Remember those days when buying fresh new stationery used to be a thrilling experience? Feeling the crisp, new paper and putting pen to paper and letting the ink flow was oh so satisfying. The curve of letters connecting in a sublime stream felt like you were creating a work of art.
Now postcards in shops are gathering dust, postbags are carrying a lighter load, and somehow we’ve replaced this precious process with the ease of clicks and hits. The leisurely art of letter writing has been crushed by computer generated captions and colours, with virtual postcard apps such as Touchnote which will do it all for you in seconds.
Yet unlike messages received on a screen, handwritten letters are visual and tactile, which makes both writing and receiving one more pleasurable. The recognition of someone’s handwriting is almost as comforting as a close friend stopping by for a cup of tea. It is a way of connecting, and showing our vulnerability with how we express ourselves in the written form.
From writing notes in class, to postcards and love letters, handwritten communication was a daily, integral part of our lives not so long ago. It was a pleasure to do, and there was always a jolt of joy when receiving something written to you personally.
A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.
Historically, penmanship evolved to become almost an art, and elegant handwriting became a sign of social status. Hieroglyphics morphed into separate letters which eventually became connected in a cursive flow to make handwriting not only more efficient, but also more beautiful. Just the rhythm of handwriting – of pulling down and lifting up, the thick and thin strokes – and seeing your words flow and take shape is a cathartic process, especially when done to express emotion.
Handwriting can also be relaxing, and even meditative. The intimacy writing a letter offers cannot be matched by blasting off a quick post update on Facebook. The process – sitting down with a cup of tea, putting music on, choosing stationery – all adds to the experience.
Writing by hand also makes you ‘speak’ slower, allowing time to think before you write. How often have we fired off an email in haste, making errors, or just writing badly for the sake of sending it quickly?
Conveniently, an immediate response isn’t expected with a letter, allowing the reader time and space for reflection. The whole process – from writing the first word to sealing the envelope and dropping it into a post box – forces us to decelerate our thoughts and actions, and allows us to simply look, feel, smile, touch.
This process is repeated upon receiving the letter, reaching all of our senses in a way that online communication just cannot do.
However, snail mail doesn’t have the same instantaneous effect our digital world now demands; the delayed reception of news results in a delayed reaction. Yet isn’t it more genuine and touching to receive something someone wrote by hand and made the effort to post?
Today many of us expect instant gratification. Thoughtfulness and consideration are dismissed for productivity and speed. Communication has become fleeting and ephemeral rather than impacting and meaningful.
Perhaps that’s why the traditional pastime of writing to pen pals has declined so much in recent years. In the past, the benefits of writing letters to strangers in foreign lands included an outlet to practise reading and writing in a different language, to learn about other cultures, to improve literacy, but most of all, to make lasting friendships.
Writing to a pen pal can be therapeutic – like journal writing, but with someone listening and responding. Creative types can take it a step further, turning letters into a work of art by using maps, doilies, decorative tape or vintage stickers to decorate the envelopes, transforming a simple letter to an art project.
Today pen pal writing is seeing a revival with online organisations providing a platform for you to swap letters and postcards with like-minded people from other countries.
Their ethos remains traditional; handwriting is essential, cards must be posted, and you’re guaranteed to receive one in return from somewhere in the world. A mailbox of surprises awaits.
4 ways to make make a new friend by writing
Send a postcard
Transport yourself to exotic places across the globe with simple postcards. Write your own, request an address from the site, send it off and you’ll soon receive real postcards from someone else (anywhere in the world) with Postcrossing.
Write a letter
The Letter Writers Alliance is dedicated to preserving the cultural tradition of letter writing, offering everything from stationery and stamps, to vintage postal items and even bringing embroidery to letters to create mail art.
Cross language boundaries
Plan UK is a children’s charity that encourages old- fashioned letter writing with the child you’ve adopted. Even if it’s in another language they will translate it for you, again by hand.
Find a pen pal
The League of Extraordinary Penpals is a pen pal club and supportive community where you can pay a small subscription fee to become a member and receive newsletters, plus, they offer a pen pal matching service.
How a simple letter sparked friendship
Pen pal writing used to be a hobby for many, resulting in friendships spanning years and continents. Tracey from Somerset, UK, started writing to Beth in New Jersey, US, when she was a child, and she still does 40 years later.
“Writing to a stranger allows you to reveal sides of your personality you may not show if you met first in person, and it can also result in a special bond that stands the test of time,” says Tracey.
“I was about ten when I sent my first letter. I belonged to a kids’ club in a local paper, The Bristol Evening Post, called The Pillar Box Club. My letter was sent via them to schools all over the world.
“I chose the US and Beth received my letter through her school. In the beginning we wrote short, general info letters and as teens it slipped away a little. But we did phone each other and we sent each other cassette recordings. I went to Beth’s first wedding and Beth came to mine in 1998. We had started using fax and emails around that time.
Now it’s different; we iMessage and chat on scrabble, etc. Beth has been the one constant in my life for 40 years and I know she feels the same.”
This article was first published in Project Calm, issue one. Find a back issue here, or order a bundle so you never miss a new issue.
Photos by Carli Jeen, Kutan Ural, Annie Spratt, Elena Ferrer and Briana Tozour via Unsplash