The Joys of Pen and Paper Revisited

Ah, the feel of pen on paper.

I’d forgotten how great it is until I was recently presented the opportunity to compose a long-form, personal letter to an elderly relative in the UK.

The circumstances were less than desirable: a favourite aunt had recently passed away. All the same, it was satisfying to perform some old-fashioned communications – despite my initial chagrin at not being able to use email.

My frustration quickly evaporated, however, when I considered the fact that, in composing a hand-written letter, I was crossing a cultural boundary.

There’s that scene in Babe, the movie about the talking pig, wherein the son-in-law tries to coerce the elderly farmer into adopting the fax machine for communicating with his extended family. The farmer, of course, resists.

How many of us have lived this scene while trying to talk an elderly relative into adopting email on a PC?

Email, the fax, often even telephones, exist outside of the cultural norms of our most elderly friends and relatives. Yet the prevailing view amongst society is that they must adopt these “modern” forms of communication or risk becoming incommunicado. Like the technology Gestapo, we young ‘uns do our very best to enforce this narrow mentality.

I’ve heard stories of elderly relatives literally falling into familial limbo because they were unable to master even the basics of Microsoft Outlook. Then there’s my own grandfather who had difficulty with the telephone due to a hearing impairment (my family worked around it).

That said, I’ve also heard of septuagenarian eBay sharks, but they are clearly the exceptions.

When hand-writing a letter, there are unique experiences to be enjoyed. Smilies be damned, the pen on paper permits expressions that are at once more subtle and comprehensible. Press a bit harder for emphasis, space your letters more widely to slow the reader down, or just draw a little picture for fun to capture the essence of a special thought.

Of course, there is the extended time it takes to write a letter and comparatively more lethargic pace a composer must operate at. Those who embrace the instant three-word email missive will struggle with the required intellectual articulation that a hand-written letter demands.

However, therein lies the joy of hand-written composition. It takes place more slowly, providing the writer more time to conceive a meaning and select the correct words and phrasings to communicate it. The pace of hand-writing is to be savoured. Often as I wrote my letter the other day I would sit back, look out the window, and ponder the perfect composition of a thought.

Then there’s the question of posterity. How long do we expect our digitally-composed texts to be available? Already it is difficult to open word processor files that were created just 5 years ago. File formats change, technology changes, and there’s always the outside chance that a global energy crisis will destroy all possibility of accessing media that require electricity.

The composition of letters was once considered almost as great an art as writing novels, painting or song-writing. That’s why we have published compendiums of letters from our best artists, writers. politicians, and other public figures, so that we can all enjoy some great works and thoughts that were once private.

I own a coffee-table book of scanned pages from Kurt Cobain’s personal journal. While not letters, they clearly represent the communication power of the hand-written word over anything we could ever hope to accomplish with a keyboard and mouse.

Once my envelope was posted I experienced an incredible sensation of accomplishment. There went a personal letter of not only communication, but expression. And it went to someone with whom I might not otherwise have enjoyed correspondence if I’d insisted on staying within my personal cultural bounds.

So here is my challenge to you, reader: write a letter.

Pick someone, preferably someone without email access, someone in your family or a friend with whom you haven’t corresponded in some time. Then, find a pen and some paper, and write. Enjoy it. Draw pictures. Use stickers or coloured pencils.

Then fold it up, put it in an envelope, and toss it in a mailbox (ensuring you have proper postage, of course).

If you’re like me, your wrist will ache from the effort, but inside you’ll feel that reward of having reaching out beyond your personal bubble.

Perhaps best of all, you get to sign off with, “yours sincerely,” a phrase that never seems to ring quite true electronically.