Studies have shown that people dig deeper into their psyches when they use the handwritten word, as opposed to using email for communication. Writing stimulates and engages the brain to a greater extent, and some experts suggest that the most authentic writing is done with pen or pencil. Writing a handwritten note can also encourage you to slow down and take some deep, relaxing breaths.
Neuroscience has proven that when you write something down, it requires deep thought, building more than 10,000 new neural pathways in your brain in one sitting; whereas writing on a computer appears to build only 600 new pathways. Longhand can strengthen cognitive skills.
The practice of letter writing goes back thousands of years and served as a primary way forpeople to communicate with one another at least until the invention of the telegraph in the 19th century. At the home of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia, visitors learn about his passion for letter writing; he used a device called a polygraph (patented by John Isaac Hawkins) to make copies of all his written letters, calling it “the finest invention of the present age.”
Fundamentally, though, a letter is a great outlet for expressing your feelings. For the most part, the ultimate purpose of writing a letter is to inform, instruct, entertain, amuse, explore psychological problems, keep in touch, or offer love.
Before the telephone was invented, people wrote letters to one another as a way to keep in touch. The widespread use of email brought back certain aspects of this age-old art and practice. But many people still use letter writing to release pent-up emotions—for example, when they write letters of complaint to companies about certain products or services, or when they pen letters to the editor of a publication about a pressing current event.
Typically, when confronting someone on an issue, it’s easier (and healthier) to blow up on the page rather than directly toward the person. Letters can also help you gather your thoughts before engaging in a discussion.
John Evans, in his article “Transactional Writing: Letters That Heal,” noted that letter writing can be therapeutic for both the sender and the recipient. He suggested that transactional writing is a way “to complete an exchange of thoughts, beliefs, and feelings of someone else.”
The idea behind this type of writing is simply to convey a message to someone. Evans identified several kinds of transactional letters — the compassionate letter, the empathetic letter, the letter of gratitude, the granting-forgiveness letter, and the asking-for-forgiveness letter.
Many great writers are also prolific letter writers, including Pam Houston, Fenton Johnson, and Shawn Wong. The latter views letter writing as practice for his craft:
“When I was 18, I started thinking about becoming a writer, but as an undergraduate student and later as a graduate student in creative writing, I didn’t really have a career as a writer, so I wrote letters, sometimes as many as five or six letters a day. In looking back at the thousands of pages of letters, I realize those letters were how I practiced my writing.”
John McPhee once said that every book he wrote began with the words “Dear Mother.” His letters didn’t typically end up in his published books, but they did serve a purpose: They helped him start writing.
Novelist and diarist Anaïs Nin began her first journal entry as a letter to her estranged father as a way to remain connected with him — although she never sent it. In fact, it isn’t always necessary to send letters. Sometimes the mere act of writing one is all that’s needed to clear the mind and calm the psyche.
Some writers use the letter form to get into the swing of a story and develop their voice. Many, such as myself, write letters in their journals, particularly if they’re having difficulty developing a character in a story.
The best way to start a letter is to detail what prompted you to write it, or why you were thinking of the recipient at that particular moment. The letters we most enjoy receiving are those that reflect the writer’s personality. When we read a well-written letter, we feel as if the sender is sitting right beside us.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of letter writing is the opportunity to communicate precisely what’s on your mind. What more could a writer ask for than a specific, hand-picked, captivated reader?
So, if you could write anything you wanted, to anyone in the world, what would you say, and who would you say it to?
Evans, J. F. (2014). “Transactional Writing: Letters That Heal.” Psychology Today. March 24, 2014.
Science Daily (2011). The University of Stavanger. “Better learning through handwriting.” ScienceDaily. 24 January.
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