Jacquelyn Martin / AP
Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020 | 9 a.m.
Considering the sheer number of homebound, analog hobbies, from knitting to baking, this endless pandemic summer has inspired, it’s odd that few seem to be writing letters. While it isn’t necessarily a craft one can monetize on Etsy, it does involve a number of elements common to other forms of crafting—the revival of a dying art (cursive penmanship), some specialty items (envelopes, stationery, a decent pen) and the invaluable help of an old-fashioned retail operation, one that’s in perpetual danger of shutting down. Namely: the United States Postal Service.
Do's and Don'ts of writing letters to loved ones
■ Do use the best paper and writing instruments you can get your hands on. It’s not just for aesthetics; long letters can prove fatiguing to your writing hand, and it’s better to have pens that glide comfortably and paper that takes the ink well.
■ Don’t worry about the formalities. You don’t have to begin your letters with “Dear ----”; you can start with “hi” or “yo” or whatever you like. And you don’t have to end with “Sincerely” or “Best.” You’re not applying for a loan.
■ Do sit down and write letters, for as long as the option is available to you. This is one of those traditions that’s all too easy to let go of, but very hard to get back.
The danger to the USPS is very real these days, and closer than you think. As of this writing, postmaster general Louis DeJoy, likely at the direction of President Donald Trump, is engaged in severe cost-cutting measures that could render the USPS incapable of handling the flood of mail-in and absentee ballots coming its way this November—and make the agency a target ripe for private takeover. A Postal Service run by Amazon or Walmart is not a flight of dystopian fancy; it could be our $5-per-letter reality this time next year.
There are a number of good reasons to save the Postal Service, from its service to the community—millions depend on it for the timely delivery of paychecks, bills and prescription drugs—to its embrace of our veterans; the USPS employs nearly 100,000 veterans, and has issued more than 140 stamps honoring our nation’s military. But the one thing that’s not coming up in opinion pieces and in Washington’s halls of power is the magic trick the USPS pulls off every day: For a mere 35 to 55 cents apiece, you can send a message of friendship, love or sympathy clear across the country—one that can not only be read but held, savored and maybe even pinned to the refrigerator or bathroom mirror. (If you think a text or email has the same weight, try texting “Happy Anniversary” to your spouse, or firing off a “Happy Birthday” email to your mother.)
Personal mail is more than communication. It’s a gift for the receiver, and it can be an artful form of expression for the sender. And unlike other Etsy-inspired enthusiasms, the cost of entry is low. (But maybe hold off until November 4 to begin sending those letters in earnest. Let’s keep those mail routes clear for ballots.)
THE PRICE OF GOING POSTAL
Go to store.usps.com/store right now and run amok. A 20-stamp sheet of postcard stamps costs only $7; a 100-stamp coil just $35. If you want to send larger letters, there are some terrific Forever 55-cent stamp designs currently available—including Hip-Hop, Hot Wheels and Voices of the Harlem Renaissance—at $11 per sheet of 20. The Postal Service even carries a limited selection of postcards; presently, it’s got a great-looking set of oversized (5-inch-by-7-inch) Ellsworth Kelly cards, 10 for $27. Want to lift up a friend? Kelly’s ineffable, minimalist nature art will really stand out in a mailbox full of Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons.
LETTERS FROM OUR ANCESTORS
The practice of letter writing has existed for millennia, beginning in ancient Egypt, ancient India and Sumer. The first known postal service was created in ancient Persia, though historians are fuzzy on the purpose of that network (it might have been used primarily for intelligence gathering). From there, the mail route twists through Rome (the cursus publicus), China, Japan and the Mongol Empire. But for the sake of this discussion, what’s important is that Benjamin Franklin was made America’s first postmaster general in 1775, and our modern mail service was created by the Postal Service Act of February 1792. And while our Constitution gives Congress the power “to establish Post Offices,” there’s nothing in there that says they have to establish them, or that Jeff Bezos can’t run them. That power we have to claim for ourselves, by using our Postal Service daily and holding our elected officials to account.
WHY WE WRITE
Letter writing is something different to everyone who does it. Authors write them not only to reach out to family and friends, but to express the energies of their restless minds (see the letters of Emily Dickinson and Kurt Vonnegut), and to reveal aspects of themselves that were hidden by even their most confessional works (see the jeez-get-a-room correspondence of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller). Some non-authors write them because they’re too busy doing other stuff to be authors (see Vincent van Gogh and Albert Einstein). And some wrote letters intended to exist as art for their own sake; if you can, find the correspondences of Lazlo Toth—actually comic Don Novello, better known as early Saturday Night Live regular Father Guido Sarducci—and delight in the pranks he played on everyone from Nixon to the CEO of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
But you don’t need to be anything like them to write a letter. Letter writing is an intimate, self-educational and committed practice, and it has a way of improving more than your handwriting. It encourages intuitive thought, and a commitment to your words that you don’t really feel when you can erase entire sentences by highlighting and hitting “backspace.”
THE SHORT FORM
Hey, why not just send a postcard? This relatively new medium of expression (the first documented postcards appeared in the 1800s) allows for a brief, exclamation-heavy form of expression—Miss you! Wish you were here!—while serving as a cool little visual souvenir of a place or event. And yet, there’s no law that states that postcards can only be sent from vacation spots, or be written only while on vacation. A friend of mine has been sending out hand-drawn postcards all through the pandemic; another uses store-bought postcards as vehicles for one-off, bespoke poems. Point is, they don’t take much time or money to send, and they’re always welcomed.
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.