Do You Love Writing or Receiving Letters?

Snail mail is making a comeback during the pandemic. Have you written any letters lately? Do you think that now is a good time to start?

Have you ever received a memorable letter? If so, what was it like to see an envelope with your name on it? What did you feel as you unfolded the letter and began to read? Did it feel different than getting an email, phone call or text? Why or why not?

Conversely, have you ever written a meaningful letter to someone else? Why did you choose that old-fashioned form of communication over a quicker and more convenient one?

Snail mail and handwritten messages are on the rise during the coronavirus pandemic — helping people to connect during this time of isolation, uncertainty and grief.

Would we all benefit from letter writing now?

In “You Should Start Writing Letters,” Jordan Salama writes about taking up correspondence in an era of physical distancing:

The first letter arrived dated March 31, 2020. It was from a close childhood friend, later turned college roommate, with whom I regularly keep in touch via instant texts, FaceTimes and phone calls, as most 20-somethings do.

“The sun has set on our 15th day of quarantine/social distancing,” my friend wrote, his chicken scratch still familiar from our days in grade school. “Isn’t it crazy how quickly this has become the new normal?”

He’d alerted me that the letter was coming in a text: After many days of nonstop Zoom calls for work, the last thing he wanted to do was look at another screen to catch up. Plus, he said, writing a letter could be a fun creative exercise to break up the monotony.

So I wrote back. And then I wrote to another friend and another, and lately not a week has gone by when there hasn’t been a letter to respond to. In most of these exchanges, there seems to exist this unspoken code of slightly formal, performative language meant to evoke the past. My childhood friend’s first message, for instance, included a florid analysis of John Keats’s maritime isolation off the coast of typhus-plagued Naples in 1820.

“There’s something about the ambience of the room,” he wrote. “The gentle fire, the nautical aura, the fact that I’m writing a note — it makes me feel like a captain off on an expedition in a foreign land, writing back home.”

It adds to a sense of emotion and escape, yet hardly detracts from the ability to write candidly about our wide range of current experiences. I’ve written about bird feeders, good movies and family; I’ve read friends’ letters about fishing and homesickness and Gabriel García Márquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera,” in which the young Florentino Ariza writes thousands of love letters during an epidemic in Colombia.

Frequent correspondence by mail is fairly new to me. When I was in fifth grade, we had a pen-pals program with a class in Australia, but when the school year ended, my pal and I fell out of touch. Anytime I travel afar, I try to write to my family; somehow I always tend to get home before my letters do.

But like so many other things in this otherwise-terrifying global quarantine, I’ve found writing letters to be wonderful in the simplest of ways. For each one, I sit at our dining room table for the better part of an hour, away from my phone and computer, with only a sheet or two of blank white printer paper in front of me. I’m hardly able to keep a regular journal without it feeling like a chore, but writing to someone else is sending a fresh entry off into the world without ever having to look at it again.

In return, I’ll be left with something far more interesting than a mundane account of my own pandemic days: a patchwork of pages that were sent to me by others, each one fresher than the next.

Students, after you’ve read the entire article, tell us:

Do you like to write or receive letters? How is the experience different from more modern methods of communication? What do you think a letter can express that an email, text or phone call cannot?

Have you ever received a memorable letter? If so, tell us about your experience and what made it so lasting in your mind. Who sent the letter to you and why? How did you react when you saw an envelope with your name on it? Was it a surprise? How did it make you feel?

When was the last time you wrote a letter? Have you sent any during the pandemic? What motivated you to send a letter? How did writing a letter compare with writing an email or composing a message in other digital formats? What did you enjoy?

How are you communicating and maintaining connections with friends and loved ones during the pandemic? How successful have your efforts been? Do you agree with Mr. Salama that Zoom calls and texts can be emotionally draining?

How persuasive do you find Mr. Salama’s argument for more letter writing? Do you think letter writing can provide a respite from the monotony of screens and social distancing? Do you think you would benefit from what the author describes as an “unhindered way of working through anxieties, thoughts and emotions during a period of nonstop information and tremendous grief”? What other reasons of your own might you add to a list describing the benefits of writing letters these days?

After reading the essay, do you think you might begin to write more letters to friends? Why or why not? If yes, who would you send them to, and why?

Finally, if you said yes to the previous question (and even if you didn’t), what are you waiting for? Take out a pen and a piece of paper and get started on a letter of your own. It can be long or short, to a close friend or an old teacher. Just to say hi or to express some of the deep feelings you are experiencing. Give it a try — it can definitely make an impact. And remember: There’s a good chance they will write back!

If you want to add an artistic touch, consider making and drawing your own postcard.

By Jeremy Engle, Jeremy Engle joined The Learning Network as a staff editor in 2018 after spending more than 20 years as a classroom humanities and documentary-making teacher, professional developer and curriculum designer working with students and teachers across the country.

First published on Oct. 8, 2020