“Life is bearable when you have someone to write, and someone who writes you back. Even if it’s just one person.”
Six hours north of my life in Ohio, there is a quaint, humble home on the Western side of Michigan where, for fourteen indulgent days in the middle of July, my family and I have lived out our ultimate vacation for the last five seasons. Tucked inside a lush, forested state park, this charming cottage holds the keys to an enchanting summer. One midday during our 2019 vacation, I sat journal writing in view of my children in life jackets leaping off the dock below the house into the cool lake waters while my husband coasted nearby atop the orange, stand-up paddle board. Mesmerized by the essence of July and the promise of a warm summer’s day set before me, my mind traveled back to the Atlantic Ocean beach vacations of my youth, often spent at the home of my youngest sister’s godparents with their two sons and a daughter, my age. Aside from yearly Christmas cards, I hadn’t written to my lifelong friend in perhaps, decades. Beside my journal sat a stack of postcards provided by the owners of the cottage. Fueled by nostalgia of the past, I scrawled a succinct greeting to my friend before joining my family’s delight in a day’s worth of sunshine and water.
One, unassuming postcard reinvigorated a cherished friendship through the art of letter writing. Ever since that postcard arrived days later surprising my friend with glee, we have continued the practice of frequent correspondence. Dropping a thought, word of encouragement, or funny anecdote in the mail whenever the fancy strikes shortens the 586 miles between our homes, allowing words to unite us closer than, perhaps, ever before. Between the lines, we speak fondly of our past travels and experiences, current happenings, and lately, the ill effects of cancer and other family maladies. Seldom do we fail to mention the books we’re reading. With each passing note, my heart and to-read list have grown exponentially, and the words between my friend and I have helped to close the gap of idle loneliness in an unprecedented time.
I encourage you to join my letter writing campaign. Especially if you’re fraught with incertitude, isolation, or invariable emotions, writing letters to another human will ground you in certainty, reclaim necessary human connection, and positively lighten your heart and mind. You needn’t own fancy papers or pens (although it does add to the pleasure if you find an ink pen that flows freely and stationery that matches your personality). You need only think of a person in your life who might benefit from connection in a concrete, meaningful way. A grandparent. A great-uncle. A favorite cousin. A college roommate. A childhood friend. A godparent. A former teacher. A parent. A sibling. A mentor. An inspiring coach. In writing, you needn’t be Shakespeare, only your authentic self. Speak as if you were on the phone or walking together through the park. Although words penned by hand are lovely to see, even a computer-generated note, or a mass-produced sentiment from the card store will delight. The point is, write toward connection, to combat loneliness, to deepen human connection. Slap on a stamp, walk to the mailbox and flip up the flag, send your words onward, and wait for the magic to return.
Letter writing has been a lifelong practice of mine, and I’m delighted to discover how the worthwhile endeavor is catching on. Here are a few examples to further inspire your own practice:
- Country Living highlighted “Five Benefits of Letter Writing” in this post.
- AARP wrote of a wonderful little program about socially connecting in the time of a pandemic through pen pal clubs.
- Recently, I discovered Letters Against Isolation. This pair of sisters is committed to eradicating senior loneliness, letter by letter, during the COVID-19 age and onward.
Recently, I reached again for this slim volume nestled contently inside the nonfiction section of my bookshelves for over fifteen years. The Art of the Handwritten Note: A Guide to Reclaiming Civilized Communication is a magnificent tome upholding the significance of writing letters, and inspiring all reasons why handwritten notes are more important than ever.
Please, enjoy my review:
“I like receiving a letter and knowing myself loved.” – VIRGINIA WOOLF
Can you recall a current moment when you received a personalized letter or card in the mail when it wasn’t your birthday or a holiday? When was the last time you wrote a thank you note for a thoughtful present or kind gesture done? Do you remember sitting down to write a friend, just because? Margaret Shepherd’s book The Art of the Handwritten Note: A Guide to Reclaiming Civilized Communication will encourage you, with vigor, to take up the practice without delay. Following her compelling advice will result in creatively touching the hearts of your recipients by the gift of your penned words, reinstating an art form that should never have been lost in the first place to the electronic age. As the author recounts on page xiv of her book’s engaging Preface:
“The handwritten note has been around for hundreds of years, and it’s not going to die out just because some of its everyday functions have been taken over by e-mail and voice mail. Adapting to the needs of every fresh generation, it continues to connect people. In fact, a handwritten note is even more vital now than it was a few years ago because it’s less routinely used.”
Despite being published in 2002, and making no references to text messaging, social media, or the plethora of additional technological advances we currently use for communication, the author’s stance insists, “… the handwritten note has intrinsic value beyond its rarity. It’s not just an antiquarian curiosity, it’s an extremely useful tool. … Ink on paper is still the classiest way to express the thoughts that really matter, on the occasions that really count,” and remains a solid argument, if not evermore integral, to today’s media saturated, tech-obsessed society.
Only 176 pages long, this letter writing guide is compact, yet the author’s use of contributed instructions, archival examples, and anecdotal advice are robust and will prove meaningful to a novice letter writer and expert correspondent, alike. The format of the book entices its reader to jump to any one chapter for the aid necessary in beginning to write a loved one or an acquaintance.
If you like the idea of taking up letter writing again but don’t know where to begin, Shepherd’s first four chapters will gently guide you in the right direction. If you’re unsure of the basic elements, such as when to stamp and send versus hand-deliver a note, the author’s “Dos and Don’ts,” “Do Say and Don’t Say” and “Q & A” sections will remedy any lingering self-doubt you hold about penning an excellent note. If you’ve conjured up any version of excuses why you shouldn’t or can’t write a letter for any reason, the author will convince you otherwise from the instance you crack open the spine to her ode to the craft of letter writing, making a believer out of you.
Perhaps one of the most difficult letters for anyone to send is when someone you know has lost a loved one. Your heart is in the right place, and you want to acknowledge their grief without sounding trite or robotic. You may be stalled by fear when attempting to write a heartfelt, personal message below the mass-produced sentiment of the sympathy card you just bought in the stationery section of your local grocer. By turning to Chapter V, page 92, under the section “Death,” Shepherd’s adept handbook will guide your hand in writing a thoughtful and considerate note to the bereaved. As the author acknowledges, “It is very, very important to send a handwritten note on the occasion of someone’s death. It is not just an obligation but also a golden opportunity to help someone else while you deal with your own sense of loss.”
What if you have spent more time lately texting and typing than actual scribing, and you consider your personal scrawl appallingly illegible? No worries there! The author, an avid calligrapher (who has written at least 13 books on the scripted art form) has included an entire section on handwriting. Featured within Chapter III, please flip over to page 33 and learn techniques to “refine, repair, and rescue” your handwriting. And don’t think for a second that because the author is a prolific calligrapher and has published this handy guidebook on writing she was born with an ink pen in hand. Not true. In a handwritten note to the reader, placed between the Preface and Chapter I, Shepherd writes, “Don’t worry if you’re out of practice or your handwriting doesn’t feel perfect. I flunked “script” in Third Grade but still went on to master the pen. If I can do it, anybody can.”
Though all special occasions are due their recognition in written form, a letter writer need not wait for an extraordinary circumstance to send greetings. As readers will learn by the author’s section titled “Supernotes,” writing correspondence on a regular basis strengthens the relational bond between author and receiver, increases the writer’s proclivity to improved scripted formation, and builds a writer’s confidence in sharing words in a variety of written formats. Shepherd will convince you to try your hand at writing an assortment of letter styles, including journaling, family letters, and holiday greetings, and will further press upon you the importance of recording and sharing the many aspects of your life, deep emotions, profound experiences, and milestones with a pen and paper at your disposal.
The Art of the Handwritten Note: A Guide to Reclaiming Civilized Communication is filled with convincing examples, reprinted illustrations, and actual sample letters, such as President Ronald Reagan’s letter to the American People announcing he’d been “afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease.” The addition of literary quotes, concrete descriptions and illustrations, descriptive accounts and personal narrative peppered throughout Shepherd’s helpful guidebook adds a level of familiarity and vast sense of wonderment to the reading experience. Shepherd has written a treasure of a book, and I dare you to not sit down with a favorite pen and lovely stationery after absorbing her alluring words. Perhaps your first letter, after reading this telling volume, will be one of gratitude to the author, herself, for penning such a convincing read.
“Let us all then leave behind letters of love and friendship, family and devotion, hope and consolation, so that future generations will know what we valued and believed and achieved.” – Marian Wright Edelman, From the Foreword of LETTERS OF A NATION