Remembering the forgotten virtues of the epistle.
When was the last time you sent a text message? If you unlock your phone right now, you could give me a precise answer, down to the exact minute the text was delivered. Now, what about a letter? Or a card? When was the last time you sent—or received—either one of those?
Nowadays, the envelopes we find in the mail are seldom harbingers of delight. They’re usually bills, invoices, bank statements, official documents, or the dreaded reminder to renew your driver’s license yet again—items that elicit emotional responses polar opposite to the joy you feel upon getting a “good luck” card days ahead of your new job.
Tender words made tactile
I’ve always been a staunch proponent of handwritten communication—in the form of letters, cards, and postcards alike. But I truly felt the impact of snail mail when I lived abroad—and alone—for the first time in my life.
Sending and receiving mail—both in short-form as (post)cards and long-form as letters—from my loved ones tethered me to my sense of belonging as I adjusted to a foreign habitat, paralyzed by homesickness and culture shock. Surely, I could have phoned or video called friends and family with far less hassle, delay, and cost (I don’t even want to calculate how much I’ve spent on international postage). But these handwritten missives were material reminders of the love that people across the ocean had for me.
They were souvenirs of a life I had left behind, ones I could touch, feel, and re-read at will.
Digital communication is ephemeral. A message is soon forgotten as the deluge of incoming texts displaces it on a chat window—quite literally out of sight, out of mind. The same goes for e-mail in an inbox and posts in an online feed, neither of which have the shelf life to rival that of a sheet of paper, a tangible item with a spatial presence.
Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously quipped, “The medium is the message,” and that couldn’t be more true in the context of personal communication: the medium through which we relay a message inevitably dictates how it will be interpreted by the addressee.
Handwriting itself has an appeal that is as perennial as it is sensuously gratifying. Studies have even shown that handwriting—namely cursive—is essential for cognitive development and hones the brain for optimal efficiency. The lithe waltz of a pen on paper can’t ever be replicated by a finger on a screen nor a stylus on a tablet, no matter where technological verisimilitude takes us (that said, digital paintings still look incredible). And it’s all the more compelling to decode the handwritten mannerisms of the sender. You can’t help but feel closer to your penpal as you read their letter.
The imprint of their handwriting on the sheet, the smudges where they were too impatient to wait for the ink to dry—all the physical attributes of a handwritten note are extensions of the writer themself. Perhaps more importantly, these habits of penmanship reveal the writer’s relationship with their recipient. As Wesley Baines writes on beliefnet,
“The value of the handwritten letter lies within this language of time and care. Writing to someone, taking the time to craft each letter, to buy a stamp, to select an envelope, to travel to the post office—none of this goes unnoticed.”
All the written idiosyncrasies and added accoutrements of a letter, card, or postcard amount to a tangible form of storytelling that is bespoke and intimate. It is this highly personalized and personal nature of social exchange that makes its lifeblood—and is, perhaps, what’s propelling the unlikely renaissance of letter writing now, smack-dab in the digital age.
A romance of times bygone
If you frequent the online bullet journal, studyblr, or stationery communities, you may have witnessed how the current generation of #penpallers have refurbished the social and artistic tradition of letter writing. Today’s penpallers have procured a letter-writing aesthetic that fuses the old with the new, cultivating a style that is entirely theirs.
Menw Hurkens (@rippels_paperlover) of Instagram fame, for instance, manually blots her handmade paper inserts—retro ticket stubs, paper tags, newspaper clippings—to simulate the likeness of antiquity. Her mail packages are lovingly bound with twine and sealed with wax (yet another Instagram trend) before they are dispatched to the intended recipient.
Hurkens is one of many penpallers who fabricates artifacts—which are juxtaposed with vibrant washi tape and handwritten Spotify playlists—as part of their letter-writing practice.
This antiquarian impulse speaks to a larger aesthetic preoccupation of the vintage and the pastoral, the most significant offshoot being the Cottagecore movement of recent months. Letter writers of the Instagram/Tumblr/Pinterest ilk have notably retained the core conventions of the epistle as they rejuvenated it with modern zeal.
A contemporary letter vis-a-vis, say, an archival 19th-century correspondence is fundamentally identical. Because, after all, the principal rituals have not changed—putting pen to paper, paper to envelope, and finally, envelope to mailbox. However, modern letter writers exhibit resourcefulness and whimsy distinct in their approach. Written correspondence is no longer confined to just pages in an envelope: penpallers now send each other a host of tokens that include stickers; seeds, Polaroids; tea bags; and even dried flowers. The guiding ethos seems to be seeking creative solutions to limitations, of both a stamp value’s weight allowance and an envelope’s real estate. So long as it fits, it can be mailed.
Handwritten correspondence offers nostalgic respite from our technological surfeit. In a world where everything is increasingly fleeting, increasingly disposable, it’s no surprise that a homespun mode of social bonding has gained and maintained traction among a generation fatigued by memes that expire just days, sometimes even hours, after they debut. We, heirs of social media, yearn for permanence.
Does all this whet your appetite for letter writing? On an Austenian bureau, no less? I sure hope so! I urge you to reacquaint yourself with this lost art of handwritten communication and compose a letter/card/postcard today—let someone know you’re thinking of them.
Give yourself permission to experiment and, more importantly, play as you write—substitute a word with a doodle; use different ink colours; narrate a story with stickers; insert song lyrics between paragraphs. Your recipient will appreciate your handmade correspondence all the more.
Barring that, you can write to a stranger and make a new friend. Germany-based artist milkcloud has a comprehensive tutorial detailing everything you need for your first foray into penpalling. Here at home, we also have the Toronto Letter Writers Society: you can write them a letter (mailing address is in Instagram bio) and they’ll write back. r/penpals is another letter-writing collective, one within which you can solicit and match with a penpal from anywhere in the world.
I would argue that each handwritten correspondence, no matter its format, is a standalone art piece in its own right. Letters move in a quasi-barter economy, if I may, between penpals. And while it does cost money to create and transport letters, penpallers are ultimately indifferent to the commodity value of their creations. Indeed, interpersonal connection is our currency.
The unadulterated joy I derive from composing a letter and decorating its envelope to reflect the recipient does not spare any room in my mind for the marketplace. As I tuck one more lollipop between the card, I pretend to myself—even briefly—that this letter exists in a vacuum untouched by the abuses of capitalism. Yes, I do have a fertile imagination.
Much like the vinyl records and typewriters of yore that have found second life with retrophiliacs, handwritten correspondence is a welcome return to the analog format. It’s a celebrated forebear to the wealth of communication channels that we now enjoy, but its longevity has endured owing mostly to the human touch. Simple or elaborate, each letter is deliberately assembled by one set of hands to be taken apart by another. And every letter is a mediator between two people separated by time and geography, a compact but forceful placeholder for a person until you can reunite with them.
A letter is a reminder; it is a relic, it is a promise. Every envelope contains a universe.
Baines, Wesley. “The Value of the Handwritten Letter.” beliefnet, https://www.beliefnet.com/inspiration/the-value-of-the-handwritten-letter.aspx
Klemm, William R. “Why Writing by Hand Could Make You Smarter.” Psychology Today, 14 March 2013, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/memory-medic/201303/why-writing-hand-could-make-you-smarter
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. McGraw Hill Education, 1964, https://designopendata.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/understanding-media-mcluhan.pdf