When I was little, I was obsessed with writing and receiving letters. I was a child before the dawn of email (I got my first email address when I was 14, and it was so exciting), but I had a typewriter, and I loved the idea that I could reach out and hear from someone on the other side of the world.
Then, when I was twelve years old, I wrote a letter to my favorite author. It was a labor of love; it said, several times, that I was twelve years old (and that he was my favorite author). Because I was twelve, I didn’t know that I needed to spell out the name of my home town in the return address. I lived in Pleasant Hill, California, at the time, and I always wrote “P.H., CA” and the zip code on the top corner of the envelope.
My favorite author wrote me back. His entire reply was him scolding me about forcing him to waste his time looking up my home town in his atlas, since apparently the zip code and abbreviation was not enough to get the letter to me.
I was twelve.*
I sort of soured on letters after that. I still enjoyed receiving them, but I was wary of sending them out, because what if I did something wrong? What if I made another mistake, and wasted someone else’s time? I became an increasingly poor correspondent. It was easier than risking error.
Then my grandmother sent me a postcard.
What was this mysterious gift? Why, it was a postcard. A colorful picture, suitable for hanging on the fridge or tacking to my bedroom wall, with a message written on the back. A mini-letter, requiring no reply—in fact, there could be no reply, because there was no return address. Gasp!
I went to the stationary store and bought a book of postcards as soon as I had a chance. I filled them out and sent them to people I thought would like them, people I thought would appreciate the pictures, people I thought might need a little pick-me-up. And they were delighted! Because everyone enjoys getting mail, and everyone likes a letter, but sometimes the feeling of obligation a letter can carry with it is more than people necessarily want.
I love postcards. I have a shelf of them, waiting to be filled out and sent to my dearest friends. I send postcards for all sorts of nonsense reasons, but mostly because everyone likes a letter, and no one likes to create an accidental obligation or waste anyone’s time. Best of all, postcards are an inherently limited medium: no matter how much time you spend on them, you know they can’t get longer than the available space.
Sometimes a little limitation is exactly what a person needs to pick up the pen.
(*Don’t do this. Just…just don’t. If he had included a note about spelling out the city in a reply that was largely about other things, like the contents of my letter, he might still be my favorite author today.)