Letter From the Woodland
Here you are, having wandered
over many square miles of this earthy
poem, inscribed in wet moss and juniper,
the summit of a mountain, the nutty pine.
The wilds become legible to you, reading
the ambery lessons of the cedar tree. A life so full,
the pencil bolts across the page to jot it all down.
— Matthew Kosinski
“Letters are written when the mind is as it were in dressing-gown and slippers,” writes J. Willis Westlake, “free, natural, active, perfectly at home, and with all the fountains of fancy, wit, and sentiment in full play.”1 In the view of Westlake, an English literature professor, no other form of writing can nurture such generosity of mind and sincerity of spirit because every other mode brings with it the anxiety of an audience. Whether we’re writing stories or essays, journalistic articles or poems, we’re haunted by “the feeling that a thousand eyes are peering over [our] shoulder and scrutinizing every word.”2 Whether we recognize it or not, we’re on high alert, proceeding with caution, concerned about how we’ll be perceived by the people who read our words.
A letter written by illustrator Edward Gorey, sent to the editor Peter Neumeyer; Source: Brainpickings
A letter on, the other hand, is inherently intimate. Addressed to one person, or at most a handful of people, a letter lets us drop our pretensions about projecting a certain image for an audience. We can be ourselves, more wholly and completely, in this act of intentionally sharing our lives with the people we care about.
How prescient Westlake’s words turned out to be. They come from How to Write Letters, a manual he published all the way back in 1876. If the threat of “a thousand eyes” kept people in the 19th century from connecting with their most authentic selves in writing, what of us, who live in the age of social media and technological surveillance? When Facebook comments, Instagram captions, and tweets are perhaps the most common form of writing today, our posts can potentially reach millions or billions of eyes. As we’ve noted, evidence is mounting that this state of affairs is detrimental to the health of ourselves and our society.
Perhaps that means now is the perfect time to resurrect the art of private, handwritten correspondence.
Example conclusions from J. Willis Westlake’s How to Write Letters; Source: Brainpickings
Every Letter Is a Love Letter
Writing letters — by hand, slowly, deliberately — is good for us on a very basic physical level. Research suggests it leads to lasting, measurable improvements in mood.3 Writing things by hand also engages a broader swath of our brains than typing does, exercising and reinforcing our visual, motor, and cognitive functions.4
But the scientific studies paint only a part of the picture. Perhaps the real value of writing letters was better captured by Virginia Woolf, who called it “the humane art, which owes its origins in the love of friends.”5
Writing a letter is a ritual of sorts, a moment of thoughtful presence. Unlike a dashed-off tweet or text message, a letter takes time and consideration. It opens an intimate channel between the writer and the recipient. As the writer carefully records their missive, the thing first and foremost in their mind is the loving relationship they have with the person who will read it.
“Writing a letter is a ritual of sorts, a moment of thoughtful presence.”
Letter from the artist Sol Lewitt to the artist Eva Hesse; Source: Brainpickings
And letters are, by their nature, more conducive to kinder ways of relating to one another than today's modern platforms, which have been shown to amplify strong emotions such as rage and disgust.6 A letter takes time to write, and all the while we ruminate on what we put down on the page. This built-in time for self-reflection can act as a safeguard against being carried away by those negative impulses. We can, instead, process our feelings, recenter ourselves, and move forward with more level heads. As Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carrol once noted, this makes letters the perfect medium for lovingly settling disputes and disagreements:
“If your friend makes a severe remark, either leave it unnoticed, or make your reply distinctly less severe: and if he makes a friendly remark, tending towards “making up” the little difference that has arisen between you, let your reply be distinctly more friendly. If, in picking a quarrel, each party declined to go more than three-eighths of the way, and if, in making friends, each was ready to go five-eighths of the way — why, there would be more reconciliations than quarrels!”7
Making Meaning, Together
If more people took up letter writing, that would also bring us more opportunities to engage in communal meaning-making in our social circles. And, perhaps, the ripple effect of strengthening our social bonds in these small ways could be part of the solution to mending America’s torn social fabric.
Letters are fundamentally collaborative acts of creation and connectivity, a way of transforming the world in some small way with somebody else. As the playwright Sam Shepherd wrote to his friend Johnny Dark in a 2010 letter, “the great difference in all other forms of writing is that [writing a letter] is dependent to a large extent on the other person. It’s not just a solo act. You’re writing in response to or in relationship to someone else — over time.”8
“[Writing letters] may not have changed the world — but it was a powerful way for people to find the beauty in life, together.”
Roughly 1000 years before Shepherd’s letter, in the imperial court of Heian-era Japan, the exchange of letters formed the basis of social relationships. As the courtier Sei Shonagon recounts in The Pillow Book, her diary from that time period, it was common practice to send short letters to people multiple times a day. People would send each other sprays of flowers, asking one another to write poems inspired by the blossoms. Or they might send part of a poem and ask the recipient to complete it. These small acts of co-creation were woven into the very social fabric of the court. It may not have changed the world — but it was a powerful way for people to find the beauty in life, together.
An edo-era illustration of Sei Shonagon, author of The Pillow Book, completed in 1002 AD. ; Source: Wikipedia
Certainly, carefully worded letters have changed the world. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, a seminal document in the civil rights movement challenging the prevailing wisdom that anti-racist activism should be mild. King urgently put forth the case for taking a more active approach, writing, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”9 While we may write less often than before, has the power of a letter to command attention and change minds diminished or strengthened in today’s age of fast-moving feeds?
Martin Luther King explaining the meaning of love in a hand-written note; Source: CNN
We can’t all write era-defining letters — but we can invite the people in our lives to come together with us. We can use letters as a way to help us uncover and reinforce that network of mutuality that King so incisively spoke of.
The Outward Turn
In connecting us to one another, letters also make us more conscious of the world we share. As novelist Jackie Polzin writes, “A letter is a way of taking notice of the world around you and thinking about the world.”10
Polzin is referring to the level of heightened awareness that comes with being a habitual writer of letters. One is always on the lookout, constantly taking note of things they come across in their daily life to include in their next letter — an overheard conversation, a particularly gorgeous sunset. One naturally tends to spend less time looking inward at the self and screen and more time engaging with the world around them.
Perhaps it is no surprise at all that John Muir, the “Father of the National Parks,” was a prolific letter writer. Muir’s letters are full of wonderful details about the natural world, conveyed with such relish that it feels as if he’s luxuriating in the Sierra Nevada landscape itself as he writes. Muir almost becomes a conduit between the recipients of his letters and the environments he describes — as in this dazzling passage from a letter to his mentor, the botanist Jeanne Carr:11
“Here again are pine trees, and the wind, and living rock and water! I've met two of my ouzels on one of the pebble ripples of the river where I used to be with them. Most of the meadow gardens are disenchanted and dead, yet I found a few mint spikes and asters and brave, sunful goldenrods and a patch of the tiny Mimulus that has two spots on each lip. The fragrance and the color and the form, and the whole spiritual expression of goldenrods are hopeful and strength-giving beyond any other flowers that I know. A single spike is sufficient to heal unbelief and melancholy.”
Yosemite on Unsplash
Muir also put the act of letter writing to more immediately practical ends, like preserving the Yosemite National Park he helped establish. When California Representative Anthony Caminetti drafted a bill to allow farming and mining in Yosemite in 1893 — just a few short years after the park’s creation — Muir and other members of the Sierra Club wrote a letter to Congress arguing passionately against the proposal. Muir and his colleagues highlighted the way this bill would privatize land meant for the public good, writing that it would “destroy the magnificent forests” and “threaten the reservation itself, and the timber of priceless value to the State would become the prey of the speculator.”12
Muir didn’t have the ability to circulate a digital petition or reach a mass audience through social media. But he had the letter, a form well suited to communicating great emotion with total clarity. A letter offered him, as it still offers us today, the luxury of thinking carefully as he crafted his message — a space where he could do the patient work of expressing his earnest beliefs without worrying about performing for a crowd, as a public speech would have demanded.
And it worked: Congress voted down the bill, thanks in part to the strength of Muir’s letter.
Mt. Rainier on Unsplash
Collapsing the Distance
We live in a paradoxical society: We are more connected than ever, yet a loneliness epidemic is rapidly spreading.13 The pandemic certainly hasn’t helped. But the ultimate power of a letter is that it can reestablish and reinvigorate our truest connections with ourselves and one another, no matter where we are, in a way that technology struggles to emulate. It can bridge physical and social gaps; it gives us a place to be our most genuine selves. It even helps us reconnect with our surroundings and become more present in our everyday lives.
To return to the novelist Jackie Polzin again: “A letter can be there when I can’t. Our letters are a closeness we can keep.”14
That closeness of a letter — that beautiful intimacy — is always available to us. All you need is a pen and some paper, and someone to write to.