Yesterday morning, I sat at my desk, took out pen and paper, an envelope and a roll of stamps and began to write. No, I wasn’t mailing a check or returning an online purchase — or recreating a scene from a Jane Austen novel. I was writing a letter.
This activity has become a weekly ritual for me, as I keep regular correspondence with several faraway loved ones. It started last year, with a postcard that my mother sent me — I taped it up next to my desk as a reminder to write back. Over time, my address book has grown to include friends of many different ages and locations: a girl from my high school now attending college in Ohio, cousins and aunts in Montana, a woman who I know well who lives in my home neighborhood. My wall is now covered with a collage of bright postcard photos and pages full of curling dark script.
I didn’t think much about my habit, until I began to notice the way that my friends react to it. Upon seeing my room for the first time, it’s not uncommon for people to ask in disbelief, “Woah, you write letters?”
The vast majority of students probably haven’t written and mailed a letter since the days of post-birthday-party thank-you notes. It’s true that our culture has fully shifted away from this by now — and of course, this is partially for good reason. It’s impossible to deny that it’s actually much faster and more effective to keep in touch with people via text, email or Facebook. But there’s still something to be said for keeping actual physical correspondence, intentionally choosing to forego the ease of the computer in order to have a more meaningful exchange of ideas.
Writing a letter isn’t something that you can just dash off in a few minutes, replete with misspellings and abbreviations — you have to actually grab a piece of paper, sit down at a desk and think a bit first. The simple act of choosing to write a letter already shows an investment in your interaction with the person to whom you’re sending it, that you have something worthwhile to say and have taken the time to do so in a full and complete manner.
And there’s something to the materiality of a letter, the thrill of unfolding the piece of paper and knowing that another set of hands far away has held it too. Unlike emails, letters aren’t in danger of disappearing into cyberspace with one false click. My mother still has a box full of the letters she sent to her parents in college, which she let me look through over the summer. Leafing through the pages, I could see the development of the handwriting, as well as of the woman who wrote with it. Somehow a folder of emails just doesn’t have that same effect.
A part of me was saddened this year, watching the sharp decline in post office traffic after the first few weeks of the semester ended. Once students have received their textbooks for the semester, many see no need to return at all — they use the mail solely for online orders such as these. Even worse, though, is watching the U.S. Postal Service on its process towards what may become a slow and painful death. It’s not that I want the Yale Station lines to be snaking out the door every week — but I wish more of my peers were experiencing the same joy that I feel on my weekly post office trip, when I open my box to find a thick sheaf of letters. We’re so concerned about speed and efficiency and instant communication, that we’ve lost sight of the value of deliberation and intentionality, of taking the time to give our communication with others the attention it deserves.
It’s easy to view letter writing as an old-fashioned, onerous task, too serious and formal for modern life. But none of my correspondence is entirely serious — the letters are often full of silly doodles, pressed flowers and newspaper clippings. And letters sometimes do take an excruciatingly long time to arrive — but they can always be supplemented by emails in the interim, and the wait makes the excitement all the greater when my mail finally arrives. It’s also true that letter-writing obligations can take up a reasonable amount of time, which could be spent doing problem sets or readings.
Yet there’s just something about opening my P.O. box each week to find a stack of thick, handwritten envelopes, which no high-pitched ping or Facebook notification tone will ever be able to match. And it would be irresponsible of our generation to sacrifice this simple pleasure entirely, for the sake of mere convenience.
Emma Fallone is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.