Why Letter Writing Still Matters in an Age of Digital Communication
Hannah Brencher is the Founder and Creative Director of More Love Letters, an organization devoted to empowering individuals through tangible acts of love. She is a TED speaker and writer — her first memoir coming out in bookstores worldwide February 2015 — who travels the country inspiring college students to make a difference in the world. More Love Letters is getting ready to kick off its annual holiday campaign, The 12 Days of Love Letter Writing. To learn more about Hannah, visit her website.
Nearly three years ago, in the thick of a depression that wore bone-crushing shoes, I would have never been able to tell you that the world needed more love letters. Or even letters, for that matter.
If you told me a movement could begin out of a folded up piece of paper, or that a person’s life could be turned upside down and made infinitely more beautiful simply because of hand-written words, I would have laughed at you. I would have been hopeful, but I would have laughed at you all the same. That was before I knew that meaning rises up from giving parts of yourself away to others through letter writing, without any expectation of getting those parts back.
Writing Letters to Strangers
My first year out of college, living in New York City, I was hungry to find my calling. I was like one of those vagabond travelers determined to reach some unchartered destination but slowly getting my feet stuck in all the muds of what the world expected of me. I didn’t like my job. I missed my friends and the security of college. I felt purposeless. I felt small. I felt unable to make a difference. Mostly I felt alone — afraid to disconnect, to put down the phone at night, because then I would have to really be alone.
Fighting the urge to cup the faces of random New Yorkers and ask them if they felt the same numb pain, I started to write letters instead. Letters to strangers: people I would see on my morning commute, people I would sit just feet away from at a random coffee shop. They weren’t even typical letters of affirmation or hope. They were more like the kind of letter you’d pick up from an old friend — details tucked in about the day, chunks of experiences that not another soul could duplicate. The kinds of letters that made you feel like you were really holding someone’s diary — their vessel of hopes — for the day.
I’d rip the letters from my notebook and leave them on stray seats, propped up on the sinks in restrooms, placed into poetry books. In the process, I discovered a world of meaning known to many but accessed by an increasing few.
Through those letters, I found a way to say to someone I would never meet, “Hey, maybe our knees will never touch, and maybe we will never dig deep into politics at a dive bar in Brooklyn, but maybe you need to know someone else is out there. They too have struggles. They want the best for you. They’re cheering for you loudly, even if you can’t see them with their fists in the air.” And I found that virtually everyone in the world is in need of this kind of focused attention and affirmation.
Maybe, in a way, it’s not even the letters that matter. Maybe people just need to know that someone is thinking about them, keeping them high in their memory above a slew of texts and emails.
The Written Word in the Digital Age
One of my college professors once stood before my class with a tattered copy of Beloved in her hand and told us that she and her husband fell in love by way of letter writing. They both met at a time when distance had a cunning plan to keep them apart. She said it happened, the falling in love part, in the waiting time. In the fact that you had no choice but to put your whole heart out there and then wait and wait and wait to see if the words had been received. Digested. Accepted. There was no instant communication. There were no words flung carelessly upon a screen. There was raw vulnerability and this organic, romantic process of carefully assembling words on a page and waiting for them to be delivered to someone you loved.
Listening to her story, I was suddenly nostalgic for something I’d never had — the chance to be loved and known on a piece of paper.
“Your generation is never going to have that.” She said it boldly. I felt the words when my professor released them. I thought, “She could be right. But it does not make me want it less.” In a world where I worry that we’ll get so digitally connected we’ll eventually forget to notice the halos of green in the eyes of one another, it doesn’t make me want it less.
After those dozens of letters to the strangers of New York City and others around the world, I knew I needed to create something — a recipe to wake the world up to the heart of letter writing. More than that, a recipe to wake a sleeping world and open their eyes to authentic connections and a tangible mission even in the digital age.
This sparked the creation of my organization, More Love Letters, and an increasingly fervent belief that we must keep writing to each other, showing up for one another — acknowledging each other in small, focused, affirmative ways — no matter what other technologies we have at our disposal. I see daily the blessings that come bustling through the door when yet another person is filled with the mission to sit down, shut out the world, and put pen onto page.
Why Tangibility Matters
I could have never told you then, when I wrote those first random love letters, what I know now about letters. Specifically, I have been stunned by how personally significant letters are to the people who receive them. How, when the topic comes up in a random conversation, people are eager to admit they have a box of letters they’ve kept beneath their bed (and if ever there was a fire, that would be the first thing they would grab).
I never knew that so many of us had these boxes stacked full with the cursive of people who have touched us with their existence and that, on rare but sweet occasions, we take the letters out. We smell the paper. We draw our fingers along the handwriting. Occasionally we miss a person. Sometimes we think to call. Other times, a somber sense of sadness swoops over us like a cloak because some letters are the only proof we have that a person once filled our skies with laughter.
There’s a reason we talk about letters. There’s a reason we keep letters. Maybe it’s the doodles. Maybe it’s the memories. But I think it all draws back to the bones of presence. How nothing feels so wonderful as knowing someone, somewhere, is thinking of you. How a letter symbolizes that someone, anyone, is paying attention to you in a world that pummels us with thousands of directions to look in.
There is something remarkable about just the thought of that. The thought of someone sitting down for you. Taking out a piece of paper for you. Focusing their mind on the words they write for you. And through sloppy cursive and a cramped hand, they manage to tell you all the things that have ever mattered, in between the lines: “I care. I’m here. I think of you often. You’re more than just words on a screen to me.”
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