I have been writing letters since I was little. As I was heavily steeped in historical fiction since childhood, I had a high, romantic ideal of handwritten letters; most of my peers, thankfully, did too, and so we started writing each other, even though some of us lived only 10 minutes apart. (This was still in a pre-e-mail era, mind you. Or, at least, pre-computer literacy for children.)
If you’ve ever written me a letter, chances are that I still have it. From my last estimate, I have 18 shoeboxes filled with letters that I have received throughout my young life. Some make me laugh in embarrassment over the things we once felt were of vital importance. Some make me tear up, like my treasured letters from my Great Aunt Lib. All of them bring me a lot of joy.
I am grateful that I still have a legion of friends who write me letters on a regular basis. My grandmother is my most faithful correspondent, and I have gotten to the point where I can decipher her compact, slanted cursive like a pro. Windy often writes us sweet notes about life in Southern Pines. I have two correspondents in the U.K., Diane and Natalie, both of whom send me gorgeous letters, often written with fountain pens and sealed with red wax. Angela writes me beautiful, thick, sincere letters, filled with well-crafted stories and confessions.
I love writing and receiving letters and I will stand behind them until the USPS goes out of business (which may be sooner rather than later). It’s not like it’s a new thing to talk about how letters are more elevated and sincere than e-mails; everyone knows that. And I like e-mail; I use it every day and it’s a wonderfully efficient mode of communication.
But I think that’s what I like about writing letters in 2011. They are not efficient. They cost you time and money; e-mail is free and costs you comparatively little time. You can write and send an e-mail in less than a second. But a letter is a serious endeavor. I like them because they require so much more effort. What kind of stationery does this letter require? Am I going to write on letterhead or in a note? Will my handwriting be long and florid, or rushed and intent? What stories will I tell? What moments will I confess? All of these things have to be taken into account. Gmail never forces me to much thought beyond the expectation of a direct and quick answer.
And so you sit down and write a letter and maybe agonize a little over it. You put it in the mail and then you wait. And wait. And maybe you get a reply; maybe you don’t. Either way, the practice of self-imposed delayed gratification builds character. I venture that it is the laboring and the waiting that matter.