Writing a Letter

Today, I decided to spend an hour writing somebody a letter. You know… that thing with the paper and the envelope and the stamps. I’m aware of the inconveniences of this dated mode of communication but my choice to use physical pen and paper was deliberate.

Perhaps we thought that with the advent of email and mass communication, writing letters by hand would disappear. Email is quick, free, universal, archivable, and scalable. But there is one thing it doesn’t have… something it could never have.

It’s the inconvenience of buying stamps and envelopes and paper for writing. It’s the fact that writing speeds are 1/4 the pace of typing speeds. It’s the lack of the ability to make corrections, move paragraphs around, and spellcheck automatically. It’s the fact that one letter can never be sent to more than one person. It’s the energy you spend putting on your shoes and jacket and making a trip to the mailbox on a cold day in November. It’s the discomfort. The tedium.

In an incredible twist of irony, the costs of writing a letter by hand became the medium’s most valuable asset. In deliberately choosing the inefficiencies of writing by hand, you are sending a message to the recipient. A message that says, ‘This is not a whim or an afterthought. This is important to me. You, are important to me.’

In writing a letter, you send more then just content. Seth Godin would say that you are giving a gift. A gift purchased, not with money (beyond the price of shipping) but with time and effort. And think about it… that means a lot. Money will come and go, but once you spend time, you can never get it back.

After my last job interview, I scrounged together a few pieces of paper from the hotel I was staying at and I penned out an individual thank you letter to each of the three people I had interviewed with. When I arrived at the airport, I had no envelopes so I asked the woman at the information desk where I could find some. She pointed me to the business services center which had no envelopes but sold stamps. By the time I had found a stationary store with envelopes, slapped a few stamps on my letters, and dropped them in the postbox, I was dangerously close to missing my flight home (which would have been bad, since my unborn baby’s due date was the very next day).

Sending those letters was hard! I could have done 10% of that work with email but it wouldn’t have had the meaning. And if you’re wondering if that makes a difference, notice how I said it was my ‘last job interview.’

Two days ago was National Letter Writing Day. Besides the nostalgia, I don’t think there is anything remarkable about the process of writing a letter. Certainly nothing meriting a celebration. But what makes it remarkable is the writer intentionally choosing to incur the personal cost of doing it. Perhaps ‘Letter Writing Day’ is an opportunity, like the many we get at this time this year, to look inside ourselves and ask “when was the last time I did something kind for somebody else?”

So no, I don’t see snail mail going away anytime soon. Not as long as people care enough to make small sacrifices for each other. And I certainly hope that doesn’t ever go away.