I have a friend from my early 20s who has been my pen pal for over a decade. It all started when I saw he was looking for someone to start a practice of handwritten letters. He had relocated to New York City as I was bouncing around the Southeast early in my career. My friend is a journalist, and I was training to be a pastor. We were a mutual admiration society of two. Some years only a few letters were exchanged. But no matter the time between letters, each felt precious and timely.
“It probably won’t save the world, but writing letters by hand might just save you.”
We have different reasons for embracing this practice, outside the obvious affections. In my case, I have struggled with a growing alarm over the dehumanizing tendencies of new technologies – communication at the speed of instinctive reaction. I needed a slow practice, and handwritten letters felt perfectly inefficient and appropriate.
There are many instances of letter writing as a way of thinking slowly (and affectionately). The values of patience and kindness are difficult to cultivate in our current media ecology. Twitter has its purposes, but contextual deliberation is not a top value. Concerning Facebook, I have nothing good to say. Just delete your Facebook account and enjoy the lower blood pressure.
I have ranted a lot (including in my BNG columns) about technological dangers, but lately have been exhausting even my own capacity for righteous indignation. It is simply not good for my soul to constantly focus on the dangers of communication technologies without exploring practices of resistance.
So let me offer you this simple practice of letter writing by hand.
Here is a promising process to get you started. Jump on social media and look at your contacts. Who is someone who is thoughtful in their social media posts but unfamiliar to you personally? Maybe an old friend. Maybe a stranger you admire. Direct message them and ask if they would like to be pen pals. (What a cute name!) It might take a few tries with a few people to find your partner, and some folks will be suspicious of your motives. You will not compute. So be it. The rules of pen and paper are different than keyboard and social feeds. It will feel way too intimate, which is also the point.
Now go purchase some lovely paper. Paper can be good or garbage. Letter writing is a tactile experience within material reality. Embrace those unfamiliar dimensions. Next find a favorite pen or pencil. This is super important. The design of your hand is an exquisite generosity from God. Treat it as such and choose a tool fitting for your body.
“The rules of pen and paper are different than keyboard and social feeds. It will feel way too intimate, which is also the point.”
I grew up drawing and lettering with Pilot Precise pens, V5 in black ink. You are choosing a relationship of physicality: paper texture, nib feedback, ink flow. Each element interacts with the others in surprising ways. These physical affordances are essential to the embodied experience. They settle you in your body and the material world. This is itself a gift worth celebrating.
Next you have to relearn how to think and speak slowly and intentionally. I like to elaborate on the visual quality of a person’s name. Don’t just scratch it at the top of the page like an item on a to-do list. Don’t simply write their name. Draw it. Embellish it. Let the first thing you offer them be the gift of affection for their name.
Now embrace the idea that this writing is not for online consumption. Try to be more honest, less performative. Try to remove the anxiety of the world reading over your shoulder. This isn’t for publishing or brand awareness. This is not for political/theological/ideological purity. It can be as messy and contradicting as you truly are.
Engage your pen pal in a conversation about something that is unresolved or in process. Work out new ideas in a quieter space than social media. I bet beautiful ideas and clarity emerge.
We all need to nuance the ways we think and communicate. Digital technology has given us many positive things. But it has unraveled and fractured more coherence than we are ready to admit. Writing letters is a simple way to rediscover some of what has been lost. It is a chance to reconstitute ourselves in slow dialogue with a friend.
It probably won’t save the world, but writing letters by hand might just save you. And that is a pretty good place to start.