What We Lose When We Stop Writing Letters




“Wow! A Mont Blanc!” I pulled the shiny black pen from the box, smiling at the little white mountain on the tip, the luxe gold rim. Then I realized: it was a regular old pen. My mom had splurged for my birthday on this famous writing instrument and gotten one with a plastic stick for guts and a hard point, not a fountain of flowing ink and an elegantly curved nib.

I hid my dismay and thanked her profusely. We did not have the Mont Blanc kind of money lying around; this was a big-deal present. Its neat, practical black point wrote my college papers, signed my marriage certificate, sits on my desk to this day.

With a twisted, martyred logic, I never bought myself a fountain pen; it felt as though my chance was shot. So why, when screens are our parchment and pixels our ink, does the thought of one still fascinate me?

For all the reasons my tidy mother decided against one. They are gloriously messy and unpredictable, their splotches and spills giving away mood and temper. The line is fluid, changeable, sometimes darker, sometimes faint. They require and welcome constant experimentation, their inks varying in color, viscosity, smudgeability, endurance. They signal our personality and often tell us who we are.

The earliest users of fountain pens managed a delicacy of line akin to Chinese brush strokes—though I suspect this was down to the quality of their penmanship. I still remember my grandmother making circles in the air like a madwoman, or a choreographer for a stunt pilot. “Use the Palmer method,” she urged me, showing me her lovely, loopy signature, like abstract embroidery. I rolled my eyes.

Only now, when no one writes letters anymore and our signatures are either finger wiggles on tiny screens or fonts supplied by a pdf, am I thinking again about fountain pens and the Palmer method. The combination is far more interesting now that it is arcane. It is also beautiful and, done right, effortless. The rest of life rubs at us like sandpaper, but ink flows onto heavy paper without friction.

Implausibly, a YouTuber too young to be my son teaches the Palmer method. Hypnotized, I watch him demonstrate the proper grip: hold the pen loosely, barely supporting it, rather than squeezing its life slowly from its body. Palmer is not “finger writing”; it uses the entire arm, which lets those loops and finishing curves happen naturally.

If I believed in seances I would hold one to apologize to my grandmother; I had no idea how cool this was.

Palmer simplified Spencerian cursive, and chicken scratch replaced Palmer, and now we want no cursive at all. Who can blame us? Most handwriting is hideous. We stopped trusting children, so instead of teaching them handwriting from the start, we dumbed it down and taught them to print. I never made the full transition; I developed a start-and-stop cursive with lots of standalone printed letters, and I liked its eccentricity until I let the YouTube kid teach me Palmer. Suddenly everything connected, as though magnetized, and words ended with closure, that final upswing easy to do with my arm propelling it.

Alas, I have learned this too late. Sitting down to write a long letter, as people used to say, is alien in a time when emails fly without any particular posture or time commitment. It would feel like a punishment, like having to copy out a teacher’s pious sentence a hundred times. Yet the loss, when I let myself think about it, is staggering. Those hours of letter-writing, full of pauses, hair twisting, and pen fiddling reverie, summoned deep feeling and vivid detail, and surprising realizations popped as the words streamed forth.

My friends and I do not even email anymore; we text, allowing the phone to complete or fix our words. The texts are punchy and fun but I cannot recall much description, simile, or metaphor, let alone revelation. Emotional states, yes; triumphs, sorrows, angst come through, but without depth or context. Our emoji have led us.

Luckily, no biographer will need record of these communications. But what will biographers use to document important lives? Will their posts, texts, and emails tell us much of anything? They are inhibited by brevity, less private, and if you have any sense, less confessional. “It is unwise,” Megan O’Grady notes, “to commit too much of oneself to electronic code.”

Yet when they upload all our communications to create a bot that speaks as we did….

In the patient days, people waited eagerly for the return post: for a letter that would reciprocate or reject love; accept a manuscript; set minds to rest; offer wise counsel. Years lovers addressed envelopes with care, used upside-down stamps to signal ardor, kissed the flaps. I still have a bundle of letters from a boyfriend who went off to join the Air Force; by the time he returned, I was no longer sure we were right for each other, but to this day I treasure that bundle of letters, girlishly tied with a velvet ribbon. Even more, I treasure the silly doggerel my dad wrote my mom when he was in Germany and missing her. There are no more love letters! Does no one realize the gravity of this loss?

Whatever winds up documenting modern lives holds nothing like Henry VIII’s love letter to Anne Boleyn, signed, “written with the hand of him who wishes he were yours.” Our martyred heroes will not send letters from Birmingham or any other jail. Contemporary epistolary novels will be a rally of terse texts. No one will revise the wisdom in Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

So much has happened in letters. Emile Zola penned “J’accuse,” defending Dreyfus from antisemitism in France. Toussaint l’Overture begged Napoleon to free his wife and children. Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa warned Marie Antoinette, “Your luck can all too easily change, and by your own fault you may well find yourself plunged into deepest misery.” Queen Elizabeth shared her scone recipe with President Eisenhower. An eleven-year-old girl wrote to the clean-shaven presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, “Have you any little girls about as large as I am?… I have got four brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you will let your whiskers grow, I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you.”

The last form to vanish will be, I suspect, the reference letter. Or the letter-in-support that people write to a judge or politician. Young reporters used to ask me how I persuaded someone to talk to me about a difficult topic. “I wrote them a letter,” I would say, and their eyes would pop. A what? But you see, letters cannot be ignored or swiftly, automatically deleted. They can be thrown into the fireplace, but the act requires at least a few seconds’ deliberation, and curiosity usually sparks the impulse to rip open that envelope instead. Once opened, a letter is a chance for someone to fully explain who they are and what they need. To acknowledge the other person’s situation. To offer a full and considered appraisal. To make a promise.

Letters are a substantive form, and their paper and ink leave an impression on our bodies. Electricity is more forgiving, less revealing. It seems to encourage blurting—we call our era “confessional” and complain of TMI, of oversharing, of people making fools of themselves on social media. Yet with all this constant, rapidfire self-expression and exchange, we know less and less about one another, and about ourselves.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.