Dead Letterhead: Writing by Hand in the Age of Email

Handiemail will earn comparisons to Spike Jonze's 'Her', but it's dead serious about handwriting your email.

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Mar 26 2014, 4:19pm
A photo of this essay, in pre-digital form, by Claire Evans.

A handwritten letter is an anachronism. Many children no longer learn to write cursive in school; scarcely anyone maintains postal correspondence. People who send long hand-written letters are either old enough to remember it being the norm, or doing so with a measure of intent that can be difficult to separate from affectation. To receive a letter is almost a burden: are you expected to respond in kind? Who on Earth has the time? 

Enter Handiemail, a Chicago-based company that facilitates the sending and receiving of “handwritten email.” Jot 250 words or less into an email, send it to Handiemail, and—for $9.95—their in-house scribes will transcribe it by hand, stamp it, and mail it to your chosen recipient. Handwritten notes will get you places, Handiemail promises. A video on the landing page of their website shows a bespectacled, skinny-bejeaned man whose adoring emails (“Your smile is so beautiful and wonderful”) fall flat. He only manages to land a date when the object of his affection discovers those same words in a stamped envelope. 

Although some people actually use Handiemail for love letters, most don’t. Rather, much of the scribing goes towards large-scale mailings, from businesses hoping to add a personal touch to their enterprise. As Kyle Eertmoed, the company’s founder, explains, the service’s implementations are manifold: “we have non-profits who do fundraising. We have small businesses who are combating traditional advertising and trying to connect with their customers in a more personal way. We have letters to Grandma. We even had a soldier, who was stationed in a hostile part of Afghanistan, write a love note to his fiancé because he couldn’t get to a post office. People are using it in all kinds of ways.”

Writing has always been dependent on technology. In fact, they’re inseparable; without the stylus, quill, or keyboard, writing is impossible. But not all of these various implements are equal. Haptic research strongly suggests that writing by hand plays a vital, even constitutive role in cognitive development in children. This is partially because writing is a process that requires a flawless integration of visual, motor, cognitive, and perceptive parts. Images of brain activity illustrate how the sequential finger movements used to handwrite—as opposed to tapping out existing letters from a keyboard—activate regions of the brain involved in thinking, language, and working memory. Forming letters actually seems to help us retain and understand them.

When you set your hand to write, a lot happens. Blood pumps to your hand through the veins in your arms, coursing straight from your heart. No surprise that we often consider a hand-written letter to come “from the heart.” More accurately, however, it’s from the whole being, the product of energy coiled up and dispensed from our most powerful organs, a marvelous orchestra of synapse and sinew. 

Most of us born into, and living in, the Age of the Personal Computer are proficient typists. We can skitter out text at a brisk enough clip that instant-messaging and SMS have proven to be more than sufficient replacements for telephone conversation (no complaints there). But to type is a bit of black magic; the more nimble our text-correction software, the more words spring unbidden from the keyboard. It’s like seeing “handwriting appear on a legal pad like rainspots on a sidewalk," as the poet David Berman writes.

The dystopian projection, of course, is that the physical labor of letter-writing might become conflated with the emotional work of writingand that lazy consumer, content to merge medium and message, would eventually outsource the whole affair.

Writing by hand is laborious. Although the time and effort spent with pen in hand translates to meaning for its recipient—this is, after all, the assumption underlying the value of Handiemail’s service—it’s a prohibitively inefficient process for 21st century life and business, which run laps around the postal service. 

Still, for certain purposes, I find it not only useful, but necessary to hand-write. Every essay I have ever written, this one included, began its life in an unlined black Moleskine notebook. Computers, in my estimation, are for revision, not the raw white void of composition. Of course, that’s my method—as rickety, strung together, and subjective as any creative process, and by no means even remotely universal—but allow me to advocate for it. The delays and lags inherent in hand-writing allow me to think differently than I would when standing down a blinking cursor. It takes just long enough to write something down that I might find, in the process of doing so, that I’ve changed my mind. For me, this window for mind-changing is a built-in engine for compositional spontaneity. 

There’s something to be said about attention, too. Handwriting occurs in a limited focal space: we stare, as we work, at the inky endpoint of the pen, an extremely discrete point in space and time. Typewriting, however, is calved in two, between the motor space—e.g., the keyboard, where the hand plucks out readymade letters—and the visual space—e.g. the screen, where we see them appear. Attention, in typewriting, must always vacillate between these two spatiotemporal realities. During the rare moments I am in the compositional “zone,” scribbling without pause in my notebook, the singular point of focus takes on meditative proportions.

It’s also quieter inside a notebook—less of a wrestling match with the needs of the machine, or the distractions of the web-connected laptop. Writing inside the environment of the page, the worst diversion you can take is a quick plunge, as if into an ice bath, into the banalities of a grocery list, or into the more Proustian self-indulgence of an old journal entry. Sometimes this kind of scenic route into personal history even reaps its own rewards: a turn of phrase here, the potency of a memory to serve as fuel. 

In Spike Jonze’s Her, Joaquin Phoenix’s character Theodore Twombly pays the bills working as a letter-writer at a company that seems only a few clicks removed from Handiemail. The dystopian projection, of course, is that the physical labor of letter-writing might become conflated with the emotional work of writingand that lazy consumer, content to merge medium and message, would eventually outsource the whole affair. Says Eertmoed, “there are some double standards that come with this business. Yes, we’re still using technology and yes, we’re still writing on someone else’s behalf. Isn’t there something wrong about pretending to be someone else?”

But not all handwriting is purely creative. Professional thank-you notes and solicitations call for pen and paper, too; in the case of such correspondences, the separation between process and the end product is no more egregious than, say, having flowers delivered by messenger. “For most of the people using our service,” Eertmoed says, “the benefit of sending a real handwritten note to someone else outweighs the fact that it’s not written by themselves…we’re connecting people on a real human level, and that’s what’s most important.”

A love letter sent online is no less evocative, or emotionally charged, than one that arrives in the mail. In many cases, immediacy is the very thing which lends it power: knowing that the sender is on the other end of the line, as it were, still potently reachable, fosters a different, perhaps equally deep, connection. A hand-written letter, for all its sentimentality, could even be considered a dead object, words expressed and shucked away like molted skin. Like anything that goes on between people, it’s entirely subjective. And Eertmoed may be right—ultimately, what matters are the words, however they arrive.