Thoughts into words

Mary Pickford writes a letter, 1918.
Photo by Hartsook, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“How wonderful it is to be able to write someone a letter! To feel like conveying your thoughts to a person, to sit at your desk and pick up a pen, to put your thoughts into words like this is truly marvelous.” ― Haruki Murakami

A short time ago I was answering Patsy’s comment and ended up writing her something more like a long chatty letter. I’ve always loved writing letters, so maybe that’s why I ended up blogging. When I wrote for publication in various journals, there was very little interactivity, even when people would tell me they had seen my articles. Blogging, especially the comments section, is much more like letter-writing because I am writing to people I know (or may come to know), and it’s easy to respond to them on a personal level.

Still, there is nothing like a good old-fashioned letter, and I hope we never completely lose the practice of postal correspondence. When I did a qualitative research project on letter-writing during what I decided would be my final semester in the Communications program, I learned there are many people out there who share my conviction that postal mail is a unique form of connecting that cannot really be duplicated by any of the faster and more efficient ways of staying in touch.

Interviewing people, and reading their questionnaire answers, I came across many aspects of letter-writing that I had never considered before despite my lifelong interest in the topic. And I became fascinated with the mail art culture, and all the websites dedicated to establishing and maintaining postal friendships. I felt enthusiastic about these groups, and wanted to join in. Part of why I decided to quit school is that I realized I’d much rather spend the time actually sending postal mail to people than writing long, dry papers about people who send postal mail– papers that almost nobody will really read anyway, unless they are assigned to do it (academics, sorry if I just insulted you– by “nobody” I really mean “nobody I know”).

Recently I received a lovely handwritten letter from a blogger whom I’ve never met in person, who lives in faraway Wales and has a gorgeous cursive style (if you’ve ever seen my handwriting you know I still print because my cursive penmanship is irregular and unsightly, so I admire attractive script). Her letter was a remarkable gift that is all too rare nowadays. It was full of everyday life, yet the settings and destinations were exotic to me. Her news and descriptions were a wonderful combination of familiar experiences and fanciful travel daydreams.  Reading and re-reading the letter is like a mini-vacation; a refreshing break from daily tasks.

I don’t write cards and letters nearly as much as I would like, but whenever I do, it’s a rewarding process. The pleasant rituals of postal mail– choosing a pen and paper, putting thoughts into words, choosing a pretty stamp and sealing the envelope, then strolling to the mailbox or post office– are a distinct pleasure for me, whether or not I ever get a response. I usually do get one, and it’s icing on the cake, but the writing of letters is a hobby that I would likely indulge even without the special delight of a reply in my mailbox.

Do you enjoy sending letters? How about receiving them? Do you prefer getting an email or phone call, or do you like to use different forms for different types of messages? Have you ever had a pen pal? Feel free to send us all a letter in the comments!



  1. I’ve been keeping track of my letter-writing this year and I have written fifteen so far. Something I have discovered is that airmail paper is no fun… so it’s back to my lovely thick, cream coloured paper and fountain pen and hang the expense when it’s travelling a long way.

    • That’s a pretty good record for less than one year. I would venture a guess that most people don’t write one or two letters of the quality you wrote in the same period of time. I do love that nice paper and pen, too. I wondered where you found it – probably a stationery store? It’s such a lovely complement to the text.

      • The pen was a gift from Jon – we went to a shop specifically so I could test out various pens after I had lost my previous one (about which I was devastated). The paper is French and I have to buy it online. In my experience, the very best stationery comes from France… I wonder why.

        • As one who loves almost everything French, I am not surprised. I’ll have to explore French stationery online. Isn’t it great we can do that now? Whereas once, only world travelers had access to global treasures. I love the idea of trying out various pens and choosing one. I’ve never really done that, but I do have my favorites and I imagine losing one would be quite upsetting. My friend Ellis used to choose her pens with great care, and remembering her journals, I know that her pen choice made a tremendous contribution to the overall aesthetic appeal which was embedded in her writing. Your pen and stationery were perfect for your letter!

  2. Nancy Blevins

    When I was closing out and packing up everything after mom passed away and we move Daddy to the nursing home, we found such lovely letters between the two of them as they were separated at different points in their married and dating life Julia. Mom was pregnant with me at one point when they were corresponding. I think she had remained in Michigan and Daddy had returned to Tennessee to take care of his parents. One of them is so touching that I have decided to have it read at Daddy’s memorial service when he passes away. There was such an obvious love connection between them that we would not have realized so poignantly if they had not kept those precious love letters for over 65 plus years.

    • Nancy, this is such a sweet thing to know about your parents. So often, children have no real clue that the parents live in a world quite separate from theirs. No matter how connected they seem to their children, when it comes to their relationship with each other, there is a shared history that only the two will ever completely know. I remember both your parents as having had that sparkle in their eyes that comes from knowing how to enjoy life and have fun despite the hard work. I will never forget what a kick they got out of my ignorant “city mouse” ways. Your mother thought it was so funny that I didn’t know what freshly churned butter looked like! I hope your Daddy is doing OK. They were married almost exactly the same amount of time that my own parents were, and it must be almost impossible to go on when death separates a bond of that duration.

  3. Sheila

    Greetings from Willow Tree, after weeks and weeks of absence from our “camping world”.🏕 I am the recipient of “Julia postal letters” and what a pleasure each one has been. I’d never known about mail art before you introduced me to it, personally. Your love of stamps was contagious to the stage I asked the “Vann clan” 👫👫👫if we could go to the Anchorage, Alaska post office. Of course! 🚘 I was hoping for specialty state stamps but they no longer do that due to expense. They offered me seashell stamps… South Carolina? I think that I can buy those at home. I love to pick out cards and have so much fun reading them! If you ever receive a card from me just know that it was probably the 20th one I’d read, and reread, to make sure that it conveyed my feelings! I’m not nearly as clever as you, but this may become my new pastime.📬 Thank you for every correspondence I’ve ever received from you! 💌 It’s a gift, my friend! 💛 Until tomorrow 😴

    • Aw, thanks Sheila. My little missives are so amateur compared to what some of the more accomplished mail artists have done. That being said, it’s a great way to express creativity, because someone else ends up being the beneficiary of it in at least a small way. I like to think that the postal workers who handle these pretty envelopes and packages enjoy them too – a cheery break from what must be a monotonous job on some days. I love remembering how my postal carrier would always comment on Kelly’s packages when she bought them to the door.

      Yes, card-shopping can be so much fun. Matt loves to look at greeting cards in stores. I first started making my own cards because I had such a hard time finding ones that said what I wanted to say, especially for Jeff and very close loved ones. I almost always made the cards I gave Jeff. He was amazing how he could find cards that said just the right thing, and I always imagined that he, like you, must have read through dozens to get to the perfect choice. Over the years he gave me many more cards than I gave him, and finding his little surprise gifts and messages — which he left for me regularly for any occasion or no occasion — is something I miss terribly. But I do have years and years of them to savor now. I highly recommend postal mail as a delightful hobby! It’s not too hard to find interesting stamps, but you definitely can’t count on getting them at the post office anymore. I usually order the new ones online (the new Wyeth stamps are fabulous!) and now that they are “forever” stamps, they never lose their value. OK enough yakking. It’s nice to hear from Willow Tree again! It sounds crazy but I even miss Willow Tree when you can’t go! 🙂 After all these years I have a picture of it in my mind. In the early ones Salty is there, and now Jack. Thanks for giving me the closest thing I’ve had to a regular campground! ❤

  4. Yes. In fact today I mailed 5 birthday cards and one encouragement card.

    • Good, Merry! I know that each of the people you remembered in this way will appreciate it. Postal mail is becoming such a rarity that those of us who continue to practice and enjoy it are truly exceptional. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. 🙂

  5. Harry Sims

    Like the gaunt prospector mentioned in our Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, I continue to mine the wisdom of the ages, the wisdom of the big book, the wisdom of all other books, seemingly a limitless lode such as that found on the World Wide Web; and giving it away certainly enhances greatly my prospects for keeping any of it.

    When I was in training they gave us the general instruction concerning procedures of various kinds, “Watch One, Do One, Teach One”.

    Here is a sample:

    St. Robert Bellarmine, SJ

    He wrote: What various powers lie hidden in plants! What strange powers are found in stones, especially magnetic stones and amber. What strength do we see in animals, such as lions, bears, bulls and elephants. How clever, although tiny, are ants, spiders, bees and flies.
    How great is human genius, which has invented skills such that we wonder whether nature surpasses art or art surpasses nature!
    Now lift up your eyes to God, my soul, and reflect on how great is the strength, efficacy, and power of the Lord your God.
    “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
    Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this?” —Job 12: 7– 9
    Do what Bellarmine suggests: look at the natural world and “reflect on how great is the strength, efficacy, and power of the Lord your God.”

    Manney, Jim. An Ignatian Book of Days

    I’m still working on my PHD, (that’s praising him daily).

    • WOW, Harry! There are all sorts of blog-worthy quotes in this comment. I really like this one: “giving it away certainly enhances greatly my prospects for keeping any of it.” One of the most paradoxically true concepts ever! In fact, one of my very earliest blogs ever, nearly 5 years ago, was inspired by a quote that said something similar. Yes, the natural world speaks loudly and clearly to all who will listen. How many times have the songs of birds or the antics of squirrels snapped me out of melancholy ruminations? More often than I could count. I don’t think human art will ever surpass nature, but the best of it is inspired, directly or indirectly, from the adornments and seasons of the natural world. Hey, the PHD you are working on is a goal I can believe in! Maybe I was just in the wrong program. 🙂

  6. LB

    I love sending cards, and your post has made me think I need to put more effort into those cards. I love your description of the letter from Wales

    • Thank you, LB – I got your lovely note in my held mail yesterday, and it meant so much. ❤ The letter from Wales was too magically wonderful to capture in a description, but hopefully I came close.

  7. Mike

    I remember the pict of T.R Roosevelt in uniform during Span-American war at his writing desk in the army tent. A prolific letter writer indeed. I still have some wonderful letters from my Aunts in Portland who wrote to me while we were in Africa in the Peace Corps back in the 70’s. Kind of a lost art and much different from a saved e-mail in tech space.

    • Hey, I don’t think I ever heard about your being in Africa with the Peace Corps! You’ll have to tell us all about it. Maybe you could do a guest post. Do you have any photos from that time? And yes, saved letters are way, way different from saved emails. For one thing, emails might eventually become inaccessible. I diligently saved all my Unix-based emails from my grad school years in Hawaii (on 3.5 diskettes) and even kept a computer that takes 3.5 diskettes– only to find now that I cannot find any programs that can decipher them. I saved them in .txt format which was thought at the time to be universal, but not so! I’m going to have to check with my local techno-geeks to see if they can translate for me. Meanwhile, I have letters written three decades before that, which are still readable and great treasures to me.

  8. I’m pretty sure you know the full extent of my letter-writing, Julia. I really enjoyed our lively conversation on the subject for your research. It will be nice to have the time to write the kind of letters you enjoy. It is an enjoyable process, choosing the medium, the stamp and popping the letter into the mail.

    • Alys, of all the interviews I did, yours was the longest– no surprise there, hee-hee 🙂 but I loved every minute and every word of it. I can’t wait to find the time to explore the Post Crossing site. I honestly think global cards and letters might produce as much lasting, real-world friendship and chances for peace as hours of congressional meetings. Maybe more, based on recent history. 🙂

      • I’m a talker and you’re a talker and we both love writing letters, watching movies and all that other good stuff we talked about. No wonder it turned into a gabfest. That was the first time we’ve ever talked on the phone!

        I agree with your assessment. One connection at a time…

        • Yes, Alys, I’m not much of a phone person, as many people who know me could tell you. The reason is that when I do get on the phone, it tends to go on and on! (Wonder why? hee-hee). Having said that, I’m glad the interview gave us an excuse to indulge. It was great fun!

          • Thank you, Julia. It’s why I avoid phone calls as well. It’s hard to end calls, especially when it is someone you don’t see often.

            • ❤ 🙂

  9. Julia, I like receiving them more than sending them. Because I know the effort in doing so. And therein is their value.

    • Alan, I think most of us would have to agree with you. But, knowing that most people like to get letters is part of the fun in sending them! 🙂

      • As G.K. Chesterton said: “I most love writing mystery stories, except for reading them.

        • Wow, I didn’t realize he wrote mysteries! He must have been a fascinating man.

          • He was the complete thinker. And known as The Apostle of Common Sense.
            He was the creator and writer of the Father Brown mystery series. Not the present day version as seen on BBC.

            • I’m not familiar with either series, but I’ll bet Chesterton’s is better. 🙂


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