Having received a particularly thoughtful gift over the holidays, I picked up a pen, wrote a thank-you note, put it in an envelope, and dropped it in the mail. Only afterward did I realize it was the first handwritten letter I’d produced in a long, long time. I’ve written daily for many years, but these days I do it on a laptop keyboard. Nearly everything I write is digital: email, PMs, digital documents I can print out and send by the U.S. Mail. My handwriting has badly suffered for lack of practice.
Soon after I composed that note, I read about a family who nearly lost four decades of valued personal correspondence. (The story has a happy ending. And, yet again, I got to thinking about what we’ve lost with the decline of the habit of putting pen to paper.
I’ve written here about the thrill a person gets to recognize the handwriting of a loved one on, say, an envelope. Yet in these digital, online days, cursive script is no longer a core curriculum in schools. My guess is a new generation has trouble even deciphering cursive. No doubt kids still pass notes in class, and recognizing familiar hand-printing can certainly engender an emotional response. But what percentage of us actually bother to write a letter by hand anymore, cursive or no?
Losses to mourn
In thinking about my thank-you note, it struck me that there’s plenty more losses to mourn—beyond simply the thrill of recognition. Chief among them: a sense of intimacy.
To write a letter, a person must first feel a sense of urgency, a desire or obligation to communicate with another person too far away to talk to, when a phone call simply will not do. Letter-writers must then choose paper and a pen, make time to sit at a desk or table or subway car, compose mental sentences, and transfer those sentences via pen to page. They must have the address of the recipient handy (maybe know it by heart), likely have to fold the paper, might even have to lick the flap of the envelope before sliding it into a mail slot. The process involves lot of decisions, and a lot of touching (the pen, the paper, the envelope). Assuming the letter reaches its recipient, the results of all those motions appear in an actual physical object—one that might even get passed down through generations. As used to happen back when we bothered to go through the motions.
Intimacy by hand
The intimacy of an old handwritten letter, seems to me, surpasses even a photo of a lost loved one. It surpasses the intimacy of a handkerchief or tool or hairbrush belonging to a historical figure. Consider a signature— an important, personal, persistent creation by someone wielding a pen. But a letter goes further—comprises thoughts, observations, stories, communication. It might contain good or bad news, words of love or aggravation—emotions that often come right through.
The font I’m currently working on replicates the penmanship of John Paul Jones (1747–1792). Among the source material I’m consulting you’ll find a letter, dated 11 November 1779, to M.J. Luzac, editor of the Gazette de Leyde. Its first sentence:
“It gives me great Pain to see that the translation which has appeared in your Gazette of the extract of my Journal is preceeded [sic] by an Observation which leaves room to suppose that it has been my intention to augment the merits of my Own Services by diminishing those of others.”
(Despite his long, careful, polite language, clearly Jones is pissed.)
Such clear, evocative sentences written centuries ago become much improved when seen written by the hands of the original authors, on paper they’ve chosen, closed with signatures that belong only to them. You can imagine the writing table, the inkwell, the oil lamp, the sealing wax. The words rise as intimate as whispers—far more considered and precise than remarks made during casual conversation. It strengthens the feeling that you’re catching a glimpse of the contents of the writer’s mind.
Of course an even greater sense of intimacy comes from holding the letter in your hand, touching a page also touched by the letter writer, a page perhaps still containing traces of the author’s DNA.
Lately I’ve been thinking about all we’ve been missing with the extinction of writing by hand. The conspicuous losses jump first to mind: handwritten letters in hand-addressed envelopes, sticky notes on refrigerators, a cursive greeting in a holiday card penned neatly in a familiar hand. But there’ve been lesser, unintended losses, as the digital devices we’ve rushed to adopt have brought solutions to problems we never knew we had.
Now that so many of us are connected by wires (or wirelessly), communication is virtually immediate. Apps like Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype can let us simply chat with one other—although that solution does require some scheduling. A quick email (my personal preference) can be dashed off anytime, to be read at once or later, depending. Approval can be communicated via a single emoji 👍. And we can choose these days from gazillions of memes to share more complex, subtle, and/or humorous thoughts.
Think of those littler details that once amused and surprised us: the note stuck under a windshield wiper, the words of love on a folded scrap of paper snuck into a jacket pocket, the doodled self-portrait or sketch of a cat in the margins of a handwritten letter that appears in our old-timey mailbox.
But Now We Have Phones
The iPhone hit the market a mere fourteen years ago, and already billions of us keep smartphones ever within arm’s reach. Why mess with pen and paper? Why monopolize the use of multiple fingers when you can simply use two thumbs?
What are our excuses for missing out on such things? The witchery of new technology? Lazy bones? A fixation on saving time?
Take, for instance, cursive or hand-lettered fonts that replicate real script. (Guilty as charged.) We need not even wield a writing instrument—no hand cramp, no inky fingers. Just specify a font and tap for a while on a keyboard, and you can pretend to have taken the time to respect your correspondent by composing a letter in longhand.
The other day I had a thought about handwritten keepsakes. It started as a recognition of how unique are the times we’re living through. And how, to record our story, future historians will be poring over source material—that is, contemporary accounts of what’s happening. Used to be, contemporary accounts came from folks putting pen to paper. In our modern digital world, of course, putting pen to paper doesn’t happen very often anymore.
In just my lifetime, written communication has gone from thoughtfully hand-penned (or -typed) letters dropped in the mail to quick, scattershot batches of electrons in the form of email, texts, emojis, memes. And that’s just written words. In recent years, communication has trended toward the digital, the immediate—streaming multimedia, smartphone videos, TikTok. Just now, as humanity grapples with the novelty of social-distancing during a pandemic, even good ol’ face-to-face spoken language happens online via Zoom and Skype and FaceTime.
Our very signatures—once our personal mark, our brand—are in jeopardy. (I rarely even sign checks anymore.) Nowadays, we’re most likely to find pages filled with cursive script in boxes of memorabilia, collections of old letters, books of grandmas’ recipes.
Since future generations will surely view this time with fascination and remembrance, why not take advantage of our stay-at-home predicament to create a few handwritten keepsakes?
An easy way to do this? Write a letter. Perhaps a long, mindful letter to a loved one, a letter that—if mindful enough—might well get tucked safely away and passed along to future generations. Another way might be to keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings. Even simply an account of what you’re up to, maybe a diary of your dreams. If you happen to be a birding enthusiast (as I am), make a daily list of birds.
I think, for instance, of the daily diary my father kept as a young man. While in the Army after World War II (stationed at Fort Hunt, Virginia, as part of the top secret operation code-named P.O. Box 1142), he wrote these lines on March 7, 1946, the day he and a buddy caught a ride with some ladies in a Cadillac on the way to Washington D.C.
The ladies asked where we were from, and when we evaded answering, the middle wanted to know the reason for such secrecy now that the war was over. Arno said something about having tried to reach General Eisenhower for an answer to that, but that he had had no luck in finding out. We rode on very pleasantly into Washington where the rain began coming down. A the capitol building the lady driving stopped to let us out, turned and dropped her own atom bomb. “What would you boys say, if I told you that you had been driving with Mrs. Eisenhower?” What followed is rather hazy, but we thanked her for the ride, caught our train, laughed over the surprising incident all the way to New York City.
I must say, reading Dad’s contemporary account of this classic family story in his familiar, legible cursive truly enlivens a moment from nearly three-quarters of a century ago.
Consider the power of handwritten keepsakes. Chances are not only will the contents of what you pen today prove memorable one future day, your own distinctive hand will, like a fingerprint, add a personal touch to history.
(I write so little by hand these days—let’s see if I can take my own advice!)