Jeremy Sarber

Writing personal letters

Thirty years ago, I climbed into the cab of a large, yellow Ryder truck, one of two holding most of my family’s earthly belongings, and cried myself to sleep as my father drove me away from the only home I had ever known. Though I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in our caravan shedding tears, my ten-year-old mind convinced me I had the most to lose. I was leaving behind more than a house. By the time we’d reach our permanent destination, I might as well be on another planet from my best friend. We’d be worlds apart, and I was already mourning his loss.

In the early Nineties, a long-distance relationship between children seemed impossible to maintain. Eight-hundred miles was too great a distance to pedal one’s bike. Phone calls would be a rare luxury since AT&T charged at least fifteen cents per minute, an expense my weekly allowance couldn’t afford. Mark Zuckerburg was still fingerpainting with his kindergarten class, so social media would not be a viable alternative. Come to think of it, the World Wide Web was barely online, not that I had access. Without email, instant messaging apps, futuristic video chats, or even cell phones, I’d have to make my peace with the end of the world’s most remarkable friendship.

Dear Josh,” I wrote once my family and I settled in our new home. At the time, sending a letter felt as futile as tossing a bottled message into the ocean. Even if it managed to float its way into Josh’s mailbox from four states away, the process of writing the thing was awkward and difficult. What do you say to someone you can’t see? Am I boring him? How do I naturally transition from describing my new school to mentioning a cool song I heard on the radio? Why isn’t he saying anything back? I’d have an easier time talking to myself, which I suppose I am.

I didn’t write that first letter or any subsequent letters because I enjoyed it. I did it out of necessity, a subtle desperation to stay connected to my closest friend from afar. If we couldn’t be together, a message in a bottle would have to suffice, and history has proved it was enough. We remained regular penpals for years. More importantly, we stayed best friends until the future Mrs. Sarber came along.

Recently, Josh shared one of those childhood letters with me. My words lacked all eloquence, and my prose was about as sophisticated as a Dr. Seuss book. More than a few parts were cringeworthy, but that’s okay. The letter fulfilled its mission. I didn’t set out to write the next great American novel. I probably hadn’t read my first novel by that time. All I wanted to do was let my friend know I’m still here and still thinking about him. As it happened, though, those letters accomplished so much more.

Who would have thought I could build a time machine with a pencil, some paper, and one First Class stamp from the post office? Reading that letter decades later made me feel like a kid again. The emotions, fears, misspelled words– Strapping a flux capacitor to an old Delorean would not have transported me to the past as effectively as that letter. It froze a small piece of my youth, leaving it perfectly preserved for my future self to thaw and relive.

Perhaps you could argue a photograph or an old home movie would accomplish the same feat, but I’m not convinced. The problem is that they capture the world from the outside looking in. When I stare at a 5th-grade photo, for instance, I’m looking at myself from a foreign vantage point. I experienced childhood on the other side of those thick glasses and that Dukes of Hazzard t-shirt. What was I thinking or feeling? Turn the camera around, and maybe I can tell you. Otherwise, all I can say is, Huh. So that’s what I looked like.”

Let me also draw your attention to the obvious here. Even as a young child, Josh instinctively felt my letter was worth saving. He didn’t drop it behind his bedroom dresser years ago, only to have his parents accidentally discover it in the process of converting the space into a home gym. Josh intentionally placed it in a personal treasure box with other memorabilia. Then, he carried that box to his college dorm and every apartment or house thereafter. Who can say the same for an email or text message?

We have no shortage of ways to communicate these days. I once had nearly two dozen apps on my phone that would allow me to send a message in one form or another. My family is partial to the rapid video chats of Marco Polo. Others frequently ask, Are you on Facebook? How about Signal? Can I FaceTime you? Should I send you a DM on Twitter or Instagram? Do you use WhatsApp?” For the record, you may assume my answer is no.

Though my life on this modern planet is becoming increasingly analog, I’m not averse to using technology to stay in touch. Chances are, I’ll always have an email inbox I check daily and a phone that accepts the occasional text message or good old-fashioned voice call. Do I really need anything more? If I can’t communicate like it’s 1999, to be candid, I’m no longer interested. I don’t know which app the cool kids are using this month anyhow.

Believe it or not, I still write letters. To be clear, I don’t type or send them by way of the Internet. I don’t need a computer or wifi connection. I roll up my sleeves, find a quiet spot, preferably outdoors on a warm day, and literally write one word at a time across a sheet of ordinary paper. Though the process can be slow and tedious, often resulting in painful hand cramps, I persevere because the personal handwritten letter has, I’m convinced, extraordinary powers.

Imagine you fire up your laptop or unlock your smartphone to find you’ve received an email from an old friend you haven’t heard from in years. Assuming the message has enough length and substance to properly call a letter, you are likely surprised and delighted. You read the note, reply in kind, then if you’re like most people, you delete the conversation. Even if you’re the type to save emails indefinitely, it soon becomes buried beneath a pile of newsletters and marketing campaigns, never to be read again.

The nature of digital space is vast and impersonal, hardly conducive to slow, thoughtful interactions. As much as a friend’s letter might mean to you, we’re not prone to treat any form of electronic communication as a worthy keepsake. Perhaps we should ask Josh how many of my text messages he’s stored away in that lockbox at the top of his bedroom closet. Intuitively, we know words carry more weight when one takes the time to write them down, walk them to the mailbox, and wait for the postal service to deliver them to their destination. Without these seemingly unnecessary steps, the same words feel cheaper somehow. We’re not likely to cherish them as much, and consequently, they never grant us the privilege of time travel at a later date.

What about the past at large? More than a few significant insights into human history come to us through personal letters. Historical biographers don’t have to guess what Abe Lincoln or Martin Luther thought or felt about this subject or that because many of these notable figures left windows wide open for future generations to peer right into their hearts and minds. As we read their letters to family, friends, and colleagues, we gain intimate access to their thoughts and feelings, even some of those which the author may have intended to keep private.

At the risk of overstating my case, I believe the written word is next to godliness. It has a divine quality unrivaled by Facebook messages or SMS. I offer the Bible as evidence of my theory. While God has always seen fit to communicate to his people through preachers, prophets, and the occasional angel, he also insisted men write down large portions of this information. Today, he reveals his will to us through a series of handwritten books that scribes faithfully hand-copied for generations. I should also mention that personal, handwritten letters make up most of the New Testament. I rest my case.

I realize, however, I will never persuade some people. They retired their No. 2 pencils long ago, and asking them to wield another would likely incite post-traumatic flashbacks of those expository essays, which English teachers mandated they write for a passing grade. I may as well ask a Vietnam vet to vacation in the jungle. If only they knew how much fun writing could be once you get the hang of it. Find your voice and fall into a steady rhythm, and it’s pure bliss.

If you feel you can keep an open mind and aren’t deathly afraid of a blank page, I want to recommend a small experiment. I want you to think of someone to whom you haven’t spoken in a while, someone you haven’t seen in a few years perhaps. Once you have that person fixed in your mind, grab a pen and some paper and write him or her a letter. Don’t overthink your prose. You aren’t Shakespeare, and your letter’s recipient doesn’t expect you to be. He or she doesn’t expect anything, in fact, because you don’t typically write letters and neither does anyone else. You could write the letter upside down with crayons, and he or she will still be charmed.

About what should you write? You don’t want to overthink this part of the process either. You haven’t seen each other in a long time. I’m sure you have more than enough material to fill a couple of pages. You can ask a few questions as long as you remember his or her answers won’t be instantaneous. One of my favorite practices is attempting to articulate what the other person means to me. You have, after all, chosen to write this friend or family member for a reason. Frankly, the rules are few. Just be genuine and try to enjoy yourself.

I have discovered the right tools and environment can help, but I’ll be brief on this point because the perfect pencil and a roll-top desk will neither make you a proficient writer nor do the work for you. They are instruments at your disposal. If they help, use them. If not, try something else or settle for less. Remember that you are not writing to become the next Hemingway or apostle Paul. This mission’s goal is to, God willing, remind someone else that you care enough to make the time and effort.

For me, one’s setting is crucial, but I don’t need a sprawling oak desk in the middle of an attractive office. I prefer a quaint spot outdoors or in the garage where all is quiet, and I can talk out loud to myself with no one close enough to hear me and think I’ve lost one too many marbles. If you can write more than a grocery list in a crowded, noisy coffee house, I’m happy for you, but I’m just not capable.

As for tools, I’ll take almost anything other than an Internet-connected device. Writing is hard enough without YouTube being a mere click away. Plus, the objective is to write. You’ll need a pen or pencil for that, and my favorites are the Uni-Ball Jetstream and Blackwing 602 respectively. The Jetstream isn’t fancy, but it never fails to roll ink on the page consistently and smoothly, and the 602 offers dark print without needing to apply much pressure. If you’re unwilling to wholeheartedly commit to your assignment and feel you must type your letter, I’m in love with the possibly overpriced Freewrite machine I bought last year. My laptop has been lonely ever since.

Perhaps the personal, handwritten letter is a small, even trivial gesture. Still, I believe it has profound potential in a fast-moving world where most of our communication is brief and shallow. No one has ever called to thank me for a text message or tweet, to my best recollection. I’ve mailed virtual strangers, however, and received lengthy letters of thanksgiving in return. Whether the gesture is small or not, those I’ve written feel it’s bigger than an email or social media comment, and rightfully so if you ask me. It’s an expression of kind thoughtfulness that requires time, effort, intentionality, and of course, the price of postage.