how (and why) to write a letter (part 1 of becoming de-viced)

If I had a nickel for each time I heard reference to adolescents/young adults not being willing/able to make phone calls anymore, I would have a lot of nickels. We are all, it seems, ready to point out the places that others are departing from traditions due to technological advances. It’s much harder to look at our own lives and notice the small activities that have become obsolete. 

I hear, often, how wonderful it is to have access to a text history. I agree that this is true. Anymore, we can trace entire relationship histories by reading the daily back and forth between people. I regularly express gratitude to the universe for everything coming together in such a way that we have an internet which connects us with far more people who live at far greater distances than we’ve ever had. I deeply adore all the ways we have to connect and stay in touch.

At the same time, I’m always shocked when teachers or parents remark that their students/children don’t know how to address an envelope. This feels oddly sad to me. There is something warm and endearing about receiving a piece of mail that has been touched and licked and stamped and addressed. Do you agree?

I’ve recently become enamored with an app that allows me to upload a photo, greeting, and message to create a personalized card. I allowed access to my contacts so I don’t even need to enter their addresses. Just click on the name and the app makes, prints, and addresses the card. Days later my friend receives the envelope, which, while impressive and personalized, has never been touched (physically) by me. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this and, yet, at the same time, there isn’t anything particularly profound. Anymore, nothing done in digital spaces seems particularly sparkly. It’s all so…possible.

If we excel in that which we practice, we are all poised to become experts at working the new digital system. We can maintain multiple text “conversations” at one time, coming and going with ease. The research refers to this phenomena as “asynchronous communication” and touts it as one of the leading positive impacts of tech use. We are all becoming better asynchronous communicators, able to type and send messages with speed and acuity. But what of depth? What of consideration and the crafting of specific words to communicate well intended messages? What of handwriting? And the ability to address an envelope?

Many of us no longer make phone calls simply because we are out of practice. Our lack of experience making our way through a voice to voice interaction leads us to dread such encounters which, in turn, makes us less likely to dial the phone. Might the same be true of our written communication? We don’t express our thoughts or feelings in anything other than short bursts of letters strung together by our thumbs on tiny devices during meetings. This may leave us less than confident about our ability to use words to communicate more intimate or complex or expressive sentiments. In reality, we may not even be sure our handwriting is legible anymore. For these reasons, I have come to believe that it’s important to, every once in a while, write a handwritten note or letter to be sent in a stamped envelope. This is not, however, as easy as it sounds. We can choose the card (and, let me tell you, we put off the writing by being convinced that the exact and perfect card exists…we just have to find it…), get out the pen, sit down to write but then we freeze. We no longer feel comfortable with this form of communication. 

To increase the likelihood that you’ll actually join me in the task of writing a letter/card, I’m giving you a few easy to follow steps. You don’t need more than 10-15 minutes, something to write on, and an implement to write with. Please try this, regardless of how long it’s been or a complete blank about who you will write to. It’ll simply work some new muscles. 

To those of you who write and send hand-written tomes regularly, bless you! You are keeping the art alive for us and I believe this is important! My own mother, aunt, and dear friends Kathie and Caitlyn are huge contributors to this art form and I am deeply grateful.

How to Write a Letter:

1 Abandon the need for the “perfect” card or paper. Use what is in front of you. Perhaps that is a part of a cereal box that you cut to fit in an envelope and write on the back of. Maybe it’s the back of your grocery list or a political flyer left at your door. Don’t let a lack of supplies stop you. Any paper will do. Same for the envelope. Nothing fancy is required. Seriously. You will not be graded on the letter and envelope matching. Multiple folds to make the letter fit into whatever envelope you have lying around is a-ok.

2 Let go of the notion that you will be graded on your organization, punctuation, grammar, or spelling. Unless you are writing this note to an editor, librarian, or english professor, no one will care (and, if they do, that’s their problem, not yours). I’ve seen people write outlines and rough drafts in order to get their written communique just right. See this experience as the opposite of this. Don’t write a cover letter for a job application for this experiment. Trust that what comes to you as you write is enough. It will be. I promise.

3 Choose someone to write to. Don’t think too hard. Don’t make a prioritized list of who you “should” write to before you write to the person that came to mind. Just choose someone and commit to this. The person who came to mind is the person that needs your note.

4 Don’t get hung up on the details, just start. “HI!” “Dear so and so,” and “Happy October” all work as a starting point. This is the place where we all are tempted to stop. Push past this temptation. Just start. Write a greeting, then move on.

5 Write a sentence or two of gratitude for the person. Include a trait or two you appreciate. Something like, “I am thinking about you right now and am grateful for the way that you live out your values” would work. Or, if you’re less serious than I tend to be, maybe something like, “You crossed my mind and I wanted to tell you that the time we laughed until milk came out of our noses still makes me giggle.” Whatever it is, express something that connects you to the person.

6 Add a few sentences about what you are up to these days. It doesn’t need to be a novel. A sentence or two will work. If you really can’t come up with anything, comment on something about where you are right now. “I’m sitting here in my kitchen with piles all around me but I just wanted to say hello” is the perfect kind of statement.

7 Ask a few questions of the person. Who knows, maybe they’ll write you back.

8 Sign off without too much hand wringing. Who cares if you write “From,” “Peace,” or “Love”? Truly, just sign your name if you find yourself agonizing over this. Whoever receives this gift is not going to analyze each word nearly as much as you might.

9 Don’t re-read or re-consider (unless you’ve just written a complaint or hate letter…then, by all means, please, please, please re-read and consider NOT sending what you’ve written). Fold up your note, stuff it into the envelope, and seal it. If you want to be really fancy, like my neighbor Pam, scatter some glitter or confetti or all the holes out of your hole punch, into the folded note. Opening your letter will be like receiving a party for the recipient.

10 Find the necessary address. If you don’t have it, send a quick text to get it or use to look it up. We are all at risk of letting this part hold us up. Don’t. Get that address and get this baby in the mail.

11 Stamp your letter and put it in the mailbox.  If you don’t have stamps, you can order them online here:  Grocery stores and self serve kiosks at your post office also sell stamps. Consider this another opportunity to try something new.

12 Savor the experience you’ve just had and, maybe, repeat it.