Arts and Entertainment

Rekindling the Lost Art of Letter-writing

Examining how to forge deeper personal relationships with pen and paper.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Gabriel Gutierrez

Dear esteemed reader,

Have you ever had the desire to send a message without the anxiety of awaiting an instant response? Have you ever wanted to communicate with someone without worrying about your photographed pose, or what time of day it is?

I share an obscure proposition—a handwritten letter can be a more intimate way to connect with others in a time when communication can be too immediate. Let me explain.

In the doldrums of winter while we were all still masked, the Stuy Pen Pal Club presented an intriguing invitation: connect with a student through the nearly outdated custom of letter writing. It was enticing. Why not meet someone new? I couldn’t remember the last time I wrote a letter. A postcard from vacation, sure. But a letter with a real stamp, sealed in an envelope and placed in one of those odd, blue boxes on the street. My first letter felt awkward and provoked a new set of inquiries. Which type of paper should I use; how should I configure my handwriting? Should I include doodles?

After much neurotic contemplation, I opted to write freely. I found writing to be an opportunity for reflection as my letters were more thoughtful than the quick messages I often sent. My letters evolved almost into diary entries. Still, it all seemed foreign, as technology has popularized instant communication, which gives us the ability to react immediately to a message with a quick “lol” or emoticon. Instant messaging offers efficiency and allows us to depersonalize ourselves through automation. Unlike written letters, text messages conceal the missteps of our hands, or the flair of our handwriting. The art of letter-writing reinvigorates traditional customs that have fallen by the wayside. We don’t press invitations anymore for special events. The use of holiday cards has decreased significantly. The U.S Postal Service reports that mail volume has decreased by 28 percent in the past decade. These printed objects, often later sacredly held as memorabilia, are quickly becoming obsolete.

As I found myself connecting deeper with my pen pal, I would collect things from my everyday life that reminded me of her. A small bunny-shaped bell from Chelsea Market, postcards from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a Simon and Garfunkel CD from a flea market: all these things were sent to her address hundreds of miles away. Offline letter-writing offered the ability to be vulnerable and honest without fear of exposure to hundreds of followers and Facebook friends. Concealed in the privacy of the envelope, a letter is an intimate message between you and your correspondent, and seemingly eliminates the fear of becoming a screenshot. There is trust and authenticity imbued in that envelope.

As summer reached its peak, I had the chance to meet my pen pal in person for the first time. I found it easy to talk to her, almost as if it was second nature. In our conversations, I found myself reminded of the details and memories that she had shared with me through the mail many months ago. We shared a tangible history, traced through the exchanged artifacts of letters, artwork, and trinkets. The physicality of our letters concretized our relationship into something deeper than a series of text exchanges. There was evidence of a developed relationship.

Letter-writing in times of crisis has remained a constant throughout American history. During the age of immigration, immigrants would write to their loved ones in their home countries, explaining the changes of the new world. The Smithsonian National Postal Museum claims that letters were a way to communicate across the distances that had separated loved ones.

I, too, found that the intimacy of my exchanged letters with my pen pal provided cherished moments to be seen and understood. I cannot convey the childlike delight of finding her letters in my mailbox.

Buy those stamps, lick the seal, make the trip to your local post office (there happens to be a beautiful one on Church Street, right near Stuyvesant). I invite you to rekindle the vestiges of physical mail. You won’t be disappointed.

Yours truly,

A snail mail proponent