You might wonder what would be the point of writing a letter during this period of forced separation and constrained activity.
After all, we’ve got the technology which enables us to see and talk to each other, even though we are miles apart. When you can actually get a large group of friends or a whole family together on a screen, as well as having intimate one-to-ones, why bother with anything else?
You’d like to get a letter, though, wouldn’t you? Words written for you and you alone, which you can read and re-read in whatever circumstances you choose, words written by someone in your life who knows you and trusts you, who knows what you’re like and what will interest you.
A letter is personal and focused in a way that other modes of communication cannot match, fun and effective though they may be.
A personal letter can move beyond swapping Netflix recommendations and playlists and baking recipes. It’s a gift which lifts your heart. How lovely it would be to give that pleasure to someone you care for.
Here are some ideas, in no particular order, which might help you to get going.
A letter isn’t a diary or journal
When you write a diary or journal entry, you aren’t doing it for an audience. (If you are, it has become something else.) You can pour your feelings out on to the page in whatever way you choose, without thinking about what you are saying or how you are saying it.
A letter, on the other hand, engages with the person to whom you are writing. You have a specific audience. It’s a communication between you and the other person only.
Think about the person you are writing to:
- It might be your grandparent, parent, daughter, son, niece, nephew, grandchild, cousin, aunt, uncle, old friend, newer friend, someone you miss seeing, someone you hardly ever meet in person…
- Bring your correspondent to mind. Imagine a typical situation, something which you associate with them. This will help to focus you on the individual, and could give you a starting point:
- ‘I can picture you in your garden’
- ‘I’m imagining you sitting in that armchair, with your knitting/the newspaper/the cat on your lap’
- ‘I can just see you absorbed in that video game/playing the piano/riding your bike/
Describe what your life is like at the moment
Start by thinking what you would like to tell this particular person, and what they would be interested to hear. In your head, go over an outline of a typical day, and decide what aspects would resonate with your correspondent. It would be good to include something that you enjoy.
- ‘You’ll be surprised/pleased/alarmed to hear that I’m doing a lot of cooking/DIY/cycling
- ‘I’m spending much more time doing…’
- ‘I’m spending much less time…’
- ‘At the moment, my daily routine consists of…’
Make personal references
- Link what you say about your life to what you know about the other person. That’s a nice way of celebrating your relationship and bringing you together.
- ‘I know you think that..’
- ‘You must be finding it very difficult to..’
- ‘You’ve had a similar experience when..’
Ask some questions.
Ask questions which illustrate your interest in the person you are writing to. Make your questions open and gentle, rather than blunt requests for information, or you might sound like one of those questionnaires asking about lockdown habits.
You don’t want to put any pressure on your recipient. Suggest that you would welcome a response rather than make the person feel obliged to answer.
- ‘What books have you read/watched?’
- ‘I wonder if you have read/watched anything/done anything/that you have enjoyed/found interesting?
- ‘Are you feeling all right?’
- ‘How are things..?’
Instead of :
- ‘Are you still..?’
- ‘I wonder if you’re doing any…’
- ‘These days might be an opportunity for you to…?’
- ‘I should think home-schooling/travelling to work/not going to the gym/not being able to see so-and-so is pretty challenging/difficult/frustrating?’
Share your anxieties or down moments
You may not want to unload on your correspondent, but it would probably be a bit odd not to refer to the dark moments. It’s a balance between being authentic and being appropriate.
Tailor your tone and subject matter to suit the other person. If you choose, you could refer to having moments of anxiety, or sadness, or anger, and add something (funny if appropriate) about how you get out of them, may reassure and create a bond between you.
Say what you’re looking forward to
You could describe something big, or small, it doesn’t matter. A really individual observation would be nice, an activity which reflects your personality and character and chimes with your recipient’s knowledge of you. Even nicer, if appropriate, would be something you might do together.
Give some news
Even though it seems that nothing is happening, there is plenty going on in our personal and family lives. A few lines of chit-chat about the people you have in common will bring you together.
Anything will do — what your dad’s lockdown home haircut looks like, how so-and-so is coping with pregnancy, a row that erupted during a Zoom gathering, developments in long-standing feuds… life does go on.
Refer to a shared memory
You could do this incidentally, following a remark with something like:
- ‘It reminded me of when we/what you said/that time when…’
Celebrate the person
You might want to take this opportunity to look back and celebrate this person’s part in your life.
It could be something which always makes you smile when you think of it, or a particularly memorable conversation, or a fond recollection, or something they said or did which influenced you, or horrified you, or filled you with admiration, or stopped you from doing something stupid, or caused you to see things in a different way, or really annoyed you…
It might seem rather artificial to go into ‘what I’ve learnt from lockdown’ territory, but you could share some of your thoughts about the wider context.
We’re in the middle of history. These months will pass, and at some point in the future the great pandemic of 2020 will something that happened once upon a time, like other cataclysmic events which claimed lives and caused suffering. But here and now, you and yours are part of this phenomenon.
Your letter to another person may seem trivial, but it’s not. Not only does it matter to the recipient, it’s an historical document. If it’s found in years to come, it will give an insight to future generations as to what it was like for ordinary people to live through this.
Someone may read it, and think, ‘I wonder what happened to this person? I hope they did see their grandchild/go to the pub again/have a nice holiday…
And so we all hope.