Handwritten Letters in the Age of Screen Fatigue: 4 Tips to Help You Join the Snail Mail Revival

by Michelle M. Johnson

I was video chatting with a friend recently, and we both revealed to each other that there is little about life before this season of social distancing that we actually miss.

No errands to run, no social obligations to attend to, fewer events to have to work into the family schedule? 

Why, yes, please, and thank you - silver lining spotted!

But, as our video chat came to a close, we both struggled with how to say goodbye. 

Signing off wasn't difficult because we had more to say or because of our mutual love of talking on the phone (my dearest friends and family know I am rather loath to spend time with them talking on the phone); letting each other go was tough because we are both huggers, and while it was treat to be able to digitally hang out with each other, not being able to say goodbye with the touch of a hug was an unexpected emotional let down from the hang out high.

Turns out I am genuinely missing the physical presence of my friends and family during this pandemic time, and it is truly an unpleasant emotion. This feeling of loneliness on such a large scale is one that I am unaccustomed to and, in all honestly, hasn't really made much sense to me: I am "talking" to friends and family, via all sorts of communication channels, more than I *ever* have before in my life! Responding to texts, emails, social media comments, and direct messages takes up at least a third of my day now during pandemic time, so how on Earth could I possibly be missing people that I am hearing from practically every day?! 

Then, I started to get real mail in my post box. And, not just one letter, but a single hand written letter a day for almost a week, from a variety of friends and relations (and no, it wasn't my birthday!). 

Not only did those snail mail letters brighten my day, but that loneliness load I'd been carrying around for a few weeks began to lift (deeply missing folks didn't really set in for me until about week 3 or 4 of social distancing here in south Texas). 

Were these letters long? No.
Were these letters written in the artful cursive handwriting that's all the rage in slow-mo and hyperlapse videos on social media these days? No.
Were these letters picture perfect and without ink smears or meanderings? No.

But, these letters did make me feel closer to these folks than any text, email, FB message, or tagged social media post ever could!

Holding their handwritten words in my hands, taking in their correspondence slowly as I enjoyed a beverage, spending quality time with their stream of conscious thoughts and ideas gave back to me the only thing that I am truly missing during this season of social distance - the caring, thoughtful touch of a friend. Receiving a handwritten letter in the mail from someone I care about effects my emotional state in almost the exact same way that receiving a physical hug from a good friend does apparently, and I have a hunch that I am not the only one that feels this way.

Screens, no matter how ultra high definition they are, just can't simulate that feeling of physical closeness to another human being that we all need. But, I think because they are tactile in nature - it takes the sender's hands to create, and the receiver's hands process - handwritten letters do bring on a sense of physical closeness between two people who are great distances apart.

However, in our age of instant gratification and messaging, letter writing seems to many to be cumbersome, time consuming, and frustrating. But, that is only if one looks at the act of writing a letter to a friend as if it is a replacement for texting, emailing, and direct messaging, which it most definitely is not. The handwritten letter is not strictly about communication in the way that our digital modes of reaching out to another human being are. Text messages, emails and social media correspondence are about information sharing, details, dates, to do lists, and social proof. Conversely, to write a letter is to send a piece of yourself directly to another person; a handwritten letter is a brief peek into your consciousness that you share with a trusted friend. 

Unfortunately, the misconception that there is a right and wrong way to write a letter to a friend is pervasive in our society. Many assume that this misconception is limited to specific generations, but in my experience that assumption is wrong. I have witnessed letter writing discomfort and anxiety in millennials AND baby boomers - traumatic educational experiences with penmanship, spelling, or sentence structure knows no age limits, trust me. And, that's what this hesitance to put pen to paper really amounts to, a fear of doing it wrong. Take it from this lifelong handwritten correspondence enthusiast, the only wrong way to write a letter if you are feeling moved to join the snail mail revival is to not write a letter at all.

Still, if you are new to letter writing or it has been a good long while since you've partaken in any handwritten correspondence, I have a few suggestions to help you turn what may have at one point in time felt like a classroom assignment or time consuming obligation into a fun creative moment of self expression!

1. Go old school, like REALLY old school!



Ditch your ballpoint pen or pencil, and pick up an unorthodox writing tool like a dip pen or a paint brush or even a stick like I did recently. Swapping out modern handwriting tools for something classic turns the letter writing process into an experimentation of art and letter forms, and it definitely gives you something to write about as you begin your letter! Don't have an old bottle of ink lying around like I do? Give any sort of paint item you have a try (with a brush, not a dip pen) and see what happens! Simple Crayola watercolors would be a super fun letter writing experience, or if you're a coffee/tea drinker, a deep, dark brew makes excellent brush ink for letter writing (yes, I've tried it)! Just be sure not to accidentally drink your ink (yes, I did that)!

2. Get colorful!


I love writing to adults, but there is no greater pleasure than being the
pen pal to a child:)

With a recent letter to my eight year old niece, Rachel, I pulled out my collection of Papermate InkJoy gel pens and chose to write each new line of my letter in a completely different color of ink, a rainbow letter if you will. I had a great time choosing which color should follow which and imagining what she would think of her grown up auntie writing to her in such a silly way. You may not be writing to elementary school children in your handwriting adventures, but I guarantee whoever receives your "rainbow letter" will giggle at seeing your colorful correspondence.

3. Be your IRL self!


Envelope art and humor are the cherry on top of the delicious sundae
that is receiving a handwritten letter in the mail!

Try to see the act of letter writing like a long form, in-person conversation with your friend, rather than an essay you expect a professor to grade (even if who you are writing to is a friend that happens to be a professor). If you crack jokes often when you speak, crack jokes! If you love asides, slang expressions, curse words, or speaking emphatically with your hands, translate those into your handwriting and word choice! There are absolutely no rules to writing a letter to a trusted friend. And letters that strive for IRL connection are the absolute BEST! One of my pen pals sends me letters in all sorts of forms: mini notebooks like you get in the dollar store, post-it notes attached to the base letter wherever they had a new idea they wanted to share, jokes in and on the letter (if the USPS can read the address & the stamp is adequate postage, your letter WILL arrive to its destination no matter what your envelope looks like). Their letters are just like their vivacious, bubbly and generous personality, and when I see their handwriting in my mailbox, my day is absolutely made!


4. Set approachable limits on your letter writing!


I have no idea if my friend does as I do, sets letter writing limits
for themselves, but it made me smile to see them stick to keeping
their letter length short; novels are awesome, but a good short
story is an absolute treasure!

My Achilles' heel in letter writing is that I harbor the false belief that a letter isn't of any value unless it is lengthy and covers each and ever question my pen pal posed to me in their previous missive - a very time consuming premise. That wrongheaded belief keeps me from sitting down to an activity that I dearly love, so recently I set some strict guidelines on my letter writing adventures: 
1. a letter can be only the length of the paper item I choose to write it on (I currently love sending folks one of my colorable cards I have colored for social media sharing - they are invitation size, and my handwritten thoughts fill their blank space quickly).
2. I set a timer on my phone (depending on my schedule, I give myself 30 mins to an hour) and once it chimes (my alarm of choice is the classic O.M.D. song, "Forever Live and Die"), that's it, the letter is done and it is time to address & stamp it.
3. If for some reason I get distracted from writing a letter to a friend for any length of time, I consider that letter a loss and I do not return to it. Returning to a letter that you began months ago is time consuming, full of apologies that no receiver really needs to hear (we are ALL busy and fully aware life happens), and is basically a representation of who you *used* to be, not who you are now as you return to your letter writing. Letter writing is about the NOW of you, not the past you.
4. I only write a letter when the spirit moves me, never out of obligation. Handwritten letters are a gift to those we love, and all gifts should be sent in a spirit of generosity, I think.


Because every aspect of our lives right now takes place on a screen (Zoom meetings, YouTube classes, email work correspondence, streamed this and uploaded that), adding "quality time with friends and family" to that long list of things-that-we-do-on-our-tech is the straw that threatens to break the camel's back. The act of hand writing a letter is not only a break from screens for yourself, but it is also a gift of screen-less time to someone you care about, and we could all use a break from our daily grind these days. Added bonus: sending a letter in the mail is social distancing approved! You can drop off a handwritten letter from the window of your car, having contact with no one, and the USPS now sells a wide variety of super cool stamps online and they are delivered right to your door!

As I bring this blog post to an end, I am left wondering how many folks out there are discovering what I am learning during these pandemic times - are y'all also feeling pulled towards more classic modes of communication to reach out to friends and family over adding more screen time to your lives? Let me know if you are joining the snail mail revival in the comments below! And, if you have any handwritten correspondence tips you'd like to share, I am all ears:) 

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