Imagine writing a letter with a pen, on paper, putting it in an envelope, attaching a stamp, then depositing it in a post box. Perhaps just reading these words makes you feel exhausted, all that effort, all that time, all those stages to go through for an outcome which could be achieved in seconds.
Perhaps you want to howl with frustration at the very idea of such outmoded, backward- looking, technophobic behaviour.
And who would blame you? In the world of texts, emails, Facebook, Skype and so on, what is the point of communicating in such an outmoded form?
When you write an actual letter, you communicate on a different level. The thought that goes into writing even a brief note creates a vibrant and intimate connection between you and the person to whom you are writing.The choices you make about the physical act, the kind of paper you use, the pen, the ink, involve focusing on the other person, and these choices are influenced by the nature of your relationship and your reason for writing. You might dash off a few lines written on a torn-off page in whatever pen or pencil comes to hand. You might select thick creamy paper and write in fountain pen. You might write your message on a card or postcard. When the means of your communication matches and reflects the circumstances your letter has a potent effect.
You select your words more carefully when you are not relying on the ready currency of text-speak or email-ese. In texts or email we tend to choose from a limited pool of words. ‘Soz about your Nan’ may be a heart-felt message, but you would probably express your sympathy differently if you were writing by hand.
Messages are stronger, more durable and often more meaningful when they are presented in someone’s actual handwriting. Handwriting is a very personal expression of the self. When we read someone’s writing we feel their presence. We have a window into their world, an insight which is not available to us when everything we read is on screens in uniform fonts, when every message has the same appearance. Letters can tell us more than the actual words. Writing which is stained with tears or smeared with floury fingerprints or coffee stains or rained-on because the writer hurried out to catch the post, or decorated with little hearts and written in fragrant gel pens (come one, you did, didn’t you?) tells it own story.
You can keep letters in boxes, tie them with ribbon, cry over them, kiss them. Letters may be put under pillows. They may be read and re-read. They may be shared with others. They may be torn up in fury (try getting much gradation of emotion into the act of deleting a text or an email) or carried in a bag or pocket until they are worn and faded.
The romantic and dramatic world of letters is celebrated in books and films and songs. Letters can, as Elvis instructed, be returned to sender. Ketty Lester, in Love Letters kisses the name that her absent lover writes. In Tearstained Letter, Richard Thompson is just getting over the failed relationship when bam, right through the door comes the letter stained with her tears (so much more potent than a text which can be immediately deleted). And in Michelle Shocked’s Anchorage, the skateboarding punk rocker gets a letter from her old friend, now a housewife living in Alaska, a bitter-sweet letter full of love, longing and nostalgia which in a few lines poignantly describes how their lives have diverged.
So even if you’ve never written a letter, or if you think you’ve forgotten how to, give it a go.
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