Quill and paper

In an age where letters appear instantly at the tap of a key, why take up pen and paper?

Because the archaic will always have a place. Old ways are hard. They’re time consuming. And how we spend our time is a language unto itself—a letter written by hand creates a much different set of feelings than a simple email.

The value of the handwritten letter lies within this language of time and care. Writing to someone, taking the time to craft each letter, to buy a stamp, to select an envelope, to travel to the post office—none of this goes unnoticed. A letter, before the content is even read, has already said, “I care about you. You’re someone special.” And that is a message that all enjoy.

Letters are tangible. The crisp sounds of the unfolding, the slight indentations where you pressed a bit harder with the pen, and the smell of paper all contribute to not just a message, but an experience. A handwritten letter is a tangible thing—something that engages our senses in a way that technology currently cannot. The recipient can tuck the letter into a book or slide it into a drawer. They can display it on a shelf or keep it on the nightstand. It is a physical reminder of the writer, their thoughts forever etched onto a physical object. Your reader will not soon forget you.

Letters are novel. Our brains are trained to pay extra attention to what is new or unusual—we had to develop that way in order to survive humankind’s difficult ascension. We’re accustomed to texts and emails—the two most currently popular forms of communication. And because they are no longer novel, our minds tend to glaze over them, to multitask as we process the information contained within them.

But a letter is arresting. It’s a thing blown forward in time, often surprising and commanding the entire attention of the reader. It connects readers to the past, conjuring images of lovers separated by continents, gas lanterns, and adventure. To read, one must sit down and pay attention for a few moments, eschewing the technological world for this corner of the archaic. This is a particularly lovely gesture for a significant other, where a handwritten letter, perhaps, means the most. Write to the one you love, and they’ll not only be arrested by your words, but will feel deeply cared for, and pulled into a world of fantastical romance.

Writing on paper doesn’t only benefit the recipient! The act of creating a letter, of sitting at a desk and taking the time to put pen to paper, is an exercise in mindfulness. What does this mean? Simply that, by taking the time to write by hand, you will live entirely in the present moment, not distracted by technology, thoughts of the past, or fears of the future. Writing a letter requires disconnecting from the world of technological stimuli for a few moments. You will live only in those thoughts you craft for your recipient.

This requires a special kind of stamina that, like a muscle, can be built up over time. But with the stamina to be mindful, you’ll find that your ability to perceive the world around you increases exponentially. Being able to live in the moment is a rare gift, one that helps us remain happy by shutting out regrets and fears that can arise from too much focus on the past and future. Hand-write your letters and you’ll gain this gift in time.

Adding to the writer’s wellbeing is the fact that expressing trauma through writing can bring faster emotional healing. Studies have found that those who journal about their feelings have faster healing times than those who do not, particularly those who are accustomed to openly dealing with their feelings. And is that any wonder when we consider the fact that writing is an exercise in slow, deliberate thought? When we deal with our biggest problems one piece at a time—in this case, one word at a time—those problems don’t seem quite so daunting.

In addition to emotional wellbeing, researchers have found that writing by hand increases our cognitive abilities, as well. In an article by Psychology Today, Dr. William Klemm writes that writing by hand causes the brain to develop “functional specialization that integrates both sensation, movement control, and thinking”. When we write—especially in cursive—different parts of our brains become co-activated, learning to work together in tandem, as opposed to what occurs with simple typing. Brain studies have shown that keyboarding does not activate these same areas of the brain.

Handwriting that which we do not wish to forget is also a very effective method of remembering. Do you remember how our brains love novelty? The same reason your reader will not soon forget your message also means that you, as the writer, will be more likely to remember your own words. Writing activates those areas of the brain responsible for assessing new things as either threat or useful, and when this happens, what we experience is more indelibly stored in our memories.

While writing may be faster with a keyboard, handwriting notes actually helps students retain more the information they learn. Researchers have found that college students remember more facts when they write, as opposed to when they use their laptops. The hand-writers were more likely to summarize and think about what they were writing rather than simply mindlessly transcribing everything in a verbatim fashion, which the laptop users did. “There is something about ink and paper,” says an Association for Psychological Science blog post on the subject, “that prompts students to go beyond merely hearing and recording new information”.

Writing by hand has wonderful benefits for both the writer and for the recipient, and is a seldom-used communication tool that will make you stand out from the crowd. Whether you wish to woo that special someone, stand out after a job interview, or simply work out your thoughts and feelings with a friend, handwritten letters can be an unexpected gift from the past.

So why not set pen to paper?

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