Picking Up Old Habits

February 5, 2014 in Journal

The last time I wrote a handwritten letter was to an old friend for Christmas. Two stationary sheets, front and back, and the only reason it wasn’t any longer was because I felt as if I’d been rambling on and “hogging” the conversation. Which is funny, considering how letter writing has always felt to me like more of an exchange of monologues, rather than a dialog. My hand had cramped painfully – I was out of practice holding a pen, and I’ve always had a problem with writing fast enough to keep up with my thoughts while still keeping my penmanship legible (unfortunately I seem to take after my father the doctor, with his near illegible scrawling style, more than my mother’s controlled whorls and looping script).

There is, however, an undeniable pleasure that comes from putting your thoughts to physical paper by hand. When typing, I can go through a dozen attempts at the same sentence. My emails go through multiple rounds of editing before being sent. Much of the time, many of the thoughts and words I type never actually make it to their intended recipient, blinking out of existence with a “highlight” and “delete” about as quickly as they appeared. Physically writing a letter however, I have no choice but to pause and consider before committing my thoughts to the page. I have to force my thoughts to slow from a sprint to a slow walk, and if I’m honest, it often irritates the hell out of me to do so. I have other things to write, chores to do, places to go, and just maybe I can squeeze in that 30 minutes at the gym – I don’t have time to slow down! Typing is so much faster and more efficient (and anyway, a script font is just as good as real handwriting, right?). But that slowing down also forces me to stop and think: Is this really what I want to say? Are these details really necessary? Just what kind of “tone” am I going for here (and am I actually succeeding)? Physical penmanship forces me to actually say what I mean, and do it with brevity – a 2000 word email won’t cost me a dime, but long letters can mean more postage and stamps aren’t as cheap as they used to be.

I used to be really good at this. When I moved from my home in Chicago after my parents died to live with some relatives, I wrote nearly half a dozen letters to friends back home every couple of weeks. A sizable chunk of my allowance was set aside to buy stationary, pens and stamps, all of which I went through at a considerable clip. Some friends and I would write back and forth to each other several times a month. But between the ease (and cheap cost) of email and how temporary mailing addresses became during the college years, I just fell out of the habit. But I still have all of them, every single letter I’ve ever received since high school, kept in a stack of shoeboxes in the bedroom closet. And because I never really stopped being something of a stationary hoarder, I still have several boxes of quality paper, cards and matching envelopes (and stickers!) that most of my friends would immediately recognize as from me.

I suppose it’d be a shame to let all that go to waste.

6 responses to Picking Up Old Habits

  1. How familiar all this sounds!
    Some days I look at my letters to reply to and think, I don’t have time to give them what they deserve. But that’s what feels so special about receiving letters: someone has had to stop, and think about the recipient and focus on that letter. Unlike emails, where I can be typing about one thing, but still paying attention to something else, if I try and ‘multi task’ while hand writing, I’m suddenly writing words that do not belong in the letter!

    • I find my stream of consciousness/meandering conversational style can run amok in writing emails. Writing letters really forces me to think about what I want to share with someone, not to mention pay sharper attention to my spelling, because I can’t just go back and erase something I’ve messed up!

  2. I never quite stopped writing letters. I’ll get off the phone with someone and then go right back to the three page letter I was writing. But, I’m easily distracted. I’ll write several letters a month, but I forget sometimes to write to all the people on my list.

  3. My mother kept my letters from schoolfriends. I have read them 20+ years later…. some letters were written in school classes (in English, a Mr Macy didn’t know my friend was writing a letter),… and contained things I had forgotten! I’ve lost touch with all but one (having discovered her on the Internet, however, no letters…)

  4. It’s really interesting you mention how “letter writing has always felt to me like more of an exchange of monologues, rather than a dialog.” I noticed it can feel that way when the letter writer doesn’t reply to the letter they received – I really loath that. It’s like you’re being ignored. But once the correspondence gets going I find there is a wonderful back-and-forth that keeps it from being a monologue. That is unless a writer is just “me me me” all the time, in which case I lose interest in the penship fast!

  5. I strongly believe that nothing can really replace good old letters. While emails are fine for urgent conversations, letters are the best way to be in touch with special friends and relatives. I have written a blog post on this topic. Do take a look when you get some time. Sad that even in India, the practice is slowly dying
    http://speakingtothecrowd.blogspot.in/2014/03/the-missing-mail-tribute-to-letters.html

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