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Mother Tongue | Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Letter-writing activities have lasting effect

April 18, 2017, 2:45 pm

My favorite cubbies when I was little were in an antique mail-sorting unit in a neighbor’s basement. Roughly one-and-a-half first-graders high and two first-graders long, its thin, imperfectly smooth boards intersected into 100 small letter boxes. My friend and I played satisfyingly tactile games of writing, folding, addressing, sorting and delivering pieces of paper there. 

The modern US Postal Service is more sophisticated, as you can spend 10 minutes discovering on this video with a transfixed kid. The USPS delivers ... but significantly fewer letters than they used to: roughly half as many as 25 years ago. 

Email accounts for much of this downturn, as a spring-break moment recently nailed. My children, niece and nephew sat around the kitchen table writing postcard thank-you notes to the owners of our rented house. I watched them from afar, computer on my lap, emailing a friend about our week. My laptop cord snaked over a book of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems. 

The book includes facsimiles of envelopes on which Dickinson wrote poems and fragments. The delicate, ephemeral nature of the paper and handwriting is palpable even when reproduced. Reading them, I imagine the pencil and the hand that held it. I wonder about the letter each envelope contained in the first place. 

Email doesn’t do this. Its virtues are efficiency, expediency, immediacy—words that end differently than nostalgic adjectives for letters. Can we be nostalgic for emails? What does nostalgia have to do with value, anyway? 

I love handwritten letters, but I mostly write on computer. I haven’t even sent a holiday card in three years. Spring break’s newsy email? I copied it to send to two other friends. Is that super-lazy or super-productive? Which paradigm am I going by?

Meanwhile, I have drawers stuffed with decades of letters written, received, reheld and reread. Nostalgia and value are as bound as pen and ink. So even as I e-correspond, I worry about what’s lost—as do websites, blog posts, online newspaper pieces, and book projects bemoaning “the lost art of letter writing.” 

In a Guardian article, Jon McGregor writes about roles of letters as family archives, physical journeyers, mediators between past and present and agents of “forced patience.” Unlike linear, legible emails, letters are as idiosyncratically disordered as only handmade things can be [see Emily Dickinson, envelope poems]. McGregor acknowledges the related worth of the tactile: “People really do like having something to hold.”

I much prefer the feeling of paper to screen—on both ends of correspondence. Having something to hold makes real the process of writing. And the process of writing a letter tells the story of someone, in a particular place, taking time to slow down, reflect and form words with mind and hand in synch. 

It is a cultural moment, too—whether it’s our grandparents’ courtship, a 9-year-old’s coerced gratitude, keepsake baby cards or memorized letters-in-song: “Take a Letter, Maria,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Anchorage.” 

The British Telegraph recently reported letter-writing decline among teenagers. While the article does not comment on the anachronistic collision of a web-posted article about letter writing habits of a digital generation in a newspaper called The Telegraph, it does address literacy links. 

Letter-writing kids—at a 2:1 ratio to non-letter-writing peers—feel better about writing in general, write above age/grade level, and consider written correspondence “fashionable.” National Literacy Trust Director Jonathan Douglas notes, “Young letter writers are more likely to write every day outside school which improves their literacy, enabling them to do better in class and throughout their lives.”

I love these kids weighing in on the fashionableness of letter writing! But the report’s most relevant point, albeit unsurprising, is that literacy skills depend enormously on reading and writing children do outside of school. 

When writing is valued only in school, its values—and joys—don’t extend beyond that threshold. But if boundaries between in-class and at-home literacy are blurred, then kids might border-cross more easily. Could letter-writing invite kids to meaningfully take literacy into their own hands?

I was pleased to find a non-British source about children and letter writing at PBS standby educational website Reading Rockets. It includes letter-writing activities for kids ages 5-9 … from a guide for “Write a Letter Week,” which happens in England. 

US publications frame letter-writing benefits as tokens of healthy living. They make us feel positive and create memories, reduce stress and contribute to overall wellbeing. Articles link slowing down with creative expression and discuss the cognitive benefits of writing by hand.

American letter writing is an artisanal form of therapy. It’s endorsed by Mental Floss—“4 Benefits of Writing By Hand for National Handwriting Day”—and a UCLA neuroimaging study—“Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects in the Brain.” 

McGregor’s Guardian piece prints a letter from writer George Saunders. Saunders riffs on the brain connection of writer and recipient at the moment of reading: “You now believe more fully in my existence and I in yours. We think more highly of one another. And we think better of everyone else, too. It seems more likely to us now that other people actually exist.”

What is it about a personal letter, an artifact of time taken and thoughts transcribed, that might breed empathy? On the other hand, is there anything about such an intimate, hand-sorted piece of mail that would not make us acutely feel another’s existence. 

Empathy, literacy, mindfulness and behavioral health—letter-writing looks like a balm for kids of all risk levels. I used to think about a class on letters in which students would have to mail me every assignment. Maybe I should develop this. 

Time magazine, alas, calls into question the “increased creativity, better critical thinking, boosted self confidence, and a correlated improvement in reading capability with writing prowess” that researchers have tied to writing by hand.

“We don’t really have facts, we have evidence," says quoted Indiana University psychologist Karin James. "But it’s highly suggestive evidence.”

I’m good with that. 

Letters themselves are excellent at being highly suggestive and evidential, whether commenting on landscape, love or historical events. One of the best plugs for them is sitting down to write one. The other is reading them, whether they arrive in a mailbox, a book or the box a relative didn’t know what to do with. 

I read over the postcards my niece, nephew, son and daughter left behind in their race to go swim. They ranged from a detailed vacation account to a simple thank you to scattered notes about random things: the name of the room my son slept in, cocodrilos, the pool, a turtle sculpture. My daughter simply wrote, “Love Uncle Eddie Aunt Abi Love Sylvia” with some fancy letters and hearts. 

Letter writing doesn’t have to be profound, although the novelty of sitting down with a pen and nice paper can make it feel like it does. The luxury of reading or writing a full-fledged letter is, well, noteworthy; but connections among mind, hand, pen and experience spark with a postcard, too. 

The thing is connection. So for kids—and the adults they’re watching—letter-writing habits can connect reading and writing to their own lives and people they love. 

 

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