The Power of the Handwritten Written Word


My college roommate wrote me that when her son was home for Christmas, he pulled a Herman Hesse book off their bookshelves and found a letter from me to her, written one summer more than three decades ago.

Her son had been telling her how much he loved college because he was having wonderful intellectual discussions with his buddies and roommate. And here was this letter, talking about just that: about me missing the discussions and conversations his mother and I had had during the year. As she put it: I think he was kinda shocked that his mother and her friends had the same vibrant lives when they were 19.

I can’t remember what those discussions were about (what I’d give for a recording). But I do remember us lying in our twin beds with the lights out, needing to sleep, but staying awake, talking and talking, and how much I loved that, loved having her to talk to, loved feeling that we were discussing big things, deep things – literature and philosophy and life itself.

I’m eager to know the content of the letter, but I also started thinking about that magical moment: opening a book, finding a letter. I love finding notes and letters in my own books. If I wrote them, they remind me of what I was doing at that point in my life, what I was thinking, who I was when I was reading that book. And letters or postcards from others are even better. You recognize the handwriting and are instantly transported.

I opened my mailbox this week to a card from a high school friend, and the handwriting on the envelope was as familiar to me as the sender’s face. It brought back images of notes on gray tablet paper passed in hallways, birthday cards left on car seats, loopy sentences inked across yearbook photographs.

Email, texts, tweets – they keep us in touch more often, perhaps. They can make us feel we’re part of a faraway friend’s daily life, small moments as well as large. My roommate’s note was emailed, in response to my own belated birthday email to her; if she’d waited to sit down and write it out, the moment might have been forgotten, left unshared.  But the digital communications lack something tangible, emotional.  We all know how nuance is lost in the digital realm; we’ve all suffered the consequences.

Handwriting brings emotional impact, the knowledge that someone thought about you, wrote it down, didn’t just hit “send,” but found a stamp or bought a stamp, found a mailbox or went to the post office.  Exactly what I didn’t do, in time, for my roommate’s birthday – hence the email note, a comparatively weak gesture, but the most much of us can manage on some days.

Letters have palpable life woven in: a coffee stain, an ink smudge, an extra note on the back, a thought added after the letter was sealed.  There can be doodles, drawings – original, handmade, artisanal emoticons. There’s the cancellation with the date, where it was sent from. There’s the stamp itself: in 1978 stamps were only 15 cents — is it possible I lived at a time when stamps were only 15 cents? All of this texture, this additional information, makes the letter an artifact in a way email can’t match.

I do save some emails. I copy and paste them into a digital journal, or leave them hanging around in my inbox forever, causing clutter and stress. And I have bundles of letters tied up with ribbons in my attic (also causing clutter and stress). I can’t let go of them, yet I don’t read them. Now I’m thinking that what I need to do is scatter them through my books, so that I can come across them serendipitously — or someone else can. I wish I had put them all in books, as I received them.

You can’t tuck a letter, or a ticket stub, or a postcard, into a Kindle.

I’m glad I wrote that letter. I’m glad my roommate tucked it in Hesse. I’m glad her son found it.

Does that mean  I will write more letters now? I’d like to think so, but probably not. And that’s actually a digital gain for my friends: my handwriting is terrible.


Nota Bene: The drawing at the top of the post came from a website called The Pencil Revolution, which I found when searching for The Lead Pencil Club — an organization I remembered from back in the 90’s that was a pushback to electronic communication (and this was long before tweets, Instagram, and texting). It seems the club is long defunct — the website postings I found referencing it were all years old — but I loved the binary pencil.

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17 Responses to The Power of the Handwritten Written Word

  1. All those handwritten post-its count too! Thanks, Rick.

  2. Susan Rusbasan says:

    I pictured you in the cottage, up in your office, writing this. I lived this experience with you. Jen, you are so gifted and I hope the books are also a huge success.

    Love you, Susan

  3. Ginny Clark says:

    This stirs a note of recognition for me, too. I might have told you that in the act of cleaning up the chaos at my mother’s home, I occasionally find a letter that I wrote to her two or three decades ago. These now seem to me to be little rewards, or thank you notes for my present efforts.

    • How great to come across those — they are little rewards! My mom saved some as well. When I dig them out and re-read, I can see between the lines to what I wasn’t telling her, as well. That’s part of their value to me. I like the idea of finding one letter, here and there — then you sit down and read it through. If you find an entire box, it can be overwhelming (and lead to a derailed afternoon!).

  4. Betsy Finley says:

    What a lovely essay and a beautiful commentary about a bygone art form. I still receive
    a very occasional hand written note and when I do it’s comforting somehow.
    Thanks for sharing your incisive observation.

  5. karen walden says:

    Jen, love what you said and it so resonates with me–you have a gift of expressing what we all feel. I have a bundle of letters written by my grandfather to my grandmother from circa 1917 through 1945. My grandfather was an engineer for an automotive company and was often on the go road-testing various cars and thus away from home a lot. Almost every night he’d write a letter to his wife about the things that had happened that day or what he had for dinner at the hotel (some great green peas)–he was sharing the minutia that makes connections. He’d post it and miraculously the next day, it would be in her hands. What is so amazing about these letters is that they catalog the arc of their relationship from tender, loving partners and parents to distant people living separate lives. I have thought of editing and publishing them with comments or some such. But I think I just want to have them for myself–to revisit every time I clean out my closets and take a trip down memory lane. It’s funny that I got your email today, for just yesterday I came across the letters since we are in the midst of repainting our apt and every closet and drawer has been scrutinized and purged of extraneous stuff. I kept those letters out so that I could read some of them today sitting in my comfy chair with a cup of tea, thinking of my grandparents. Sweet.

  6. Mary O'Brady says:

    My response will be handwritten.

  7. JD Cullum says:

    And I think about times even longer ago, before the telephone, when people “called upon” people. Every advance in speed of communication requires the shedding of some human impediment. It’s hard to envision, but I figure some day we’ll fondly remember the era when we sent little electronic messages to one another’s inboxes…
    Beautifully written piece. Thank you.

    • Thank you JD! I had that thought as well: that today is the past we will someday be looking back on, nostalgically. I guess when we are all outfitted with some kind of brain chip and communicate directly by thinking, even tweeting will seem quaint. I remember being on the cutting edge of technology in college because I had an electric typewriter with ribbon cartridges — you could quickly swap out the black ink one for the correcting one. And somewhere I have the stack of punch cards that is the “digital” version of my master’s thesis. And I read somewhere last week (online, no doubt) that blogging is becoming passe . . . of course, right when I figure out how to do it.

      • JD says:

        Girl, you keep blogging and I’ll stay on the line waiting for someone to pick up — ain’t no damn “pound” on a rotary phone!

  8. Grant Nelson says:

    Wow! Yes, I can relate to this so much… we talk about this a lot at home.. Nicolas and Terence are Industrial designers, but of the new fold, where again, individuals, and one on one relationships are important (on the return). The pendulum is swinging back, you wait, in 5 years, us ‘old people’ and what really matters to us, will be the hype of the new age…..

    Memories, even transposed to today, are still relevant. Yesterday I saw a picture of a red and white shack, as someones facebook picture, but, because I too worked as a teen ‘maintaining’ the ‘holy park’ next to the boat yard, I not only recognized it, but was twisted up into a tide of emotions of my youth, before and after. But it was not the memories of the time, but the combination of those, and my new found awareness that those days define who we are, and we should never, ever, loose track of what we knew was of value then, for our selves, and our talents that impacted me,. To seek new roads only leads to doom.

    We, born in the 50’s and our experiences, talents and skills, are not obsolete, but actually the future of ‘facebook’. Wait and see!


    • Thanks for the comment Grant. Speaking of the next generation, my niece, also in design, “writes” thank you notes on some kind of computerized pad, captures the image, and emails them to me, or to my mom’s electronic picture frame. Sort of a hybrid writing/digital communication form.

      Those early years are defining — so glad some of my memories include you. I’m sure by “talents” and “value” you are referring to our ability to play Simon (cutting edge electronic game) with our eyes closed. Foundationally crucial to my life today. 😉

      • Janice Brown Fike says:

        While going through a box of old family pictures, i found a small diary written by my Aunt Rose. She was so important to me, teaching me to read and play piano, play Flinch, add numbers on her old-fashioned adding machine. But i never told her, as i didn’t recognize her importance until she had died. The diary was very simple, with only short notes of who visited her, who called, who sent her a card or letter, what my mother and father were doing and it was written in the months before she passed away. But i found a note in her diary. I had stopped to see her and i’m so glad i did that and it mattered enough to her to record it. She was the one in the family who made the best homemade candy, and who put a blanket over her card table to make an Indian tepee, and who framed and hung my artwork over he bed. I wish she had known what i now know…

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