The Lost Art of Writing

Remember when we used to write to each other with a pen on a piece of paper? We wrote notes and letters in our everyday communication, we sent cards for every occasion with personalized messages in addition to whatever was pre-printed, and we actually wrote out thank you cards? Everything is electronic now, the art of writing has faded from the practice of just about every age group, save for those older generations that never got swept up in the tech world.

For kids, it’s especially tragic, because they don’t even have ability to say, ‘Hey! remember when we used to pass notes on sheets of loose leaf paper that had doodles and some of our notes from whatever class we were supposed to be paying attention in?’ Today it’s all rapid fire text messages from phones not so discreetly hidden underneath their desks, in between their knees, held with one hand, while they pretend not to be looking down in their laps. And the content of those texts are strings of three letter abbreviations, emojis, and gifs, or they’re just snaps and boomerangs on Instagram.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good gif, I use the ebroji app on my phone at times–these are all forms of expression. But there’s no suspense, no buildup. Everything’s instantaneous. Creativity is constricted.

With a note, you had only a few options–pass it in class, pass it between classes, or leave it in a locker:

In class, you had to be stealthy. You had to write enough information to get your message across, but not so much that if it got intercepted you’d be humiliated. And it involved the collective cooperation of your classmates to help in the delivery of the note. There was an unspoken rule that if you were in the path of delivery, you had to participate. Even when the note wasn’t for you, you still got to partake in some of the excitement of the process of getting the note to the right person and then watching their reaction when they read it.

If you passed in between classes (which is what my friends and I did), the notes could be much longer and more detailed because you didn’t have to worry about getting caught. The suspense and  buildup was in waiting for “the package.” What color pen was it going to be in? What was it going to say? Would it be gossip? random recounts of the day? an invitation/plan to do something later? Would there be a picture? A prolonged game of hangman/tic tac toe/something else? There were so many options for content. And then the biggest question….how are you going to fold the note??? Did you learn some new technique you were excited to try out? When you received the note, the first joy was in trying to figure out how to unfold it so you could read it, and then how to refold it so you could use that folding technique the next time…you weren’t going to be the person with boring folding notes.

If you got a note in your locker?! Well, that was the jackpot. You never saw it coming. And sometimes they were anonymous–you either didn’t recognize their handwriting or they changed it up, so you got the suspense of investigating who was trying to talk to you.

With a text message, the only suspense are those three little dots that indicate someone is typing. But other than that it’s all instant gratification, you don’t have to wait for a response…I mean you wait if folks don’t respond, but it’s different kind of wait. The creativity is gone–no pen colors to choose from, no getting to humble brag that you got the new gel pens with the metallic glitter in the ink instead of the basic flat color, no trying out new handwriting styles, no doodles or original artwork–the fonts in a text message are all the same, you choose your emojis/ebrojis/gifs/filters from a drop down menu. And there’s no anonymity, unless you don’t have someone’s number or their social media has no pictures, but that’s typically easily resolved with some google searching and asking around.

But more than just losing out on the suspense and creativity, electronic communication isn’t tangible, and there’s a loss of thoughtfulness and intentionality. With a physical note/letter more of your senses get involved. You get to touch that note. Sure you can touch your keyboard or the screen and hear either the actual or electronic clicking of the keys. But you lose holding the pen, smelling the ink, feeling the pressure of the pen on the paper, the difference in writing on different sides of a spiral notebook–the side with most of the paper underneath versus the side with just the cover as padding, the glide or the skip of the ink across the paper, seeing and feeling the smeared ink on your fingers or the side of your hand, feeling the texture of the paper, hearing the sound of the pen on the paper, getting the cramp in your hand from trying to keep up (legibly) with the thoughts in your head.

You also lose the humanity in communication. You don’t get to see people’s errors, when they change their minds about what they’re going to write and scribble something out, or they forget to write something and have to squeeze it in sideways along the margins. You don’t get the food stains or the greasy finger prints, the doodles, and you miss out on seeing the pace of someone’s thoughts–whether their handwriting started off calm/clear/upright and progressively got more hurried/slanted/illegible. Those are all elements that, while gross at times, allowed you to learn something about the person who wrote to you compared to the sterile, perfectly crafted, ‘insert humor here,’ emails and texts. Autocorrect and just plain old spelling mistakes are the only errors you get, and while autocorrect is usually hilarious, it’s a computer glitch not a human one.

The only mail I typically get now are bills, credit card offers, junk catalogs, solicitations to join this or that food/wine home delivery program, and generic (impersonal) Christmas cards and birth announcements. I hardly ever receive anything that is tailored to me. I remember the best part of summer vacations as a kid, aside from not being in school, was receiving mail from friends who were doing their summer somewhere else–postcards and letters stuffed with the sticky backed polaroid pictures and chewing gum. The only thing tailored to me now is an occasional  property tax addendum.

I’m not shitting on electronic communication, it’s streamlined, it’s faster, it allows you to send and receive information in seconds across the world. It’s awesome, especially when trying to schedule meetings,  resolve disputes with companies, to keep a paper trail, or to handle important business much more effectively. But it’s a paradox. It is so much easier now to stay in touch with people who live far away, to give gifts, to send congratulations, to say happy birthday, to just say what’s up…and yet, it’s also more likely that you won’t do any of those things.

When I was “KonMari-ing” my life, I went through boxes of notes from middle school, stacks of birthday cards, letters from summer camp, a myriad of things from 15 years ago. While I did finally get rid of most of those things, it was just so cool to look back and read the messages that were exchanged. I had a physical reminder of just about every important event in my life, because people made an intentional effort to write a card to say congratulations, I’ll miss you, or happy birthday. It was during this process that it was brought back to my consciousness what a large role thoughtful and intentional communication played in our lives and how little that happens anymore. I don’t get birthday cards anymore, and to be fair, birthdays aren’t nearly as big of a deal. But what would be the adult equivalent, weddings, anniversaries? I got married two years ago, and let me tell you what people were NOT: thoughtful or intentional. There was a clear generation gap between folks who wrote thoughtful communication versus those who didn’t. Only a fraction of folks under 40 did, and only a fraction of them even bothered with any sort of acknowledgment of this next stage of our lives through any available means, electronic or physical, impersonal or tailored. I’m sure it wasn’t done out of malice (at least I hope it wasn’t), but it was just another one of those times where people say, well I can RSVP/go on their registry/send an e-card tomorrow, and then tomorrow never happens.

I think because communicating with people, acknowledging people, no longer takes much effort, we stop thinking about it; it only take two minutes to type and send or point and click, you can always do it later, so it gets put off indefinitely. Before, communicating and acknowledging people took time, you had to go to the store and pick out a card, you had to walk to the mailbox, you had to make sure you had stamps and an envelope, you had to memorize someone’s locker number or class schedule, you had to decide what you were going to say before you wrote it down, you had to actually double check your own spelling, and you had to make sure to did it on time because the send and receive process took days instead of seconds.

You have to be deliberate and considerate to make time for someone else.

I’m able to keep up with many more people’s lives with much less effort and can congratulate more people more often through facebook and instagram. But it’s largely meaningless; they’re empty impersonal gestures. Even when you are cued to remember someone’s special day or event, people still don’t necessarily do it, even though it’s easier. Facebook is the perfect example, it tells you when everyone’s birthday is as soon as you log in. In my decade of being on FB (jeeze!), there’s such a huge difference between the frequency of people saying happy birthday in the beginning (when social media was brand new, everyone didn’t have an email, and texting was an expensive hassle) compared to today when it’s all tech everything. Ten years ago there’d be almost as many messages as I had friends, and now I’m lucky if 30 people leave a FB message. It sounds like I’m salty that people don’t pay enough attention to me, but I’m just as guilty of doing the same to others. Everyone can congratulate/acknowledge more people more easily but people typically don’t, and when we do, it’s not very thoughtful–“HBD,” “have a good one,” *like*, *heart emoji*, *hand clap emoji*…

I guess my point is, what’s the point of expedient communication if it’s hollow? If your message was crafted from a series of multiple choice drop down menus rather than something that came from your heart, even if it’s not as pithy?I know it means much more to me when someone texts me on my birthday rather than sending a FB message, and it means even more still if I receive a physical card in the mail, even if it’s a week late, because it reminds me that someone had to make time for me.

If maintaining a relationship with someone requires no effort, then is it somebody you really want to maintain a relationship with? Are you just doing it out of obligation or social expectation? Are we sacrificing depth with a few people to maintain pleasantries with hundreds of others? Are we missing out on developing more intimate relationships with people because we’ve gotten so comfortable in what’s convenient.

We live in the most connected era of time and yet with the most tenuous of relationships. You have 500 friends, they don’t know when your birthday is offhand, they can’t muster to write on a piece of real or electronic paper ‘congratulations & good luck on this next journey’ for your wedding day, they may or may not even respond to your email or text. You have 500 friends but you feel more lonely than ever. Even when you’re face to face, they may or may not pay attention to you because they’re so buys checking their phones for more texts/emails/likes/comments. Constantly seeking that high of instant gratification from being acknowledged for whatever they posted before they crash and start feeling the withdrawal or hunger pangs for another notification. It’s like a sugar rush, you get really high and then you crash, feeling worse than you did before the ascent.  I want some fiber in my meal, I want some substance, I want to feel full for awhile..letters/notes/cards, things that take effort, thoughtfulness, deliberate action…they facilitate long term, IRL, relationships and depth.

Looking at an old text doesn’t give you the joy that pulling out an old card or letter does. You can’t thumbtack a text message to a wall, I mean you can print it out, but it’s sterile, lifeless, motionless. I have a wall full of cards and letters from people whose handwriting dances across my visual plane. I can see their scratch outs and smears, I can see their doodles and flourishes, I can tell whether they were hurried or took their time, I can laugh at how wild and illegible some of it is. I can touch those cards, I can probably still smell the ink. I can be reminded that somebody made time for me: to go to somewhere and read through several cards before they picked that one for me, to find a pen, maybe a specific pen that they like to write with, to think of a message especially for me, to maybe give themselves a hand cramp, to buy a stamp, to know my address, to walk to the mailbox. And that joy comes not just in receiving those efforts but in delivering them as well, because you know exactly how awesome the recipient will feel.

In my journey to 30 I’m recommitting to writing, to putting pen on paper (and yes, I wrote this post in a notebook before I typed it here). The way that vinyl records have somehow made a comeback, I want mail that’s not bills to make a comeback. I want the joy of going through decades-old written artifacts to make a comeback.  So the only thing left to do is put pen to paper.