“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”
—Virginia Woolf

The Hidden Value of a Hand Written Letter

The letters you write, address, stamp, and send around the world carry more than just information. There is hidden value in the hand written letter.

The Hidden Value of a Hand Written Letter

In my basement are letters from my father, Bill, addressed to me when I lived in Japan in the early eighties. My father has been dead for seventeen years, nine months and five days. I have my father’s pipe, his leather jacket, and the letters he wrote me.

In my basement are letters from my grandmother, Grace, written to her friend Edna. The letters are dated from 1927 until June, 1933. She died two years later when my mother was three. All I have from my grandmother are the letters she had written to a friend, a piece of fabric from her wedding dress, and a plate from a her tea set when she was a child.

In my basement are letters my husband wrote me every day for nine months when he was living in California and  I was living in Japan, before I moved to The United States to marry him. My husband, Nick, is asleep upstairs as I write this. I have all of his letters, his dirty laundry to wash, and his love.

I just went in the basement to pull out the files labeled, Father Letters and Grace. And to find the box of letters Nick wrote me.

I can hold the papers they wrote on, and I can read about their lives. The papers I am holding are papers they held. And for a few minutes when I read, I am in their world, listening to what was important to them. Finding out about life, through their eyes. And I can read again about how my husband almost didn’t marry me because I rearranged all of the furniture in his apartment when I came to visit.

There is information about weather and climate from the prairies in Saskatchewan where my grandmother lived. I could find this information if I were to do a search for weather on the internet. But historical data on weather and crop growth would never tell me what was important in my grandmother’s life,  how many cows she had to milk, or how many acres they farmed. (She had five cows and seven hundred and sixty acres.)

The Hidden Value of Writing Personal Letters

Personal letters are sent to inform and build friendships. Personal letters ask questions and fill in details about someone’s life.

hand written letter

Personal letters are a time stamp in history. How people communicated, the methods of transportation, how they lived. If someone had a garden or bought produce in town. I know how many cows my grandmother milked. I know when my father was going to go hunting for deer, and I know how close I came to not being a Hodges.

I treasure the letters from my father, grandmother, and husband.

We can read about their life and see the world through their eyes after they are gone. My father and grandmother are dead. My husband is not dead, just asleep. But his letters still have great value for me. 

Why Hand Written Letters Matter

In a world where you can send a message in a few minutes with email, twitter, snapchat, or the latest popular way to contact a friend in another city, state, or continent, a letter posted though the mail carries a wonderful appeal.

I can read, and re-read the letters.

What a lot we lost when we stopped writing letters.  You can’t reread a phone call.
— Liz Carpenter, once press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson

Slow is the new black. Or was that orange is the new black? So slow is the new quick?

Why am I thinking about writing letters today? Do letters really matter?

Today my friend sent me a message that her daughter had a baby girl. And today a friend told me she just found out she has lung cancer. She has an eight year old daughter.

And what will they have in thirty years? Will they have letters to hold? Will their parents give them a password to their email, so they can read about their life.

Reading about my friends lives today made me see that life is fragile. And the things that matter most are the people in our lives.

hand written letter

There are many kinds of writers, fiction, non-fiction, drama, romance, suspense, poetry, children’s stories. Some writing we get paid for and some writing we don’t. Some writing is written for a large audience and some writing is only written for one person. 

If only one person reads your writing, the writing still has value. A personal letter to a friend or to your child is worth more than money can buy.

Writing a personal letter tells someone you care about them. Of course, a quick email also shows someone you care, but an email is not the same as sending a letter through the mail. 

Why do you think writing letters is important? Do you prefer to get an email or a letter in the mail? Tell us what you think in the comments

PRACTICE

Write a letter. A real letter to a real person. Talk about your life, and ask questions about your friend’s life.  Write about how many cows you have to milk, or how many acres you are farming. Write about going deer hunting or about where you want to propose.

Write a letter, leave a legacy, and let someone know you remember and you care.

Please share in the comments section how you feel when you get a letter in the mail. You don’t have to post the contents of your personal letter here. Because, well, it is personal. But, if you do write a letter, how did you feel writing a letter and posting it in the mail?

xo
Pamela

About Pamela Hodges

Pamela Hodges is a writer and an artist who lives in Pennsylvania with one husband, two children, three cats, two dogs, and seven litter boxes. If you would like to read more of Pamela's writing, check out her blog, where she writes about art, creativity, and reflections on life with cat barf. She would love to meet you at ipaintiwrite.com.

  • I always love getting letters ( or cards with a personal note inside) in the mail. esp when all one can get are bills and junk mail from this business or that. I still have somewhere the letters my husband – ex now- sent me when we were courting. They still show the love we had when we first met .. They are so cherished. I take them out once in a while and remember there was once someone who loved me and gives me hope someone will love me like that again.

    • Debra,
      I have been thinking about your comment all day. I read it in between making supper and doing mom stuff. I didn’t have a chance to write a comment to you until now.
      The letters you save are the truth. You are loved. I am sorry the writer of the letters is now your ex. There is hope. Because you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Never let someone else’s negative opinion affect (or is it effect?) your opinion of yourself.
      You are cherishable. Love the women you meet in the mirror every morning. She is beautiful.
      xo
      Pamela

      • Dear sweet Pamela thank you for replying to my comment, I am beginning to learn about the woman in the mirror .. and am discovering who she is… shes not bad,,,,, btw give Harper a scratch behind the ear and thank that lil sweetie, Every time I see that cute lil face I smile.

        • Hello Debra,
          Harper gives you her love and a big thank you for the scratch behind the ear.
          Learning to love the woman in the mirror may be the greatest gift you will receive this year. A gift I am learning to receive myself.
          xo

          Pamela

  • Sabrina

    That was a beautiful post! It really opened my eyes and is making me see hand written letters differently! I recently was working on a photo book project for my grandmother and was scanning old pictures she had. On the back of a graduation picture of her husband (my grandfather) was an adorable note from him to her. Your post reminded me of that. Thank you so much!

    • Hello Sabrina,
      I love your story about the note on the back of the photograph. What a sweet memory to find and read.
      I hope the photo book project brings much joy to your grandmother. I imagine she has stories that go with each old picture. That is my one regret with my dad’s death, is that I didn’t record his stories.
      All my best,
      xo
      Pamela

  • Suzanne

    I think the difference between hand written letters and an email or phone call is that you have more time to think through what you’re going to say. Your words are more intentional, more carefully crafted, and more likely to express your feelings fully. We tend to be slightly more formal when hand writing messages, in a good way. Like the difference between a thank-you email or text (Thanks so much! I love it!) and a hand written Thank You card (The ___ you gave me will complement my living room perfectly. I truly appreciate your thoughtful gesture.).

    • Suzanne,

      You are so right. I should have talked to you this morning around one or two to get this insight. I knew something was missing.
      We have more time to think when we hand write a letter. Thank you for your insight. I love this sentence you wrote, “Your words are more intentional, more carefully crafted, and more likely to express your feelings fully.”

      Thank you,
      xo
      Pamela

  • Katina Vaselopulos

    Wonderful post, Pamela! I used to write letters for years but turned away from it when phone calls and messages were easier. Lately, I began writing again because I love getting notes on the mail.

    • Hello Katina,
      Thank you for your kind words. You are right, phone calls and messages are easier, but there is noting sweeter than a letter in the mail. Well, maybe ice-cream.
      Hugs to you,
      xo
      Pamela

      • Jean Cade

        You made me laugh as I tried to imagine ice cream in the mail. Such flashes are sweet too.

  • OkieWriter

    My Mom wrote letters every day of her life until the last few months before she passed. I left home in 1976. She wrote me at least one or two times per week every week until she passed in November 2013. Her letters were just little newsy notes about what was going on in her life with family, friends, and her church. Most of the stuff she had already told me on the telephone when I telephoned her every day after I got my first cellular telephone in the early 1990s. (Before that, I talked with her at least once a week.) But that was okay, I still enjoyed reading the letters. Once she met some of my friends on visits, she would write them too!! Quite a lady she was!! Gosh, I do miss those letters now . . . .

    • Hello Dear OkieWriter,
      I am so sorry your mommy died. The death of a parent is so hard.
      I love your name. Your parents were very creative.
      Your mother wrote you a lot of letters. She really loved you.
      Do you still have any of the letters? You do have the memories of the letters and the phone calls. And you will always have the voice of your mother in your head when you want to call her and ask for advice. I don’t think a mother’s voice every goes out of our heads.
      She sounds like a wonderful woman. Kind to you and your friends.
      I wish you all the best this Christmas. Praying for you for peace as you miss her on Friday, and the day after too.
      May you always remember how much she loved you.
      xo
      Pamela

    • Susan W A

      Oh, yes … yes … quite a lady she was!

  • Bangalorekar Ranganath

    Past memories are fine but sentiment cannot serve the need of the day. Holding a live 80+year old paper, fabric or ornament could arouse a momentary sentiment. But it doesn’t reduce their value even when you preserve a photograph of those to view, in your hard disk.

    I don’t write this to deny our respect to the past. I only intend to say that the present deserves an equal respect. We derive the best of our potential by living in the present.

    • Hello Bangalorekar Ranganath,
      You are right about living in the present. The only way to live our life fully is to make the best of each day.
      We can’t rewrite the past, and tomorrow doesn’t exist yet.
      Yes, I could photograph the old letters and have them on a hard drive. The main point is not how the letters are stored, but that they exist at all. If my grandmother had never written the letters, I would have noting to photograph.
      And our present is made up of the past.
      I love to go back and read about real life. Learning from the past. Reading non-fiction.
      What will people know about your life if you don’t write it down?
      Wishing you all my best. Thank you for sharing your insights.
      xo
      Pamela

    • WritingBoy

      Yes. We do spend far too much time (at least in the West) cultivating saccharine and maudlin emotions about the ‘past’ and ‘the good old days’. The best thing about ‘the good old days’…is that they’re gone.

      A handwritten letter is brilliant. It shows someone cares. Just read it, be grateful and throw it away.

      Holding onto to useless crapola, is why so many people can’t get on with their lives because they hold onto stuff that’s of zero use and they’ve often had it for ten, twenty and thirty years. The physical shows the shadow of the emotional.

      Keep-sakes?! Forget it. I don’t keep anything I can’t find a use for.

    • rosie

      The past makes us who we are in the present. Coming to terms with the past is the only way we can truly live in the present moment.

  • Hello LaCresha,
    How sweet of your significant other’s mother to write to you. She did care about you. And how equally thoughtful of you to write back. Your significant other has good taste.
    You are kind.
    xo
    Pamela

  • Noura

    Thank you Pamela for this beautiful post. It tugged at my heartstrings as I remembered all the letters I exchanged with my best friend back in the nineties whenever she went on a summer vacation to her homeland (back then my family hardly travelled, and I was a teenager). As i read your piece I almost remembered all the things she told me in those letters…which are all hiding in one huge box somewhere. I never threw out a letter.

    I actually still write letters but only occasionally.. i soo believe in their cathartic effect on me and anticipate how they will light up the day of their recipients. Funny that both my daughters (ages 10 & 8) write me letters and leave them on my desk before they go to bed. Most are letters of complaints about their dad or brother or a request to speak to a teacher … yet so many of them are simple i-love-you-mama-because letters and cards that are clumsily written … i have a box full of them as these are the true treasures that we carry throughout their childhood till they grow.

    Thank you for your beautiful post. I think i will write more letters.. even to myself !

    Noura

    • Hello Noura,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.
      What a delight to have saved all the letters from your friend and from your children.
      I have a box of notes from my children saved as well. The simple i-love-you-mama cards are worth more than the most expensive greeting card you could ever buy.
      Wishing you a wonderful day filled with hugs and love from your children.
      xo
      Pamela

  • You are very welcome.

  • nianro

    The value of a personal letter is somewhat diminished when one’s handwriting is so illegible that, when the recipient presents me with my letter and furtively asks that I read it, even I am unable to discern what I’ve written.

    I’ve tried a dozen different methods of improvement, but to no effect. I’d love to be able to send handwritten letters to my friends and family and people for whom I deeply care, but it’s more important than they be able to read what I send them.

    • Jean Cade

      Try printing instead of cursive

    • Dear Nianro,
      Oh, that would be so discouraging. To want to write a letter to your friends and family and they have trouble reading what you wrote.
      Would Jean Cade’s idea of printing help?
      I wish you all my best,
      xo
      Pamela

  • Heather Walker

    I have had an ongoing correspondence with a friend in prison and have been writing letters by hand for 30+ years. Only recently has the prison installed kiosks that allow my friend to send me an email via a special website known as JPAY.com.

    I also love getting SNAIL MAIL – those letters that arrive in my box waiting for me to open the door with my mailbox key. Great article on the Art of Letter Writing!

    • Hello Heather,
      Wow, That is a long time to be a faithful letter writing friend. Your consistency shows your kind heart.
      I love SNAIL MAIL too. Perhaps I need to write more myself.
      Wishing you days full of sunshine.
      xo
      Pamela

  • Meredith Robbins

    Just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy reading your posts. I love this one, I took up a up a challenge this year with some co-workers to write two personal notes a day. I love getting mail and forgot how much I love to send it too! When receiving a letter I think about that person and the time they took to think of me as they wrote. It’s such a nice little surprise to get in the mailbox.

    I do believe if I go looking I will find a few we traded while living in Japan!

    • Hello Meredith,
      Thank you for your kind words.
      What a fun idea to write personal notes. Maybe I need to send you my address? I wish I had saved your letters. They would be fun to read now.
      Maybe I still have them. I have so many boxes of papers I haven’t looked through in years.
      xo
      Pamela

  • Seeing, touching the familiar handwriting brings me warmth even before I read the words.

    • Me too Skipper.
      I hope you have a wonderful day full of sunshine and joy.
      xo
      Pamela

  • WritingBoy

    Plus, the fabulous insights into the personality and the psyche via script analysis is very revealing.

    • Yes, good point.
      I hadn’t thought of that.
      xo
      Pamela

  • WritingBoy

    May I offer this link. (I have no fiduciary connections with these people but did buy my sealing wax kit from them).

    http://www.ebay.com.au/itm/130844025042?tfrom=130890014226&tpos=unknow&ttype=price&talgo=origal

    I use some very good quality paper and envelopes, and the wax seal makes it look a treat.

    Shop around and look for other seals if this one doesn’t suit. There are a couple of other eBay sites that have quite an array of the seals and wax colours.

    • What a nice idea WritingBoy.
      Thank you for sharing the link. Maybe it will help someone make their letters more special.
      xo
      Pamela

  • rosie

    Hi Pamela–this was such a beautiful post.
    I send letters every week to my school counsellor, just because she’s become like an aunt to me. I write about pretty much everything that goes on in school: I stress about being a not-stern-enough prefect, (though we call them “monitors”) lament the fact that I had to quit choir and I celebrate that I’m learning Mozart on the piano.
    I don’t actually send the letters by post: I just slip them under her door. And whenever I send letters to anyone (like passing notes in class) they say that’s what I should write. My Afrikaans teacher (she’s in charge of the Creative Writing extra-curricular) said I should write a novel about my own experiences, because it could help people.
    Pamela, I think this post was especially beautiful because it’s so sincere and none of it is made up. But some things seem so personal that the thought of publishing them (like, as a physical book) seems weird.
    I don’t know.
    But I do know that the world needs more sincere stories, like the type of stories we find in letters.

    • Hello Rosie,

      You are very kind to write letters to your school counsellor. She sounds like a person who really cares about you.

      This week I wrote several tips about writing memoir. Did you get a chance to read it. Maybe it can help you write about your experiences.
      You have a story only you can tell. Your Afrikaans teacher has a good suggestion. And it sounds like she really cares about you.
      Here is the link to the article about writing memoir. I hope it helps you. I love sincere stories. And, I would love to read yours.
      http://thewritepractice.com/19-tips-on-writing-memoir-from-the-memoir-project-by-marion-roach-smith/
      xo
      Pamela

  • Nicco Cobb

    I had a friend who needed to know the steps for taking her book and her coaching ministry into an official 501c (3). I told her i would write out the process and mail it to her as info is so easily lost online. She got the instructions and is using them step by step to build her non-profit. So much simpler to unfold a page than to boot up an electronic device! And seeing how much work went into the letter showed her that i cared very much about her, her ministry and her prospects for the future. Once everything is in place she has a keepsake to show her steps

    • Susan W A

      “so much easier to unfold a page than to boot up an electronic device”
      ” seeing how much work went into the letter showed her that I cared very much about her”

      LOVELY

    • Hello Nicco,
      You were so kind to hand-write the instructions for your friend. Wisdom and love all in one place.
      xo
      Pamela

  • Susan W A

    Hello, Pamela. I always enjoy your posts. Loved the image of your loved one’s letters read and re-read and stored along with one or two other meaningful treasures.

    This topic filled me with delight as soon as I saw the title. Handwritten letters are dear to me as I am fortunate to have had in my life dedicated letter writers, including (among others) my uncle, my mother, my sister, and my best friend since fifth grade.

    I will be reflecting on this topic, and if I put something down on paper, I will share it. I already have one short piece about how meaningful it is to get handwritten mail (may have posted it earlier). It’s written by hand, … Actually in a handwritten letter to that best friend of mine. I’ll just need to locate the copy I kept.

    All my best to you and yours.
    swa

    • Hello Susan,
      Thank you for your kind comment about my writing. I appreciate you taking the time to tell me.
      Yes, you are very fortunate to have friends and family who wrote letters. Did you save some of them?
      I don’t remember reading your story about handwritten mail. A best friend since fifth grade. A treasure for sure.
      This Christmas I got a hand written note from a friend since sixth grade. Her taking the time to write meant so much. I think I had better write her back!
      Wishing you a wonderful New Year Susan,
      xo
      Pamela

      • Susan W A

        Thanks for your response, Pamela. Yes, I have kept some of the letters. I used to have many more, but because I hadn’t created a wonderful system like yours to store them, they took on the role of “clutter”. Over the years, I realized that I didn’t need to keep each one in order to honor the time and love and connection that went into each written word and I could release that space. Perhaps I will create a better system to keep a more select selection.

        When my mother passed away in September 2014, one of the displays at our memorial celebration was titled, “The Art of Letter Writing”. It included some original copies and colored copies, such as aerogrammes and postcards written from when we lived in Singapore in the 1970s, her clever Christmas letters from the 1960s, and an original note (stamped signature I think) from President Dwight Eisenhower thanking my mother (age 22) for sending him birthday greetings!

        Below is the piece I was talking about that I had written. My best friend, Andi, with whom I grew up in Singapore, also came to my mom’s memorial celebration, even though she didn’t have money to spare for a plane ticket from Colorado. Upon returning home, SHE wrote ME a thank you letter. As part of my thank you back to her, I included the sentiment:

        THANKFUL
        My dearest friend, Andi~
        EYES catch a glimpse of the handwriting on the envelope plucked out of the mailbox
        HEART sings out, “Open it! Open it! It’s from Andi!”
        HANDS take the edge of the flap and gently, quickly ~rip~rip~rip~, fingertips feel the texture of the paper as it unfolds, loving words flittering directly to their home in my heart.

        This friend not only sends rich, soul-filled handwritten notes regularly, they are often on paper she has crafted by hand.

        Pamela … what a gift you have for creating an inspiring and supportive environment in which to explore ideas and to practice wordsmithing. That’s pretty much the definition of The Write Practice, however your comments seem to carry an extra dose of “Let’s get together and talk more over coffee this afternoon, shall we?” Thank you for that.

  • Adam Byatt

    I was a prolific letter writer when I was a teenager, especially in high school, right on the cusp of the change in technology and the rise of email and the internet.

    I had forgotten the simple joy of writing to a friend, waiting for the reply. I remember in my first year of high school when I used my sister as a courier to send and receive letters to my girl friends (please note the careful spacing) at the sister high school to my boys’ high school. I remember writing long missives, short notes, up til all hours writing. I’ve written on handkerchiefs, wrapping paper, and who knows what else. I once received a letter written on a 2″ wide piece of ribbon. It was quite long.

    Back in 2012, a friend of mine pitched an idea to me: a story written in letters. Three days of texting back and forth to set some parameters and we were off. We adopted a persona each and ended up hand writing 53 letters across 16 months. Each letter was sent via post (we live in different states in Australia), and the wait was almost intolerable as we waited for each missive to arrive. We didn’t discuss the plot but let the narrative flow organically, responding to each letter as if we were the character. It was so much fun deconstructing each letter; motivation, problems, their past. We called it delayed gratification as the instantaneous impact of email or text was not there; we had to wait, and wait, and wait, for the postman to arrive.
    Sitting down to write the letter was an act of each word written, each sentence scrawled on the page, each paragraph focused on the heart of the character.
    By fortuitous chance we ended up writing the final letters sitting at my dining room table, across from each other, and there were tears as we finished the letter, put it in an envelope and passed it across the table.
    Even though it was fictional, we had so much fun doing it we even put it online for our friends to read.