“I must admit,” he opened, “I’m terrible at writing letters.” He mustered enough charm over the next few pages to melt my modern heart.
The letters I was reading were nearly a century old and only half of a romantic correspondence. He employed tender salutations and liberally dispersed nicknames. He filled his pages with dutiful reports of health and a junior committee dance he wished they could attend together. He wrote a courageous second letter when the first went unanswered. He fought for her, often starting with the disclaimer, “I know you’re mad, you probably won’t answer this…”
I never saw her responses, only what she’d received of him: a sheaf of his current mood and confidence, evidence of his logic, summaries of what he hoped would spark mutual interest.
I miss letters.
My parents wrote in their early romance too, my father flexing his wit with the return address, using the monikers of obscure literary figures paired with their imagined street names. As we grew up, he was frequently away on business, but no matter the trip’s duration, he unfailingly sent postcards to my sister and me with nothing more than silly and nonsensical jokes on the back.
I jumped into letter writing with abandon, cultivating my correspondence schedule until it rivaled a nineteenth-century lady of leisure. I wrote to all my family members, my summer camp friends and my local friends when they went off to camp, or — the travesty of childhood friendship — moved away. Lacking international flair in my address book, I responded to a newspaper ad from an Australian girl seeking a pen pal. She curtly cut off our correspondence after I once wrote that I’d just spent weeks on vacation in her country without looking her up. I simply wanted to write letters.
A habit like this no longer makes much sense; we have so little to say. We group text and we self-promote our accomplishments. We spew the details of our day-to-day lives to a lumped audience. Instead of electing to communicate to individuals, we kill all birds with one “share.” The more we project for these spectators, the less we focus on who we’re telling.
I have a friend who doesn’t do any of these things. The thumbnail of her Facebook profile picture cut her head off for three months until I told her. My Snapchats to her linger unopened for days. She “forgot her Instagram password” and answers only every tenth text. Girlfriend’s getting a PhD in chemistry, so we can cut her some slack, but we still need to communicate.
So, we write. Her letters arrive with regularity every other week. I love opening them, absorbing the same handwriting she used on the first note she ever passed me in the eighth grade. I recognize how her hand forms my name, her bubbling laughter in the loops of her characters.
Writing to her is leisurely — the USPS has yet to offer read receipts. It’s indulgent — as meditative as any diary-keeping, but someone’s actually listening; a relationship is building. I can process before writing and process as I write. I can take a beat — I can take a whole damn month — but I face the facts in writing them down. Instead of screen-shotting the minutest of opposite-sex-texts for co-analysis of punctuation, I pick up my pen and write, “I think things are doomed between us.”
Email may be the modern letter, and I admit it’s not without its charms. Stumbling upon old threads with friends whenever I attempt to clean out my inbox, I’m dazzled by the wit, reenergized by the anecdotes and convinced I’ve discovered the greatest epistolary work since P.S. Longer Letter Later. But email has its limitations. You don’t change your font size from a 12 to a 10 if you’re feeling a little down or insecure, the way your handwriting shrinks. You don’t start writing too fast and trip over words, crossing them out and reattempting when you get too carried away in a story.
Mail arrives only six days a week, like the world’s most stringent push notification setting. Letters pop up without warning — we don’t watch three dots pulse in their creation. Letters don’t interrupt our lives, like the vibrations of our phones do; they earn their own moment. Time apart is more independent, your shared correspondence more intimate. When we’re reading, and when we’re writing, we’re as close to that person as the miles allow.