An ode to writing letters

It's easy to look forward to a big holiday haul of gifts, but it may not be as easy to get amped about writing thank-you cards. But it turns out that being grateful is good for you.

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who expressed their gratitude tended to sleep better. Writing the note after the gift might be worth more than the gift itself. So, thank-you notes — written by hand — are an excellent exercise both in mental health and in holiday tradition around gifting time.

Writing, on the whole, can also be useful for expressing emotion. Researchers found journaling to be one method of dealing with trauma. In a 2005 study published in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, clinical psychologist Karen A. Baikie of the University of New South Wales and psychiatrist Kay Wilhelm of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, Australia, conducted an analysis of handwriting studies. They begin their study with a profound statement: “Writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events has been found to result in improvements in both physical and psychological health.” Writing about trauma, in particular, could result in less stress. The studies didn’t touch on letter writing, specifically, but those have other demonstrated health benefits.

Apparently, we aren’t getting the message. A 2018 study conducted by the U.S. Postal Service Office of the Inspector General found that, in 2016, there were almost 3 billion pieces of correspondence sent between households, a 61 percent decrease since 2001.

“There’s a beauty to endeavors that take time. Just like people are baking bread at home or gardening and growing their own vegetables, there’s a short cut for these things, but the time that they take and the effort they require, it’s the same thing with writing a letter,” says Emily Benak who owns Pennysmiths Paper stationers in Albuquerque. Benak’s mother, Penny, founded the business in 1979; Benak took control in 1992.

Thank-you notes are also relatively easy to write, says Benak, who offers some handy tips in a store flier.

  • Send your notes on time;
  • Make sure the recipient’s name is correct;
  • Be specific about the gift, especially when it comes to how you’ll use the gift; and
  • Make it clear that the note could only have come from you by adding a little personal flourish.

“It doesn’t have to be daunting. Just a few lines will work,” she says.

One option for a little style is to buy a card made in New Mexico. A handful of local companies make cards with New Mexican flare. Artist Lori Faye Bock paints animals, such as sheep, cats, and dogs, and puts reproductions on her cards. Through Kards by Kathleen, Kathleen Schweitzer sells hand-folded origami paper to make art cards of New Mexican symbols like a lobo, a pawprint, or Zia bear. Pennysmiths also designs its own cards. All of these specialty cards are left blank on the inside, leaving plenty of room for composition.

Normally, Pennysmiths makes half of their overall sales in wedding invitations and accompanying goods. In 2020, Benak has noticed a surge of interest in pens and writing paraphernalia. “As much as we love doing weddings — and that’s creative, social, and beautiful people gathering — this has been wonderful just to focus on pens, stationery, journals, and writing,” she says.

Benak has also noticed a relative influx of younger people shopping for writing gear. Some University of New Mexico professors have asked their students to take notes by hand, which they say prompts better learning. Jennifer Withey of Albuquerque says her 7th-grade daughter now mails art projects to friends. “She’s done calligraphy and origami and makes paintings. She’ll even do little games and make paintings,” she says. Occasionally, they mail each other requests for things like cakes. “They surprise each other.”

“Traditionally, men used a Monarch-sized paper,” Benak says. Meanwhile, women used a social size (a smaller piece of paper, roughly

6 x 8 inches) to compose letters. “A stationery that reflects who you are so that the person receiving it knows before they’ve even read a single word.” Pennysmiths offers Crane & Company paper. Made from cotton, Crane once printed U.S. banknotes but has since split into a currency manufacturer and a separate stationer. Most of their papers are available with preprinted letterheads, or Pennysmiths can customize them for 50 cents per sheet.

For longer personal letters, Benak recommends reading the letters of musicians Johnny Cash and John Lennon. A 1994 letter from Cash to his wife, June Carter Cash, was chosen as the top love letter of all time in a poll conducted by Beagle Street life insurance of the United Kingdom. Featured in the book House of Cash: The Legacies of My Father, Johnny Cash (2011) by John Carter Cash, the letter begins: “We get old and get used to each other. We think alike. We read each other’s minds. We know what the other wants without asking. Sometimes we irritate each other a little bit. Maybe sometimes take each other for granted.” For other letters, try the website, which has aggregated hundreds of letters written by international personalities.

“It’s so nice when we don’t have many places to go, to have something wonderful waiting for you in your mailbox,” Benak says. ◀

Read letters by the (rich, probably) famous:

(1) comment

Barbara Harrelson

Love the article, and the topic, but "New Mexican flare" should be "New Mexican flair."

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