On writing letters

Overnight Open Thread — 10-01-2014: Sentimental Dork Edition

If I had to pin down the origin of my inclination toward writing as a pursuit, I’d have to say it goes back to my early teens, when I whiled away a good bit of my free time composing letters to friends. One of those friends was the girl I considered at the time to be the unrequited love of my life, to whom I once wrote a letter in which I opened a vein that spilled out (if I recall correctly) nearly a dozen college-rule pages of handwritten ardor for her. And, while that love remained unrequited, I never regretted writing it or sending the letter. I do regret falling out of the habit of letter-writing over the years, though.

It’s definitely one of those use-it-or-lose-it skills.  I can pound out an email with the best of them, but going the pen-and-paper route?

A few years back, I had a brief long-distance relationship going.  We were calling and sending messages back and forth pretty much every day.  Then one day, she sent me a letter: an actual, honest-to-God letter, written by hand with pen and paper. I had neither sent nor received one of those since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Of course I had to send a reply. I bought a pad of ruled paper and a box of letter envelopes (wouldn’t have been right to use plain paper swiped from the printer and a business envelope) and set out to write my letter.

There was just one rather big problem: I’ve pretty much forgotten cursive handwriting. Other than when I sign for stuff, I just don’t use it anymore. If I’m jotting notes on paper or something similar, it’s in all-uppercase block printing, which is more about speed than looking nice. I had forgotten what some of the letters look like and how they’re written, so I found myself googling for the same kinds of handwriting tutorials that I thought I’d left behind after 3rd grade. I eventually got a couple of pages of arthritic-looking text written out, in an envelope, and into the mail. The subsequent hand cramps took only a few hours to go away.

It wasn’t always like this.

I think I was six when I started keeping my grandmother up to date on what I was doing. Handwriting was still a couple or so years away, so these were printed, but at least they were mixed-case and I was aiming somewhat for legibility.

Around the time I would’ve started picking up handwriting at school, I had gotten one of these:


IIRC, mine was brown and beige, not blue, but it was more or less the same idea: a plastic frame, uppercase only, and only three rows of keys…kinda like the keyboard on your phone, but with the numbers on the home row instead of the top row (and only 1 through 9…you used O for 0). It might’ve derailed my writing a bit, except for two things:

1) I was still writing out lots of stuff in class: tests, in-class assignments, etc.
2) After a few months, one of the type slugs (think it was “I”, or some other frequently-used letter) flung itself off the typewriter and disappeared, never to be found again.

The summer before high school, my parents bought one of these:


No mouse at first (I added one later), but I did have a printer and word-processing software. Lots of high-school and college homework got pounded out on that. I ended up using it to write letters, too. Maybe Mom & Dad thought it was better that I was using the printer than to subject Grandma to my handwriting, which never was the best in the world. Maybe they just appreciated that I was still sending letters at all.

The eventual ubiquity of email, though, put an end to that. It didn’t have to have that effect, but it did. With pretty much no need to write stuff out by hand, I have forgotten how to write most of the cursive letterforms, other than the ones I needed to sign my name. Even for those nine letters, a few years working at Best Buy, where I was signing sales orders and other forms dozens of times a day, led me to speed things up so that the tail end of my last name is usually little more than an indecipherable scribble nowadays.

Grandma passed away in 2006. Grandpa found one of the letters I had sent way back when, that Grandma had saved. It might have been the first letter I had sent. He rejoined her a year ago next month. That letter, written 36 years ago, found its way back to me. It’s a little bit disturbing that I’d have a harder time writing out a letter like that today than when I was a kid.  I’d have no problem with the content, of course.  It’s the act of getting it to somebody else with just a pen, paper, an envelope, and a stamp that would be a challenge.

One thought on “On writing letters

  1. AvatarWalt Gilbert

    Great response.

    I should point out that I don’t think I’ve ever written a letter in cursive. In fact, I don’t think I’ve written anything but my name in cursive since I entered middle school. I know I couldn’t do it now if I had to. But, I won’t let that stop me from writing letters in the future.

    Thanks for reading and replying to my ONT! I always enjoy whatever feedback I get when I have a chance to do them.

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