The joy of the handwritten letter

Reba Campbell

Posted 1/24/24

By Reba Campbell

When I was growing up, the family mailbox was a magic chamber that delivered cards with good wishes, postcards from interesting places and an occasional gift from a far-off relative. Today’s mailboxes, however, often are more of a torture chamber spewing out political postcards, overdue bills and unwanted solicitations. What used to be a daily treat of checking the mail has now become just another chore in a busy world.

Think about how you react to what you find in your mail cubby at work or in your mailbox at home. What’s the first thing you automatically throw out? But more importantly, what’s the first thing you put aside to read?

Human nature will likely take us to the piece of mail that looks to be the most personal and least threatening…the handwritten, individually stamped envelope. How many of those do you receive a week? Not many, I’d guess.


When I pull a hand-addressed envelope out of the mailbox, I get a thrill…is it an invitation, a note from a friend, a thank-you for a nice gesture? Hand-addressed envelopes say to me that someone has taken time to send me something personal. I always save them to open after I’ve gotten in the house, dumped my work-out bag, and let myself sit down and savor the reading experience.

Handwritten notes delivered to my work mail cubby demand the same reverence. I don’t tear them open in the mail room. I take them back to my desk and delight in the reading experience.

Memories in handwritten letters

When my parents moved from my childhood home, I found a file box of letters that had been in their attic for well over 30 years. When I opened the box, I found dozens of letters neatly stacked in near-perfect chronological order from my late college years through early adulthood. The letters smelled musty and were a bit faded, but what a gift to open that box and get a glimpse of my younger self.

The emotion and connection in the handwritten words floating out of those letters could never be duplicated today by preserving email chains, Facebook posts or text messages, even if someone was so inclined to file them somehow. 

In reading these letters, I marveled at which friends were the most prolific writers. I wondered what questions I had posed that prompted a long epistle back to me. I laughed at the things we knew were critical in our lives at the time. I was awed by the insight my friends offered to life challenges we were facing. I loved watching my husband’s notes change in content and tone as we moved from our early dating days through our engagement.

A year-long challenge

A number of years ago, a friend’s young adult daughter took on a year-long personal challenge to hand-write a letter a day during her first year in the work world. She said she did this when she first moved to Washington DC after college because she was frustrated that she couldn’t keep in touch with her best friends nearly as well as she could when they all lived in the same city.

Over the course of that year, I received several of her “one-a-day” notes, not knowing I was part of her personal challenge process. Later when I found out what she had done, I cherished those notes even more because I knew that she knew how I love to get cards and letters in the mail. Ultimately she ended up writing 472 notes in a year!

This same young woman has traveled a good bit internationally. I love sharing in her experiences through her texts, Instagram photos and Facebook posts in “real time.” However, I really feel connected to her travel experiences through the charming handwritten post cards that have arrived in my mailbox…sometimes days after she has returned from the trip. I keep the postcards and re-read them living vicariously through her travels.

Granted, I don’t practice what I preach as much as I would like to in handwriting notes. I have all the best excuses for not shooting off a handwritten note – can’t find a stamp, I messed up and can’t backspace to fix a word I don’t like, I’m missing the right sized envelope…

And while I can’t say I’m willing to take on my young friend’s “letter a day” challenge, surely I can be more attentive to my aspiration of staying connected through handwritten notes. Writing by hand makes me think in a different way than shooting out words through my fingers on a keyboard. I must be more deliberate. I must allow myself to think through what I want to say and how I want to say it.

As my young friend so wisely told me…handwriting these 472 letters taught her to be “deliberate with your words and intentional with your time.”

Not just good rules for writing letters…but good rules for daily living.

Reba Hull Campbell is president of The Medway Group. She spends her time working with clients on writing, PR/advocacy planning, media training and staff development. She spends her down time on her bikes, playing in a band, travelling, writing and reading. Reach Reba at reba@themedwaygroup.com or catch all of her posts at Random Connect Points.

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