a personal archival sensibility. If you have something important to express and you can’t do it face-to-face, a hard copy can live with the recipient for a long time – longer than a saved email probably will. Even if, like me, you keep few possessions, chances are that somewhere in some cherished box is a meaningful letter you once received. Am I right?

Creative Letter Writing: Stationery

I delightfully see letters as an opportunity to use stationery, whether it be handmade paper from a specialty shop or just a box of colored, initialed envelopes. Once upon a time, a person’s stationery conveyed messages in the same way a person’s clothing did. Paper, envelope, and seal choices still surface in today’s society, though we tend to reserve them for formal occasions that require invitations or thank-yous, like weddings and graduations. I’d argue that we still have a strong desire to personalize our written communication. Consider: Why do we often include signature quotes in our emails? Why do we occasionally use different colors or fonts or futz with our Outlook preferences if we don’t want even our cold email messages to have a personal, visual character?

Creatve Letter Writing: The Post Office

I’ve been called an “errand queen” before, a title I won’t dispute. I’m the kind of guy who visits the large downtown post office just to mail one letter. There’s a charm, if you will, in performing an errand that seems achaic to many against a building of such vaulted scale. Or perhaps there’s an equal pleasure in strolling to your neighborhood post office?

There’s an artful flourish, even, to handing a clerk a handwritten letter an saying, “I’d like to post this, please.” Maybe I’ve read too many 19th century novels, but I believe it creates an experience, a sense of meaning. I don’t always remember the feelings associated with clicking “send” on most emails, but when I post a letter in person, the details reside in my memory: was it a cloudy day? Did I have a bowl of soup afterward? Was there a woman in front of me mailing a birthday gift in a brown paper package? Did the ink of my return address smear in the drizzle? These things matter to me.

Creative Letter Writing: Penmanship

There is an aesthetic quality to even the most dismal penmanship. Even if you barely surpass the doctor’s standard, your handwriting probably has character despite its imperfections. People close to you will recognize it and perhaps remember being in your presence – the way your hand moves, the way you hold a pen, your dominant hand, the look of your arm. Seeing a handwritten letter evokes images of the person writing the letter and endows it with a valuable sense of intimacy. Beyond merely recognizing the tone and voice of the words themselves, the reader has a more palpable context.

Put differently, the writer’s penmanship lends an authenticity to the readers’ experience. It’s the same reason that merely reading the mass-produced text of a famous old document is far different than seeing the original. For example, in the archives at my college were some letters exchanged between the school’s namesake (the Marquis de Lafayette) and our first president, George Washington. I can assure you that it just feels different to read these real letters instead of some copy – the history becomes almost piquantly alive.

I’m not embracing the pseudo-science of graphology, but I am reminding you that there’s a humanity in handwriting that is sorely acking in much of our communication these days. As much as I employ “smileys,” they don’t always cut it.

Creatve Letter Writing: A Postscript About Postcards

The sending of postcards has dramatically declined over the years, though it’s still somewhat common among tourists. While not letters in the conventional sense, they deserve mention here. There’s a glee in the spontaneity of buying a postcard on the spot, scrawling a few Wordsworthian lines on it, and mailing it immediately. Though the postcard does not arrive instantly, it captures a fleeting moment. It says “I’m thinking about you right now” and “Here’s an image I want/need to share.” Sometimes, not knowing exactly when the recipient will read the postcard is exactly why it’s special. The on-location phone call is almost less magical, no?

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