Today I wrote a handwritten letter

This post is about the experience of writing letters on paper and the experience of writing emails. There is something special about handwritten letters and I wonder if that specialness can translate to emails maybe. Continue reading

Today I wrote a handwritten letter.

I know, big deal.

It reminded me of the middle ages and the romantic letters. But it reminded me also of the times when I needed to write handwritten letters to apply for internships, it was recommended because it was perceived more “authentic”. And I remember the lectures we had about how it was illegal for companies to analyse your handwriting to detect some personality disorder. It was not so long ago, maybe 5 or 7 years ago. Now, who would write a handwritten letter? I still write a lot, but I will never use handwriting to communicate anymore. Actually I’m pretty sure my friends don’t even know my handwriting. But today I needed to write a urgent administrative letter and I don’t have a printer at home, so I couldn’t write a modern digitized letter. Well, not a problem, with a pen and paper it’s easy, or not…

The experience

I forgot how stressful the exercise was . You have to write the words perfectly otherwise as soon as you make a mistake, you have to start all over again. Frustrating. When I write I tend to write the next letter before the one I should actually write, so I end up writing words backwards filling the blanks with the correct letters, it’s very weird. I was afraid this would happen, so I really took my time to think the word and write the word. Everything was going perfectly, I was quite satisfied and even surprised that I hadn’t lost the skill. Apart from some nervous dots that appeared here and there that could blend in my writing style, it was looking good. I didn’t even need a draft or anything, the words came naturally in my head. So I kept writing and writing, full of inspiration and confidence until… my signature hit the bottom of the page. I zoomed out.Oh no. My letter looked like this :

Horrible. Everything was sinking to the bottom !! I was tempted to let it go, but it made me too nervous. Look at all that space at the top and the signature at the bottom almost outside the letter. This was so terrible. SO terrible. On a text editor, all I would have to do is delete some space at the top, and finito. No, here all my words were just plain stuck on the paper. Too bad for me for not opting for technology. Bye bye reimbursement.

I had no choice, I wrote it again. First attempt. Failed. I misspelled a word. Second attempt. Calm down. Breathe. One word at a time. Don’t forget the edge at the bottom. And write straight, not like a drunk romantic poet. Ok, ok. When I arrived at the end of my letter and put my signature down at a decent position, I finally could release my breath and breathe in and out again. I zoomed out. The result was ok. I mean tolerable for a handwritten letter.

In the end this took me a little more than one hour of my life. Not too bad. But repeat this for every application, or emails that you daily send and it becomes an eternity. Can you believe all the time we spent writing letters with our bare hands? Needless to say that in that case technology is a savior. But I guess that is why written letters have still more value to us than an email : we value the effort and attention it took for the person to write it for us. Everything in the handwritten letter is unique and thought carefully before it’s written down on paper, the word is meant, so the whole letter is thoughtful. The experience with an email is completely different. Even if technology is a savior and more flexible than paper, it still doesn’t have the “specialness” dimension handwritten letters have, this needs to be worked on for emails.

The exploration

I remember the letters I wrote to my friends in the past. I loved writing those. There was always a sense of drama in them. I remember I had a friend who was leaving the country and she wrote me a dramatic letter where the words at the end were completely blurred and circled in red, it sounded like this :

I’ll always remember this letter. I was 8. I was so dramatic about it at the time. You can’t really do that in an email, can you? Old letters are always nice to read for these bits of weirdities even if that one was probably an intended effect of my friend. Reading old emails is not the same experience. The digital form will always be controllable and therefore intended. Emails are reduced to the information they contain, they don’t have any indication of the period in which they were written. Yet, I think we like reading old letters to remember a period of our lives, a state of mind, a precise moment in time.

For example, I wanted to read my old emails from when I was 12 to see what we would be talking about at this age. So last year I remembered I still had my very first email account on Yahoo that I used to email my friends when I was 12.  So I went to Yahoo to check my emails that I hadn’t checked since I joined hotmail and then gmail….so since a long time, maybe 5 years. I was so excited to see what our little heads were thinking about. But when I logged in, this is what Yahoo told me :

All email messages, folders, attachments and preferences have been deleted and cannot be recovered.

After reading this I was almost depressed. All those probably cute emails vanished from my life. I will never know what I was writing when I was 12. I blame Yahoo. This is a lesson for the future to never put my information in a service that can tell me :

We removed all your memories. Nothing can be recovered.

Well, since then I never felt like reading old emails again. What’s the point? There is nothing really special about emails, as they exist now. There is no specialness. No uniqueness. Yes, emails just convey the core information. As of now, emails are really boring. Yet, they’re part of people’s lives. I was really upset to lose my emails, it was a part of my life. What about something like this:


Hmmm. Still basic. Uniqueness in timestamp, GPS, status. Yes but that is not enough. Emails and correspondance tools are part of those communication tools that are close to people so there should be something special about their design, so we want to remember them. I know Google has this service Gmail paper, to print your emails on paper, but it’s not because it’s on paper that it’s special, we shouldn’t have a pile of paper when the future is clearly about going full digital. Compared to technology that is highly flexible, the paper is really limited. But what’s interesting about the paper is the experience of authenticity and memories. A paper letter is clearly from another time, and reminds you a special moment of your life because of all the meta information the paper holds. For example, from its color, its quality, you can tell if the letter is old. Visually you know what type of content the letter contains, if there are many drawings, images, if it’s very formatted or not, you know it’s either from a friend, a close person or if it’s administrative or business related. All of this specialness should be enriched in emails, so that if you want to make your correspondance special, you can.

The future email could for example encapsulate a moment in time: your status at the time, the news you selected at the time, the link that you discovered, the music you were listening to, the image you liked etc. everything specific to the moment when you were writing the email. But this should be the meta data part of the email format, you shouldn’t have to edit it. The future email could also be media enriched, you should be able to embed images galleries, videos, etc. All the content in the email should be encapsulated in the email, there should not be broken links or broken videos, all the content is part of the email and viewable at any point in time even if the original content was removed from the web.

Reading an email could be like reading a single moment in time. I think the main reason we like reading old letters is because we like revisiting the past and time is responsible for the sense of specialness because we see its effect on the letters. Now, it’s possible that time also has an effect on technology and maybe when our communication upgrades to a new form (as Facebook is already working on it) we will read the old format of emails as we read now the old format of handwritten letters. But if we are looking for a way of revisiting the past, technology is the best fit for that : it has memory, every moment is recordable, we just need to find the correct format that will render the sense of specialness. Ok it’s just the start, I’m gonna think more about this.

Anyway, I know I could have written my letter on my computer and print it at work, but I didn’t mind writing. I’m just glad this medium is still accepted. Imagine the time when your letter is rejected because it is handwritten.

Questions : What makes a correspondance special? Why do we like reading old correspondance? Do you read old emails?