Baylor Student Journalist: Forget Facebook & Emoji Mania; ‘I Believe in Writing Letters’

By Sara LaMachia, Alli Murray & Malia Reynolds

Forget texting, instant messaging, Facebook chatting, emoji mania and other new media methods of interpersonal communication. Baylor University senior Sara Katherine Johnson prefers the simple, old-school art of the handwritten letter.

To that end, in a column for The Baylor Lariat, Johnson implores students to put down their phones and pick up a pen.

As she confirms, “I believe in writing letters. In class I’m usually surrounded by fingers typing hurriedly against plastic. Walking to and from class means that I’m navigating between waves of people concerned about texting in the 15 minutes before more classes start. … Laptops, tablets, smartphones, cars, calculators — what do they reflect back on us? … One way we can slow down and regain intentional time for others is to write letters. I love the roll of a ball-point pen over paper. I appreciate its glide, flexibility of ink and the occasional smear under my eager hand. It is messy and satisfying.”

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In a recent chat with CMM correspondents Sara LaMachia, Alli Murray & Malia Reynolds — part of our esteemed College Media Geeks interview series — Johnson further discusses the characteristics of a letter that make it so satisfying to send and receive.

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Baylor University senior Sara Katherine Johnson

What piqued your interest in handwritten letters?

I’ve been writing letters since I was little. My mom used to sit us down and we would — after we were done with crafting and snacks — [write] letters to our dad and our grandparents and they were sent to Arizona and Houston, which is where I’m from. So it gave us something to do. My grandma has always written us letters — [sending] big packets full of letters, one for each of us kids in a giant manila envelope. So I grew up with the idea that sending letters to someone is a nice way to tell them you’re thinking about them longer than, like, a second.

Do you send letters to people other than your grandmother?

Yes. I save for this. I love my stationery and I have different stationery for different people whom I send letters to. I send letters to friends at different colleges. I write my brother who goes to school in New York, my sister who’s back at home, my mom, my friends. … I write letters all over the place.

Is there a specific way you craft your letters to different recipients?

I guess it does change depending on who I’m talking to. If I’m sending a letter to my brothers or sisters, it’s usually a quick card, that’s like “Hey! I’m thinking of you! I love you.” … If I’m writing to my grandma in Arizona, I really sit down with multiple pieces of paper and try to think about the letter that she last sent me. It’s really a dialogue, back and forth. I respond first to what she said and [then] ask her questions. And then I tell her what’s new with me since the last letter, which is usually a week or two weeks apart. And if I’m writing a letter to a friend in college, I usually put quotes inside or a fun ‘something’ that I picked up somewhere to share with them. I think it’s fun to either get postcards or knick knacks and send something fun in the mail to people. Because it really does just brighten your day — you know, going to the mailbox and finding something that’s not junk.

[In her Lariat column, Johnson writes, “The reason the courtship between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning is romantic is because they exchanged more than 3,000 letters.”] In your piece, you mention the courtship between the Brownings and how their love flourished based in large part on their letter writing. Do you believe letters convey more emotion and are in turn more personal?

I definitely think so, as opposed to email or texting or even talking on the phone to someone. I don’t think people spend a long time on the phone with each other [anymore] unless they’re dating. But, you know, when you’re trying to get to know someone, what better way than to hear their tone and their voice and, you know, something outside of emojis? You really have to think about someone when you send them a letter. And that’s very intentional.

“I love my stationery and I have different stationery for different people whom I send letters to. I send letters to friends at different colleges. I write my brother who goes to school in New York, my sister who’s back at home, my mom, my friends. … I write letters all over the place.”

What’s your memory of the best letter you have ever sent or received?

When I went to Europe for three weeks when I was 17, my mom hid letters in my luggage when I wasn’t looking. I didn’t have a phone plan that allowed for calls overseas, or regular Internet access during the trip. We exchanged one email while I was gone, and that was about it. Having those letters from my mom helped me through the tough days when I felt homesick or frustrated.

Why do you think most people don’t write handwritten letters?

I think it’s time. We’ve got a million things to do. … There’s so many modes of communication that, writing a long-form letter or even a short-form letter, takes [too much] time. You have to go and get a stamp. You have to get an envelope. You have to go to the post office or out to your mailbox. … [Yet] I think that’s the part that makes it special — it takes time and that’s the beautiful part. You have to be thinking about that person to want to carry that all the way through.

Do you have any hope that millennials who are so sucked into the world of technology will ever pick up the letter-writing habit?

I think I read somewhere one time that it takes three weeks to change a habit. If you wrote someone a letter, like every other day for three weeks to different people, or just really put some time into it, I think people would find it’s an easy habit to create. And it’s almost like a good meditation to try to think about what you’ve been doing and your relationship with other people.

I totally think young people are and would be really into it. My friends all write letters with me, and that’s not just because they’re all, you know, English [major-type] people. It’s because it makes people happy. My mom used to always tell us when we were little — and this is the real reason I got into mass mailing — she told us, “In order to get mail, you have to send mail.” I used to hate going out to the mailbox and not seeing anything for me.

Apart from your letter-writing passion, any other thoughts on technology in general or the communication aspects involved with them?

Don’t get me wrong, I love technology. I have a blog. I tweet. … The great thing about technology is that you can be more connected to people at any time and anywhere. … Sending a tweet or a text to someone is nice. Calling them is nicer. Showing them pictures or sending them an email about something that really made your day is a step up from that. And writing letters is even better, like the ultimate “I’m thinking of you.”

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