From ages ten to fifteen, I spent my summers at a sleep-away camp. Like many camps in the United States, mine prohibited the use of technology amongst its campers. Since my parents refused to cave to my incessant begging for a phone until I entered the eighth grade, the tech detox didn’t bother me. I left my iPod Shuffle behind as my mom dropped me off in front of a quaint green cabin with the ten other boys I would be passing the two weeks with. The camp only allowed one form of technology: the handwritten letter.
To the casual observer, the handwritten letter is a relic. We all dread writing those drawn-out thank-you notes to a far-away relative for the Hallmark card they sent us for graduation, or receiving a college denial in the form of an officially structured message. Even worse, for occasional letter writers, there’s considerable confusion about where the stamp and address should go. And why even send a letter? We have phones equipped with calling, texting, and email features, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Facebook, and countless other ways to reach people. All of these appear to replace the function of letter writing: communicating our lives to our friends. Further, people’s disdain for the letter is making the former number-one letter deliverer, the U.S. Postal Service, financially unviable. As with many dying pastimes, there remain those who try and cling to the past. I am among this crowd.
Everyone should write three letters a year. It sounds ridiculous. Why write a letter when you can communicate those thoughts in the span of a few minutes via text? However, letter writing forces the author into a different frame of mind. One must think before putting pen to paper, as the process of handwriting can be exhausting. Each sentence is vital, as you don’t have the luxury of clarifying your message as you can with texts. A letter requires a significant chunk of time to plan, write, mail, and then wait for a response. To be on the receiving end of this intricacy is a charming idea, especially at a time when humans insist on streamlining communication to an instantaneous process.
The satisfaction of a letter arriving at your doorstep adds an entirely new dimension to the experience. I recall waiting until three o’clock each day when the mailboat came to my camp. The counselors called out names and we tore at the packages, scanning line after line to see if the Red Sox won, or how our state fared at the Little League World Series. Now, I wait for an email from Wesleyan to see if my friend at school at St. Andrews Scotland has sent me anything. When his letter arrives after two weeks of transatlantic travel, I craft a response as quickly as possible, eagerly awaiting our next correspondence. Some of my friends have criticized this practice, saying things will have changed too much over the course of the month between when his letter was sent and when my response will be received. I couldn’t possibly tell him as much in one letter as I could through constant social media interaction. To this, I say why tell people everything when you can boil down the most important parts into text?
People and data collectors (see Cambridge Analytica), know way too much of our personal information already. Letters function as on the few remaining sources of privacy. This privacy fosters a sense of intimate connection that a post of you partying with your friends doesn’t offer. Sure, it might be nice for your friends back home to see that you are having fun at college. However, they can glean this same information from a carefully worded letter describing that same night out.
Putting our thoughts down on paper forces honesty, and with it, a permanent inscription of the past. My mom kept every one of my letters from my time as a camper. Now, I can go back and see how my worldview has shifted from ages ten to sixteen. Yes, Instagram maintains a photo history, and you could hypothetically save texts from your old Blackberry. But social media presence is a representation of how we want the world to see us. Letter writing pulls away at the artificial image we create.
Unlike the kids I’ll be in charge of as a counselor, when I head back to camp this year, I will have access to technology. However, this won’t keep me from letter writing as my favored form of communication. If you feel inspired to follow suit, Wesleyan allows students to send intercampus mail without a stamp. So if you’re looking to strengthen an existing friendship, revive a classic romantic tool (see “The Notebook”), or give your parents an indication you’re alive, a ballpoint pen and stamp might be for you.
Jack Leger is a member of the Class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org