The lost art of letter writing

Dec. 7, 2022, 12:19 a.m.

Of words we’re born, unleashed by pages’ gates

to build the cosmos consciousness creates.

Though tricked to feast on gleaming screens, our souls

are tied by birth to letters’ glor’ous shoals

With Adam’s rib the writer’s quill is made 

and precious baby’s blood is thenceforth laid

as ink to come alive and smear upon

a letter, birthing rise to timeless spawn

Yet Love’s dear papers burn in time’s dark flames

and words become but pawns in Iron games.

So rescue you we must, or ne’er be known

the light of humans’ blazing cornerstone.

I’m certainly not the first to write about the lost art of letter writing — an art that has been usurped by technology, texts and tweets. From TED Talks to entire books, there is no shortage of ways in which people have commented on the dastardly disappearance of hand-written notes. With the hope of not restating what has already been said, my iambs suggest that letters are not only nice to have around (the general consensus), but are foundational, natural aspects of our being… we shouldn’t burn them in time’s “dark flames,” for doing so might engulf us in the fire. So, beautiful reader, I now write a letter to you… perhaps it will convince you to rescue a lost art.

Dear Reader, 

Why are handwritten notes so irreplaceable and infinitely invaluable? Letters, first and foremost, require intimate intentionality. Every alphabetic character and word requires a myriad of microdecisions — will I loop my “y’s”? Will I sharpen my “q’s”? Will I compose words sloppily, spurting out my spirling thoughts? Or will I dedicate time to tidily and tediously tighten my script? Unlike the typed word, a written script deeply exposes our thoughts — our naked, raw selves. The page itself also tells a distinct story — tear marks splatter apologies; erased lines elicit caution; crumpled sides allude to disorder.

How do I know? I suppose I first picked up on the powerful weight of letters when my Grandma revealed that she had kept every single note my brother and I had ever written her. Yep — from smeared, incoherent, preschool letters to graduation thank-you notes, my Grandma’s got ’em. It’s no surprise that I now have hundreds of letters saved in the back of my closet, stuffed into a gumball machine. No, hundreds of people have not randomly written me letters of adoration (I’m not that good of a person). Rather, ten years ago, I became a part of a tradition at my summer camp in which campers write and receive “plane letters.” A “plane letter” is an intensely personal letter written to a friend at the end of the camp session. The recipients of the letters read them on the plane flight (or car ride) home from camp, hence the name. The letters express everything campers love about their friends… every beautiful detail, unseen act of kindness and magical eccentricity. 

As you can imagine, the letters I have received mean the world to me. They span years, personal milestones and friendships lost or steadfast. This is no exaggeration to say: through these letters, I track my life. I see myself grow, build deep relationships and spread love into the world. At the risk of sounding grim, if I ever start to feel useless in this world, I’ll pop open the gumball machine and read… read about how I can make a difference; read that I can choose light; read that the world is overflowing (just like my gumball machine) with abundant warmth. And these letters would not have the same impact if transposed onto a screen. The tangible feeling of the paper in my hands is the only thing that makes me realize that I exist.

       I am here — just like the paper of this letter.

       I am loved — just like scribbled words confirm. 

The only thing better than reading a “plane letter” is… you guessed it… writing one. Writing these letters (and others like them) provides me with infinite yet tangible space to fully articulate how much I love someone in my life. What a gift! Without my words existing on a timeless page, my gratefulness would be reduced to triviality. So maybe this shouldn’t be a letter to the reader, after all. Maybe this should be a letter to letters themself… a love letter. 

Dear letters, 

Oh, how you have changed my life! You are to me what Laura was to Petrarch — you are my muse, my love, my hope, my joy, my song! Don’t die! Don’t make me follow suit with dear Juliet! Continue to use your power! Bring lovers together! Mend broken trust!

Though you can be burned, your impact cannot be! Technology is fickle and unpredictable. You, sweet letters, are faithful and steadfast! Continue to show the world your steady loyalty.

PLEASE don’t give up on humankind! PLEASE! We are beginning to see the err in our ways. We are beginning to see that destroying you is destroying an essential aspect of our souls. Our souls, after all, crave being known and being loved—and you can give us that. We will return to you! In the meantime, know that some of us care: us hopeless romantics and old souls… we care! So don’t give up on us — we haven’t given up on you.

Sincerely, 

Susanna Newsom

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