After my friend Marjorie died in Boston a few weeks ago, I knew I’d need to mail a condolence letter to her family. The only problem was finding the stationery to do it. It had been so long since anyone in our family had written a personal letter that I couldn’t locate any good paper in the house.
A nearby big-box store stocked all sorts of flowery greeting cards, including a few for the bereaved. They were nice enough, but I just wanted some plain sheets of paper and a simple envelope — the kinds of items that you could once buy just about anywhere. I ended up at a boutique stationery shop, my odyssey evidence enough that handwritten letters are now a specialty craft, like quilting or basket-weaving.
I love the speed and convenience of electronic communication and wouldn’t want to give it up. I had, in fact, learned about Marjorie’s death through a group email sent to her friends. It was the best way to quickly tell the many people who loved her that she was gone.
For a few occasions, though, such as my note to Marjorie’s husband, handwritten letters still seem best. Using pen and paper reminded me that last summer, our teenage son had also been forced to find some stationery. One of his classmates was spending her vacation months in a rural place that lacked reliable phone and internet service. To keep in touch, he resorted to postal mail.
It was something to see a high school student usually wed to his smartphone crafting a handwritten letter instead. I was moved to write a magazine piece about it, exploring what my son had learned. “What I’m learning,” he told me, “is that you don’t want to write about the news in a letter. By the time the letter gets where it’s going, the news has moved on.”
Given how the world is these days, it’s probably good to have an exchange about something besides the news. Maybe we’d all be healthier if we started sending a few more handwritten letters, too.
“To really succeed,” I told readers of my magazine article, “a proper letter must nudge both the writer and the reader beneath the current of the headlines, into the more sustaining depth of domestic life, personal musings, private dreams.”
There’s another small advantage of sending a handwritten note. It’s such a rare thing nowadays that it’s sure to stand out.
Jerry Ceppos, former dean of LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, made that point in a recent magazine essay of his own. His handwritten thank-you notes to donors were such a hit, he recalled, that donors would often respond by thanking him.
Marjorie’s husband wrote me to say thanks for my handwritten note. A grieving widower with much on his mind, he reached me the simplest way he could. He sent an email.