The Lighthouse

the lighthouse

28 July 2013

Of writing, and letters, and writing letters

Do you ever get personal mail anymore? A card or letter addressed to you without that little window telling you someone wants to slip their fingers into your wallet?

When you do – if you do – doesn't it make you smile?

Though separated by distance, writing a letter is like spending time with the recipient. They fill our thoughts as we write. They know that we have set aside time just for them in order to write the letter. I know that she will be able to read my thoughts, my stories when she has time, maybe over a cup of tea in the evening. She will be able to return to it again and again... so I'd better make it worth the reading of it!

I have one friend in particular I write long letters to. We were nearly half a country apart for many years with little opportunity to be in the same room together, and while a phone conversation would bring her immediately into my presence and was satisfying in its own way, writing a letter allowed me to set the scene, describe a humorous event, share snippets of something I'd recently read that I knew she would enjoy. I could picture her in the comfy chair she had in her kitchen window, cat in her lap, tea and cookies beside her. I knew she would laugh out loud, prompting her husband to ask to hear it, and she would share the letter with him.

Not only does she have the freedom to take her time with the reading of it, doing so as time and inclination allow, but I also have the luxury of time with the writing of it. I can put down the pen in order to look up that funny bit in the book I wanted to share with her; I can answer the phone when call display reveals my mother's number; I can go for a walk when I've been sitting too long and come back to it reinvigorated and freshly inspired.

A letter is a connection. I will hold the same paper you did. I can tell something of your mood by the state of your penmanship. I admire the paper you chose.

“What's so often missing in our lives today is the richness of shared humanity, those moments when we feel really connected to other human beings. The act of writing personal notes not only feeds our own soul, but also lets us share ourselves with other – offering hope, affirming life, connecting.

But let's clarify. Although we have the great advantage of advanced technology and electronic gadgets that keep us instantly and constantly in touch, we often feel a deep void that can only be filled when we take a moment to reflect, experience, and reach out for another. Ironically, the can come from something as old-fashioned and simple as writing a personal note.” (Personal notes / Sandra E Lamb)

Writing a letter is 'slow communication' and like other slow movements, it's an indicator of the desire for a more intentional life. It is a creative act, an expression of self. Women, being relational creatures, do poorly in isolation. We need to connect with others; the sending and receiving of letters is a beautiful way to establish that connection.


Admitting to a fondness for the handwritten note results in a spectrum of reactions from appalled disbelief, to rosey-lensed nostalgia, to enthusiastic glee. Many people think composing by hand is outdated and a waste of time – why not use a computer with spell check? (I edited an article recently in which concur was used when conquer was meant. Good job, spell check!)

Tired of defending my position with the good-old-days argument, I began to research the merits of handwriting (some of which research involved long, ranting conversations with my sister. We solve many of the world's problems in this manner.) but it turns out there are benefits to pen and paper, and even benefits to cursive over printing. Here are a few:

In school, notes taken by hand are remembered more clearly than notes tapped into a computer.

The physical act of holding and moving a pen (or pencil, naturally) engages the brain in ways typing does not. It involves areas of the brain used for thinking, language, and memory – not so with typing which entails one action to form a letter. Cursive actually uses both hemispheres of the brain.

The ability to spell well increases with handwriting over typing – its about muscle memory as well as time and attention.

Children taught to print are quicker to learn letter recognition and to develop certain learning centres of the brain. In fact, MRI studies have shown that children who have letter instruction have neural activity similar to an adult's.

It also helps develop fine motor skills.

Writing by hand is more beneficial for formulating ideas and expression.

Test takers who answer by hand typically score higher, with more complete answers.

The handwritten requires focus. Focus is good, especially for the distractable among us. We are more focused when we write because the reticular activating system is stimulated. Its job is to give more importance to what you are actively focused on at that moment.

When composing by hand, we tend to think first, write second. The order is often reversed when a keyboard enters the picture.

As for cursive over printing, the learning of it is much easier, and there are advocates for teaching children penmanship before printing. Think of a preliterate child giving you a story they've written. It is a page filled with loops, formed from bottom to top then back down, from left to right (mostly). The motion is natural and fluid with the pen not leaving the page until the end of the word. That is another benefit, as then spacing rules are clear – a novice printer leaves awkward spacing between letters and words clouding comprehension. Because the strokes are consistent, learning letter formation is much easier than when printing which has multiple starting points.


When it comes to every day life, there are undisputed benefits of technology. Email and texting have their place. But for the personal, the meaningful, the intimate, nothing surpasses a handwritten communication.


  1. You know I've been waiting for this one…

    When people write a letter or note, they're creating something – almost like a work of art. It also gives people a bit of time to think about what they're writing before they send it off. Many have gotten into trouble over a hastily transmitted e-mail. With a written note, you can set it on a shelf and think about what you've said before sending it.

    And even though I'm a guy, I notice a certain gracefulness to a cursive note that is lacking in even a hand-printed letter. There's not a lot of grace left in this world – we can use all we can get.
    The point about a letter being a connection is very important. When you hold a note from someone who is no longer with us, it provides a physical connection not only between people, but also across time. An e-mail (or a tweet) isn't the same.

    I also find it disturbing that some of the Chinese immigrants who work in my office can read and write cursive English better than the younger Americans. It doesn't bother me that the Chinese folks can do this, but it seems unnatural that the native English-speaking Americans can't.

  2. I have a few things from my dad that I am grateful to have, and I treasure the gifts he's given me over the years, but what I really miss is one card in which he actually wrote a message instead of signing his name. Somehow it's gone missing since the last move... heartbreaking. It contains his thoughts, in his hand - a direct connection.

    I agree with you about grace. There is not enough of it to be seen these days. I think letters are a nice way to sprinkle some in someone's life.

    Thanks for the topic idea.