While many people might think they’re too busy to write letters, I view this act as a form of meditation, a time to slow down amid the chaos of a season laden with shopping, errands, cooking, and other activities.
My letter-writing practice began before the age of ten, when my mother sent me to sleepaway camp with boxes of stationery and told me to be sure to write home. That was her way of helping me cope with homesickness.
The practice of letter writing goes back thousands of years and served as a way for people to communicate with one another, at least until the invention of the telegraph in the 19th century. At the home of Thomas Jefferson in Williamsburg, Virginia, visitors learn about Jefferson’s inherent passion for letter writing. In fact, he used a device called a polygraph (patented by John Isaac Hawkins) to make copies of all his written letters. Jefferson called it “the finest invention of the present age.”
The best way to begin the practice of letter writing is to start with the main reason you’re writing the letter, and then to use the body of the letter to elaborate on that. It’s important to just let the words flow, and not to force your thoughts onto the page. Using a natural spoken voice is a good way to get your message across. Envision yourself seated across the table from the person you’re writing to. Some people like using the circular method of letter writing, where you start and end the letter with precisely the same point. Another fun way to begin is to write to the editor of a newspaper or magazine about a subject that is meaningful or controversial to you, or to write a letter offering your thoughts on a published article. Another satisfying exercise is to write a letter of gratitude to someone who has made a kind gesture to you or who’s positively impacted your life.
Here are six reasons why writing a letter is healthy for the body, mind, and spirit, and an excellent way to celebrate the holiday season:
1) Letter writing is a safe way to release pent-up emotions. The idea is to share thoughts or feelings with someone you cannot meet face-to-face. In fact, sometimes it’s easier to get someone’s attention with a letter. It’s also a great way to gather sentiments and thoughts before actually engaging in a conversation.
2) Writing a letter can heal your body, mind, and spirit, whether you send it or not. Handwritten letters offer emotional benefits that have been identified by psychologists and health-care professionals. They’re also a great way to confront unresolved feelings, fears, and concerns. Also, you can establish a certain bond or connection between you, the sender, and the receiver.
3) Letter writing can kick-start creativity. Some authors use the practice as a way to warm up and get into the writing zone. Memoirists sometimes do this very thing to connect with a deceased loved one they might be writing about. Fiction writer P. D. James said, “No other literary form is more revealing, more spontaneous or more individual than the letter.” Authors such as Pam Houston, Fenton Johnson, and Shawn Wong frequently write letters.
Diarist Anaïs Nin (one of my favorites) began her first journal by writing a letter to her estranged father. Even though she never sent the letter, it served as the beginning of her writing career.
4) Writing in longhand keeps your brain sharp. Using a pen and paper engages both motor and memory skills and is an excellent cognitive exercise, especially for those of us who are baby boomers.
5) Writing letters makes us better writers, in general (practice makes the master!). We tend to write more from the heart than from the head. Written letters also seem to be more personal than those written via email.
6) Writing letters is an art form and inspires creativity. For variety, try to use different types of papers and pens. If you plan on mailing your letter, try sealing it with old-fashioned sealing wax or stickers.
All in all, you may find that writing letters during the holidays is a gift for both you and the recipients.
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