Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Letterwriting and me

I've always been bad at writing with my hands. There's nothing wrong with my handwriting, in fact I really like it. It reminds me of the font Century Gothic. So I'm not ashamed of that. I also don't write particularly slowly, nor do I feel my writing is any worse on paper than it is on the computer or other technologies. So this isn't a rational problem.

But for a long time I've been living without the patience or the drive to sit down every once in a while and just take out some stationery, a pen and partake in the centuries old tradition of letterwriting. It's been an activity I've sorely missed, perhaps without even realizing it.

I watch a lot of films set in the distant past. My favorite film is Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice, based off of the Jane Austen novel published in 1813.

There's something magnificent about how letterwriting is portrayed in films like Pride & Prejudice. There's an intricacy to the writing, an unusually large amount of time devoted to sitting down at a desk and composing a really beautiful piece of prose to send off and be read by someone else. It's almost magical how much effort was expended at that time to create simple and beautiful letters.

There were so many uses for letters back then - "letters of business too, how odious I should think them" being one, letters between friends and confidantes satisfying another category and love letters being yet another. In fact, one of my favorite stories in which letters played an important role was a love story.

John Keats and Fanny Brawne were, for much of their time together, in a long distance relationship. While they were neighbors at one point, if I'm not mistaken, Keats was gone to the Scottish Highlands and to the Isle of Wight at various points in their romance. During their times apart, Keats and Brawne would send love letters to each other, expressing their intense passion for one another in a few pages of text.

It was such an important part of their relationship, in fact, that after Keats traveled to Rome where he died of tuberculosis, he was buried at the Protestant Cemetery in the city with all of the letters he had received from Fanny Brawne. Their love affair was documented in his letters to her, which still survive and continue to enchant the romantics among us.

There's something so beautiful about putting sentiments like love, friendship or admiration down on paper. It's not like writing something online - what I put in a Facebook status or on a blog doesn't have the same wonderfully tangible quality that a letter does.

In the past, I never wanted to devote the time or energy to composing letters. The idea seemed trivial. I can type so much faster than I can write by hand. Why not just print something out? Or better yet, send a heartfelt email.

That's all well and good. And in theory it sounds like a feasible alternative. But as most people would attest, there's nothing like receiving an actual letter written by hand from a loved one to you.

My problem with it before was not that I didn't appreciate the notion of letterwriting, but that I recognized the impracticality of it. The act is passé. We've invented new ways to contact each other so why resort to something that quickly turned obsolete in the 1800s by the creation of the first telephone?

Telephones are more convenient, the internet is more convenient, texting is more convenient. There's no longer much of a benefit to sending stuff by so-called "snail mail." It only hinders the process of expediency, which can be frustrating.

That's what I would have said back then. But I changed my mind.

A couple of days ago I wrote my first letter to my friend Kristin who has just started her preparation for a Latter-day Saints mission to Germany. She is not able to communicate with friends in any way other than in letters. She does have access to email, but uses it to send out very occasional updates to her family which are then forwarded to everyone else in her life.

So I've essentially been forced into the act of writing letters, or else risk losing contact with one of my best friends for a couple of years.

And in the process, I've been reminded why it is that letter writing is so romantic. I don't mean romantic in the literal romantic way - though I have in the past written love letters to send away by post. The word 'romantic' in this sense signifies for me a sort of nostalgia born out of old-world charm. There was something so serene and relaxed about past centuries. People didn't rush through letters by sending them via email. They took the time to write them out in fancy script, fold them just perfectly and seal them with wax.

Why can't I stop and smell the roses on occasion? Why can't I appreciate what it is to sit still for half an hour to write a thoughtful message to someone I care about?

In a time when I've been dealing with stress - a lot of which involves or is even at the hands of the computer (benefits of new technology, pfft) - letterwriting has been the one thing to drag me away from my keyboard and into a world that I haven't explored for years and years. There's some kind of catharsis that comes from writing by hand that is completely unattainable by any other fashion. It didn't take long for me, once I'd started writing letters again, to realize that.

From now on, I won't forget it. So I'm going to try to write more. More and more. To whomever.

So this is a call to action - to anyone who wants to write letters, or anyone who has thought about it and then changed their mind because they couldn't think of whom to write letters with - this is your chance to pretend you live in the Victorian era.

Because we all need a little taste of the past in our lives, especially if it means engaging in catharsis that makes us calmer and happier in the long run. Now I understand the idea. Now I want to write by hand.

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