Archive: March 21st, 2008

Handwriting: The Personal Touch

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When is the last time you got a hand-written letter in the mail? A personal note? A greeting card?

Exactly. It’s a dying art. I have a drawer full of letters I’ve received from friends over the years, but I cannot remember the last time I actually had a letter to add. Maybe something that came with a Christmas card, but a real letter, just because a friend felt like writing? It simply doesn’t happen any more.

Don’t get me wrong–I love the electronic age we live in. I love the ease of communication. I love the fact that I’ve got e-friends all over the world. I love that I can ask a question and get answers almost instantaneously. The world has never been so connected. But, it lacks the personal touch.

There is nothing like getting a handwritten letter. The look of the ink–maybe from a fountain pen. The feel of the paper in your hand. The knowledge that the writer put forth a real effort to communicate, instead of clicking a few keys between tasks at the computer to send you a quick note. Even the look of the handwriting is special, as distinctive as fingerprints. Handwriting might flow fluidly across the page, might be made up of short, quick lines engraved into the paper, or might be scrawled to the point of illegibility, but, no matter what, it makes a nice change from Times New Roman. 

And then, there’s the content. Tell the truth: do you write long, chatty e-mails to your distant friends? I’d wager you probably don’t. One of the oddities about electronic communication is that its instantaneous nature inspires “quick” notes. Rather like telegrams fostered short, cryptic messages, the convenience of e-mail spawns correspondence something akin to the, “Honey, could you pick up some milk” phone calls. Short and to the point, passing on bare facts or information, but not inspiring anyone to the literary heights. I’m not saying it never happens–and I have had some thoughtful, insightful e-mail exchanges with all sorts of people–but most of them? The quickie variety.

Which is a shame. E-mails don’t lend themselves to being saved for posterity–nor are they (necessarily) worth it. We can read the legendary correspondence between John and Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson. We can read copies of letters sent to Eleanor Roosevelt. Heartfelt letters sent home from soldiers throughout the ages. A quick look on Amazon.com for books about letters yields 603,310 results–some of which are fiction or how-to books, but many are collections of letters between famous people, world leaders, great writers.

But, think about it. Even if you and I both become world-famous overnight so that future generations are panting to know everything about us, somehow, I don’t think that, 50 years from now, we’re going to be seeing collections of “Greatest E-Mails,” filled with quotes like, “See you at the movies at 7:15,” or “Great post, Deb!” Just like you don’t see many collections of “Telegram Messages of the Ages.” Because, well, they’d be kind of boring, don’t you think?

I found a great editorial by Andrew Lam from 2000 about this subject which says,

These days I find the only people who write good letters are the old or those living in refugee camps or in countries not yet “wired.” The dispossessed refugee, especially, robbed of his home, his future uncertain, becomes the consummate writer. She picks up her pen and begins to bleed herself into words. For the rest of us in this age of mobility and information, there simply isn’t any time for such a thing as a long flowing, hand written letter. Odd, isn’t it, in a world where one does not need fire to boil water or a teller to withdraw cash, there isn’t any time left to complete a whole paragraph?

So, let me ask you–When is the last time you wrote a hand-written letter?

This is the second post in this series about handwriting. The first post, about the writing process, can be seen here.