The satisfaction of ink and paper cannot be digitized.
I am a woman of letters. I mean this literally. I still write letters. On paper. In ink. By hand.
My entry into this world was in early elementary school with the obligatory thank you notes at Christmas and birthdays. My mother was uncompromising: thank you notes were written within a week of the event, even if the note was just “Thank you for the ___. I really like it.”
We were allowed to choose our own stationery and pens. My brother and sister and I would sit down together to write the notes, and my mother served us cookies and milk while we wrote. It became an event. Even something to look forward to.
By the time I was eight, I had pen pals. The first was a girl I met while visiting my grandparents—we saw one another a couple of times a year but wrote letters every few weeks.
In fifth grade we did a pen pal exchange with kids from an elementary school in Tipton, Indiana. I was paired with a girl named Cindy Zell, and not only did we both enthusiastically write the letters required for the assignment, but we continued to write to one another for years. Together we entered into adolescence (Cindy wrote, “Do you like the Monkees? ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ is my favorite song!”) My correspondence with Cindy faded sometime in high school after more than five years. We never met in person.
I moved out of state at the beginning of my senior year of high school and longed for the company of my old friends. Long distance telephone was expensive, so letters were the way we stayed connected. As I continued to move around in my early life—college, summers working in national parks, travel—I picked up correspondents along the way.
It seemed like everyone wrote letters back then. In the absence of cell phones and electronic media, it was the only practical way to stay in touch. At one point I had some type of regular correspondence going with over 20 people. College roommates. Friends from summer jobs. A woman I sat next to on a transatlantic flight. A guy I met camping in South Dakota.
I loved everything about writing letters. I loved making a cup of tea, settling in on the couch in the morning sun, and finding my favorite pen. Since I always had at least a couple people to whom I owed a letter, I made a ritual out of deciding who to write to on any given day. Then I sat down and spent time with that person, wandering among recent things I had done and things I had thought, detailed inquiries about the other person’s life, aimless descriptions of something interesting I had seen since we had last communicated.
There was satisfaction in proofreading the finished letter, folding it and addressing the envelope, and then making the trek to the mailbox to send it off. I liked that what I had created would physically travel through the hands of strangers to its destination, virtually every time without fail. I liked the element of time travel, that what I had thought and written on a Saturday morning might be experienced by its recipient on a Wednesday afternoon.
And I loved getting mail—the anticipation of going to the mailbox to see who I would be connecting with that day (and with my extensive list of correspondents, I received a real letter from someone nearly every day). Sitting down on the same couch. Slicing open the envelope. Letting go of the present to go to another place with that person for a brief time.
Then came email. The effect was immediate. Several of my faithful correspondents stated their preference for the instant gratification and ease of the new medium. The expectation was that email would increase correspondence, not kill it.
Of course it didn’t work out that way. Email was fine; I liked it for what it was, but it was a pale imitation of real letters. Maybe it was the transient nature of it, words appearing on a screen that could be modified or deleted at a keystroke. Maybe it was just too utilitarian to lend itself to the ramblings we’d indulged in on paper. And love letters on email? Forget about it.
Still, I now look back on the early days of email nostalgically. Now even sending a text is too much effort for some people, it seems. People communicate via Facebook and emojis.
I ached for the old days. I couldn’t understand why people had to give up letter writing just because they could.
But then I realized I had done exactly the same thing.
I am a woman of letters. And there is nothing stopping me now from continuing that practice I love, even in the absence of reciprocation.
So I started writing letters again. On paper. In ink. By hand. I write to people I care about but don’t see on a regular basis. I sit down as I did years ago, on the couch in the morning sun, and suspend my own life to include that other person in my reality for a short period of time.
I begin my letters with a disclaimer. You don’t have to write back, I tell the other person. Don’t feel guilty. I am writing because I want to. Because I love the act of writing letters.
But the amazing thing is that people are writing back. Not all of them. And not with the same disciplined expectation of response as in years past. But more and more, real letters are once again cropping up in my mailbox.
Just the other day I received a letter from an old friend in California with whom I have corresponded off and on for decades. She included in the envelope a letter I had written to her over 10 years ago, when she was going through a hard time. She kept that letter all these years, and recently, when I was going through some similar difficulties, she sent my own words of encouragement back to me. It was humbling and inspiring to have my younger self counsel my present-day self, and I was beyond honored to know that my friend had kept this letter all these years. That it meant something to her. That it was something of value.
Just try doing that with a Tweet.
Linda Willing C’76 is a former urban firefighter, National Park Service backcountry ranger, and the author of On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories.