The Generosity of Letter Writing

By Sarah Ann Noel


“This, I think, is the greatest gift of communicating via snail mail:
you will always feel thought of.”

Growing up in Indiana, I lived in an established neighborhood with matching mailboxes all lined up on one side of the road. It seemed like a big adventure, every afternoon, to be allowed to cross the street on my own to get the mail.

Here, for my daughters, an excursion for the mail is slightly more adventurous, our mailboxes being situated at the end of our dirt road. It makes for a nice evening walk—or perhaps a necessary outing for Mom when I just, well, need a minute.

Wherever, however, your mailbox is situated, the greatest thrill is to open up that magical portal and find something with your name handwritten across it, with no expectations for payments attached. I find such joy in receiving mail—thank you notes, newsy letters, even cards with nothing but a signature that still indicate thoughtfulness and time. This, I think, is the greatest gift of communicating via snail mail: you will always feel thought of.

For my last birthday, my parents gifted me an actual feather quill pen and ink from a little shop they found on their travels through Venice. It’s possible I’ve never received a more “me” gift. Now, I sit at my desk and I dip the pen into the ink and I feel like Elizabeth Bennet writing to her sister, Jane. Writing letters takes time. Writing with a quill is laborious—but it is a labor of love, and that is where the generosity of letter writing lives.

Since being quarantined, our daily routines are inundated with screens. I am grateful to live in such an era where, despite our isolation, technology has allowed us to remain connected. However, there is a dissonance in communicating via FaceTime or Zoom, and so, while there are benefits, it is also depleting. Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead, told BBC Worklife, “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting.”

When something handy becomes a necessary evil, we tend to swing the pendulum to the opposite end. People have been cut off from dining out, so they’ve resorted to making their own bread from scratch. Work and school have us planted in front of our computers, so we turn to books, the piano, an art easel for entertainment. And so, I posit, as our communications are almost only digital now, might we find that ancient delight in sending our thoughts and sentiments out into the world with a little paper and ink?

My daughters have spent their free time sending care packages to their friends. They’ve found that when they wrote to their favorite children’s author, he wrote back! They’ve created handmade birthday cards and learned to address them properly. Through all of this, I hope, we are demonstrating our thoughtfulness and care, as well as connecting to a practice often deemed a “lost art.”

Novelist Jon McGregor wrote an article for The Guardian many years ago about his lifelong habit of writing letters. He said, “People really do like having something to hold.” He started The Letters Page, a website of handwritten letters, and recalls specifically a letter he received from a retired postal worker:

“He writes about the letters he sorted during his career, and how he learned to spot the ones from prison, from lovers, from the person with hypergraphia, or people behaviourally compelled to write; and about how now, in retirement, despite a lifetime of seeing most of the mail he sorted as just so much landfill, he continues to write letters, ‘Because it’s a big, cold universe, and it feels just a little warmer believing there’s somebody out there, somewhere, who knows you’re still alive. I’ll keep on writing them, and the brothers and sisters down at the local PO will keep shoving them along.’”

It rightly makes us consider the significance of the special communication, how, to find a letter addressed to you among a pile of bills and fliers is almost the same as a handshake or a hug. It is a noticeable point of contact in a world that is intent on drowning out sincere connection in exchange for a quick but false one.

I think there is also significance in this opinion from a postal worker, as postal workers are in the set of Unsung Heroes during this moment in history. Despite reported declines in mail due to advertisers pulling direct marketing, the postal service still runs without fail, even during our crisis. The absence of advertising means the mail in our mailboxes is more concentrated into what’s directly intended for us—sure, bills, but also letters! I think that is powerful imagery, to know that thoughtfulness toward a person survives the reduction to essential. Thoughtfulness is essential and it will be delivered!

My daughter’s first-grade teacher supplied the students with a writing assignment last week: How to Craft a Friendly Letter. I would suggest that if the 7-year-olds can write a letter that makes someone smile, so can you—in five easy steps.

  1. Pick someone to write to.
  2. Choose your stationery, pens, etc.
  3. Create a “word bank” or list of phrases that you know are essential to a good letter; phrases such as “How are you?” or “What’s new in your life?”
  4. Craft your letter in four parts: the date; a greeting; the body, which should include notes on your own life and questions for your reader; and a closing.
  5. Add something special! My daughters’ letters are always complete with drawings or handmade rubber band bracelets. Personally, I like to seal my letters with an old-fashioned wax seal.

Much has been written about my dear Elizabeth Bennet and the prominence of letter writing in “Pride and Prejudice.” It is suggested that handwritten correspondence was essential, not only to the characters, but to our perception as the reader. We are granted fresh insight and the means to watch the story unfold, to move along. While the world speeds by, even in its removed state with elastic time, our stories are left with gaps—gaps in ideas, gaps in information, gaps in our relationships. I wonder if our intentionality to write things down, to reach out with a paper piece of compassion, would bridge those gaps, building a stronger connection than we’ve experienced in a long while.