I heard a modern proverb somewhere that claimed you shouldn’t talk about anything until you’ve been doing it for 3 months. The proverbial waiting period is up though, so I think I can safely define myself as a letter-writer now, at least for the time being.
I mentioned to my grandparents about 6 months ago that I had some interest in trying to use a typewriter, and they were gracious enough to gift me with a Royal Touch Control portable typewriter they recovered from surplus where they used to work. The first thought anyone might have about something like that would be to say that it’s a real hipster move. Fundamentally though, as far as I’m concerned, the label “hipster” should only apply when something is taken up as an affectation that has no practical value. Personally, I think (and Tom Hanks agrees) that the typewriter has both an aesthetic and practical upper hand. It could be argued that e-mail or plain old handwriting is simpler than trying to refurbish a typewriter. All things considered though, I can’t write by hand fast enough to convey myself and I refuse to use e-mail.
E-mail is ephemeral. It’s glanced at (maybe) and eventually deleted (almost definitely). You can type hundreds of words pretty quickly so you don’t feel any need for economy. The weight of the words is so light that it feels like you can talk about anything and everything and none of it is set in stone. Further, if you make any typographical errors they ought to be spellchecked and corrected – a remaining typo is a sign of laziness or ignorance and not actually true to its namesake: a typographical mistake. Any sign that a human being was writing the e-mail is only a guess – it could just as easily be generated by a script. There isn’t even proof that you’re the one writing. It struck me as horribly realistic that in the movie Her there is a market for fabricating the most personal of communications.
In many social circles today there’s a big emphasis on journal keeping. I kept a journal for several years when I was in college, and when I returned to them later in life I was pretty disgusted with myself. What people aren’t talking about (as far as I can tell) is that besides being therapeutic, a journal can also be pretty self-pitying, narcissistic, vindictive, and distorted. When writing a letter these things can all still be true, but at least there’s a witness: there is someone else that you feel you ought to endeavor to offer a real account of your life and thoughts and hopes to, and offer to receive theirs in turn.
With the increasing amount of connection we perceive from social media, it’s easy to forget that meaningful contact with people you care about is more than sharing vacation pictures, witty thoughts, and links. This doesn’t even include the inherent fun that it is to receive mail from someone. I doubt I’m the only one who’s grown to look at their stack of incoming mail with dismay – it’s mostly bills and credit card solicitations and if I’m lucky it’s a card containing a pre-written nicety concerning the current holiday.
Now, if you start writing hoping that someone will write you back, you may be disappointed. Just like the recommended journaling, a part of writing letters is the inherent value in reflecting and sharing with others. Does this immediately seem self-centered? I would argue that another horrible development of social media is that only passive and superficial sharing of the self is considered socially acceptable. If communicating with another person about that most intimate of topics (yourself) has become uncouth, there isn’t much hope for friendships with anyone beyond arms reach. Six months ago I looked at what I was doing and I realized that in ten years I would have no real record of how much I genuinely cared about so many people in disparate places. I’m hoping that if I keep up this practice there will at least be some evidence that I loved and communicated with people.