Imagine you open your mailbox, and inside, among the coupons and bills and glossy fliers is an envelope addressed to you. Not only is your name front and center, it’s written in trailing ink, with the subtle flaws of actual handwriting. The envelope is thin, but weighty enough, and you recognize the return address instantly: a friend, maybe a lover, or maybe an enemy. The rest of your mail suddenly can wait—the rest of the world can wait, for you’ve just gotten a letter, and nothing is more important than tearing it open to read it.
I love letters, even if, in this digital age, they’re a dying art. What could be more personal and heartfelt, than a beautifully-crafted handwritten letter? I love the thought of them, the look of them, the feel and even the smell of them, not unlike the smell of a book. Which is probably why I chose letters as a vehicle for my first novel, The God of Sno Cone Blue. (The second novel is coming along well, by the way, though never as fast as I’d like.) Those of you who’ve read my first book know that my main character Grace receives letters written by her mother before she died. I guess I always knew the mother’s story would be a source of mystery and interest, but I never anticipated just how much. The main comment I get from readers? “I can’t wait to read the next letter!” And yes, I get it.
Oddly, letters aren’t as common in literary fiction as you might expect. Epistolary novels that come to mind include: Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897), The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis, 1942), Up the Down Staircase (Bel Kaufman, 1965), The Color Purple (Alice Walker, 1982), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, 1999), and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, 2008) to name a few.
Few of us bother with handwritten letters anymore. I’m as guilty as anyone. The most I write by hand these days is a list of to-do’s, a phone message or a miles-long grocery list. Today we use laptops, phones, email and text, which hardly come close. Scant effort in, brings scant reward: What time you off work? Five—you? Five-thirty. K, what’s for dinner? I thawed a chicken. K, see you then.
Yet we know there’s no turning back. We’re out of practice—and patience. And we love the convenience technology brings. Even now, if I’m sending a letter the “snail mail” way by US post, I type it up, to spare my fingers, and print it out. Did I just admit that? Yes, I did.
But I’d like the think there’s still a place for handwritten letters, where the effort we put in truly counts. What if, as in my novel, we wrote missives to the people especially dear to us, to be opened after we’re gone? What better way to say I love you than I cared enough to put pen to paper, recount these memories, express these sentiments, in my very own handwriting, just for you?
It sure beats an email.
–As always, please feel free to comment below–