A young Isaac Newton coped with the anxiety of the plague’s 1665 return to England by decamping to a farmhouse and inventing calculus, revolutionizing optics, and uncovering the first mysteries of gravity. Shakespeare evidently handled the stress of a bubonic flare-up a half century earlier by writing some of his finest plays, perhaps including King Lear.
We could be forgiven for having more modest personal expectations for our output during the pestilence of our time. But that doesn’t mean we should be content to curl up with Netflix, video games, and hooch. There’s a healthier way—and it might be exactly what a disconnected, polarized, and anxious America needs right now.
Put away your devices, pick a quiet spot, find a pen and some paper, and write a letter.
My New Year’s resolution was to hand-write 366 letters in 2020. And not just cursory two-sentence, thank-you notes, either. Real letters—sharing recent ideas, musing about current events, inquiring about others’ health and happiness. I aimed to accomplish two things that, while of particular interest to me, also seemed to have broader relevance.
First, I wanted to slow my mind. Thanks to my genes, the stresses of life, and the ubiquity of screens, my thoughts dart wildly. With each passing day, I seem to have a harder time reading for extended periods. I lose focus easily and shift my attention from this to that. I crave the serotonin jolt from an incoming email or social-media notification. I’m not alone. Apparently, attention spans are shrinking, and some research suggests that screen use can adversely affect brain development. I reasoned that dedicating time each day to sitting quietly and writing by hand might help relax my brain and improve my concentration.
I also realized that, as an aging introvert, I need to work at better connecting with others. All things being equal, I’m hardwired to prefer peace and quiet. Solitude in dimly lit rooms is my natural habitat. I recognized that a substantial—and unhealthy—share of my interactions were taking place in crisp, sterile texts; 280-character Twitter bursts; and the brutalism of all communications—cold, utilitarian, blocky emails. Again, I’m not unusual in my risk of disconnection. In recent years, more and more people have been feeling lonely—now up to more than 60 percent of Americans, with Millennials feeling lonelier than Gen X-ers or Baby Boomers. A 2018 survey found that one-third of people only sometimes felt that they had others they could turn to for support. Since I’ll never be the happy-hour type, I thought handwritten letters might be a way to form new and stronger interpersonal bonds.
So, initially, letters were primarily a self-improvement strategy.
I had no idea that 90 days in, an already atomized and agitated America would be self-isolating because of a pandemic.
By early February, I was ahead of pace. I’d sent 50 letters, some to work colleagues, some to friends, some to folks I’d lost contact with over the years, some to people I’d never met. The contents varied: Sometimes I shared a new idea or complimented something they’d done; sometimes I told a story or asked for their thoughts on some matter; sometimes I bellyached about a current event or relayed that an event had made me think of them. The only constants were that I wanted to make some kind of personal connection and leave the reader feeling better in some way by the time I signed my name. I was not doing this to lecture or air grievances.
I quickly realized two things. First, hand-writing letters was, in fact, calming. Finding a still, comfortable spot at the end of the day, putting screens and other distractions aside, and focusing attentively on corresponding with someone was a balm for a frazzled mind and frayed nerves. It functioned much like meditation. It strengthened my concentration and made me aware of my racing thoughts. There is also something soothing and centering about the nearly silent, rhythmic, tactile nature of working with a pen and paper instead of the tintinnabulation of keyboard pecking. Rather than focusing on a candle, a mantra, or your breath, you have the page, the ink, and your carefully moving hand. It makes me wonder whether people in days of yore wrote letters primarily to discuss recent events as I had thought—a coming trip by rail, the latest crop yields, a local wedding announcement. Or maybe that was all secondary, and the primary purpose—before the advent of psychotherapy, widespread use of yoga, or the development of prescription anti-anxiety medications—was to help the writer decompress.
Letter-writing also seemed to sharpen my mind. Because you can’t write as quickly as you type, your attention is forced to linger a bit longer on words and ideas. Hand-writing a letter is, it turns out, a kind of slow, deliberate practice at thinking. I found that gradually my choice of phrases became more exact, my language more measured, and my arguments sturdier. In time, my endurance improved, too. I could write for longer each night before mental exhaustion kicked in. I could also maintain a line of thought for several pages, methodically building on an idea, instead of chasing every new shiny mental object. I eventually found myself thinking in paragraphs instead of sentences. Suddenly, I better understood how the correspondence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, spanning 50 years and topics such as philosophy, politics, and family, could be so sophisticated.
Interestingly, because I was focused and unwound, I also became less guarded. I revealed more of my thinking and more of my questions. I was also more irreverent than I’d been in ages. I saw that I had, over the last number of years, internalized the anxiety cultivated by social-media trolls and virtue-signalers in the public square. By putting us on constant guard, making us hyper-vigilant to never err, they promote self-censorship and second-guessing that poison curiosity. Theirs is primarily a performative act; the letter writer’s is primarily an earnest one. Without the continuous low-level apprehension of getting ratioed or dragged for a miscue, I felt semi-liberated. Mind you, I’m a boring, middle-aged, wonky exurbanite, so my letters are still anodyne. I’m not out here producing the great American novel or polemics against the state. But this rediscovered ability to be somewhat vulnerable and to think out loud taught me that writing, in and of itself, is not freeing, expressive, or therapeutic. Authentic writing is.
The second lesson was downright discouraging but also puzzling. Virtually no one was writing back. After my first 50 letters, I received just three handwritten responses. Half of my letters hadn’t even elicited an acknowledgment; I don’t know whether my missives were put aside, discarded, or simply never reached their destination. That last possibility seems unlikely because the rest mostly generated cursory replies. Although there were exceptions, I got accustomed to a brief text saying, “thank u,” a terse email with a smiley-face emoji, or a direct message via Facebook or LinkedIn with a thumbs-up. I surmised that most letters were received, briefly appreciated, and then forgotten.
I didn’t see that coming. I thought I was starting personal conversations, not just waving hello. I wasn’t prepared for the humbling possibility that I would write, the recipient would know me, and then not write back. And since so many of us are feeling disconnected and hungry for a sense of community, I assumed that recipients would interpret a letter as an invitation to engage, which would then naturally lead to an epistolary dialogue.
The lack of response didn’t faze me too much at the time. I figured that there are lots of reasonable explanations for the deafening silence. People are busy, and responding to an unsolicited letter is, understandably, probably not at the top of their to-do lists. Moreover, this was my pet project, not theirs, so they had no obligation to entertain my hobby. Heck, nowadays most people probably don’t have blank paper and envelopes handy.
But gradually I sensed that there was more to the story. Over time, without my asking for responses, many people preemptively offered explanations for why they hadn’t sent anything in return. Some said that they planned to do it soon (but those people seldom did). Several people said they had really bad handwriting. One said he wanted to find a particular set of stamps he liked. Another said he couldn’t find his favorite pen.
This wasn’t adding up. Something else had to be going on.
As the eerie quiet continued into March, I came to realize that letter-writing is the anti–social media. Unlike an online sharing platform, with letters there is no “like” button. There is no retweeting. There is zero opportunity for the writer to enjoy instant gratification. There is no chance for a swift rush of dopamine in expectation of a friend’s or acquaintance’s engaging with your just-posted content.
You have to write letters knowing that you may never get a response. And if you do get one, it might come weeks or months later. Letter-writing has to be done for a different fix. You must enjoy the writing itself, and you have to trust that you are bringing someone, somewhere, some amount of happiness and influencing their thinking in some way—whether that trust is ever verified or not.
But that is just about the opposite of what social media have conditioned us to expect. Today, we produce content for immediate effect, not as a means of starting a deep, personal conversation. Apps have taught us to treat our product as ephemeral. That Snapchat photo is immediately available and then evaporates. That tweet gets buried under an avalanche of more recent tweets. That Instagram story disappears after a day.
Moreover, these platforms have fostered inauthenticity. People now stage photos, plan outings for their videogenic potential, and carefully curate their profiles. We aren’t being truly revealing, and we aren’t thinking out loud. We aren’t really engaging in free expression. We’re manufacturing avatars.
But worst of all, social media have taught us to consume content, not genuinely participate in it. We set our preferences, and we choose whom to follow. Then algorithms take care of the rest. We get the content we want, and maybe we react with a quick click of a heart button. But then we scroll on to whatever is next. Someone else’s photo or pithy observation in our timeline asks nothing of us, and we offer nothing in return.
In other words, we have been perfectly trained to see letter-writing as alien. We understand content as evanescent, not lasting. We need our products to be perfect, not draft. We expect our musings to be public, not private. We don’t think of engaging in extended, complicated conversations; we glance and then move along.
Maybe people don’t respond to handwritten letters because they no longer know how.
I started referencing COVID-19 in my letters in early March (yes, I keep copies). The first mentions treat it as a frightening possibility. That gives way, after a week or so, to thoughts on how to deal with a terrifying threat on our doorstep.
It is at about that same time that—at long last—I was able to stop referring to it as “letter-writing” and begin calling it “correspondence.” Suddenly, my project was no longer an unrequited affair. The shift started with several people—who’d heard about my letters—texting or emailing me to ask whether they were on my list (if they hadn’t been, now they were!). Then emailed replies to my letters became more frequent. Even better, these were getting longer and deeper. People were dedicating more time and more energy to their responses. One prominent figure took the time to give me thoughtful, detailed feedback on an idea I’d been wrestling with. In a single week in early April, three people told me that they’d begun letter-writing initiatives of their own.
And then the number of handwritten responses to my letters swelled. Not exactly, as Sting might say, a hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore, but almost every day now, I get at least one letter in the mail. Sitting in my home office, tapping away on my computer, I instinctively smile when I hear the USPS truck driving down our road. Among the bills, catalogues, and fundraising appeals are now handcrafted treasures.
Maybe the quarantine has given busy people more time. Maybe my letters are better now and more worthy of a response. Or maybe forced isolation has made people yearn for connection.
Whatever the reason, I’m in an array of handwritten conversations that I wouldn’t trade for a mountain of Zoom stock. There’s a sentimental one with a former colleague who just became a mom, a reflective one with a university-based philosopher, an unexpected one with a young writer who lives on a commune, a ridiculous one with a friend from elementary school. One of my correspondents actually uses a typewriter for his wonderful letters. It makes me feel a bit like Tom Wolfe going back and forth with Hunter S. Thompson, though, believe me, our discussion is far tamer.
Now that I’m on the receiving end, I better understand why some haven’t written back. A letter is an offering, but it can also be an imposition. It can arrive uninvited and unanticipated. It can make the recipient feel as if he’s suddenly being offered the opportunity to give an impromptu speech to an attentive ballroom. You are put on the spot and expected to be responsive and thoughtful. You probably feel some sudden nerves as well as a sense of duty to deliver something meaningful. It would be a whole lot easier to simply smile and let the microphone pass you by.
Fortunately, with a letter, there is no crowd expecting an immediate response, and no one is video-recording the event for posterity’s consumption. Here, you have the time to compose your thoughts, and you have every reason to expect that your reply will stay private. So while I anticipate that I’ll never hear back from some recipients, I suspect that, with others, I just haven’t heard back yet. And that is among the most valuable lessons for me. The entire enterprise of letter-writing requires patience—slowing down to think of the right thing to say, slowing down to pen the words, slowing down to wait for a reply. And slowing down is downright countercultural.
Today’s nonstop news, commentary, and unnerving events can make it feel as if things are accelerating and spinning out of control. But engaging in a conversation by letter is like entering the gravitational field of a massive body. Not only are you drawn closer, but time slows down relative to everything around you. No matter what breaking-news chyron flashes on the screen, there, on that simple page in front of you, are preserved words that were deliberately written days earlier and fashioned from ideas gradually developed over days, weeks, months, or even years.
In a sped-up age of isolation and anxiety, people will search high and low for ways to slow down, mellow out, and connect. But the answer might be in that paper and pen right in front of us.
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