Pen & Ink: The Death of the Letter and Why It Deserves A Comeback

His penmanship was the yang to my yin: inky, all caps characters poured onto the grainy, college-ruled page with obvious force. Whereas I was inclined to hide behind the controlled, back-slanted neutrality of extra-fine ballpoint black, he was liable to leave his mark in the smudgy, imperfect perfection of aggressively forward-leaning, medium-point rolling ball blue. I carried at least two bottles of Wite-Out with me at all times but secretly admired the boldness of the boy who could cross out a word, insert a mini carrot-arrow and squeeze a replacement into the surrounding blankness. His writing was an exhibition of process rather than a presentation of product. Product can be distancing. Process is as inclusive as it is messy. And so, with his trademark scrawl, he let me in.

Remember the era of mystery? Before the dawn of locating technologies, the 8th period bell was our North Star. It sent me scurrying to my locker, which was two below his. (He didn’t scurry. He ambled. He was so cool). A glance. A touch. A note. An exhilarated walk to 9th period Algebra. I never read his missives in class. Like any delicacy, they were best consumed slowly, deliberately, with full attention and all five senses. And until I had the time and space to read them as such, they lay tucked in the front zipper pocket of my L.L. Bean backpack, burning holes of passion into the modest, forest green nylon.

Years later, the content has all but disappeared from memory. The look, feel, scent and touch of my high school sweetheart’s notes, however, remain vivid. This is to say that the hand-written letter has only a little to do with its constituent words. My mother’s elegant cursive on a Post-It note in my lunchbox said nothing of great consequence but flooded my tiny heart with joy. The wobbly print on a 2004 Hallmark Easter card from my grandmother, meanwhile, has taken on different meaning since she’s passed. Though barely mobile by then, she somehow managed to get to the store, pick out the card, put pen to paper and sign her name, along with a funny, self-deprecating P.S. stick figure drawing of herself. In a way an email could never be, it’s a deeply personal snapshot of life, of action and of humor. And the countless notes my high school best friend and I exchanged as we navigated our angsty teen years boast not one but two strains of meaning: the words and the presentation. Nothing says, “I’m struggling with demons” like melancholy musings in bubbly purple penmanship, or Staples loose leaf with burnt edges designed to evoke some bygone era and/or notions of decay.

Letters. Henry VIII wonders if Anne Boleyn returns his affections. Abraham Lincoln admits an error to Ulysses S. Grant. Ten-year-old boy scout John F. Kennedy asks his father for a raise in his allowance. Richard Burton waxes poetic on the bewitching beauty of his wife Elizabeth Taylor. Johnny Cash to June Carter. John Keats to Fanny Brawne. James Joyce is as dirty as Jimi Hendrix is sweet, and Eleanor Roosevelt is positively effusive when it comes to Lorena Hickok. (If you haven’t, visit Letters of Note. It’s stupendous.)

A mere glance at their handwriting plunges you into the annals of history and vivifies your previous understanding of them – an understanding diluted by the passing of time and sanitized by the inevitable, often indiscriminate printing and reprinting of facts, figures and famous words. How do these people appear on the page? Did they conform to or rebel against customary pen grip? Lefty? Righty? Legible or illegible? Big and bold or compact and coded? The penmanship makes you feel closer to the writer, whether struck by their loping confidence or drawn in by their mysterious shyness. The skin of a palm pressed against the page. Ink-stained fingers. There’s something carnal about the act of writing a letter.

We send and receive countless texts and emails. But doesn’t our inclination to graph emotions onto ellipses or to grasp feebly at the oblique implications of emoticons suggests a need for something more evocative than the subtle curve of a Times New Roman character delivered from some cloud in the iEther? Write a letter. Do it with non-toxic ink on recycled paper if you want. Because unlike emails, handwritten letters are a little about words and a lot about soul.

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