Thursday, April 14, 2011

L is for Letters

Who writes them anymore? Going to your computer to see who's emailed you is not the same as nipping out in your dressing gown to find out who's written to you. Opening letters with a morning cup of tea is/was the most comforting of rituals. I used to answer mine straight away.

I was a compulsive letter writer. After the death of my mother (who kept 27 years worth of my letters in pillow cases) I didn't know what to do with this time and the thoughts that were in my head that needed conveying to someone.

A daily journal didn't work for me. And writing to people who don't reply is soul destroying. Emails are a bit trite and Facebook too frivolous. (I've been reprimanded for writing emails too long. 'I don't read long emails' one recipient  informed me.)

A handwritten letter contains much more than the message the words convey. The handwriting itself conveys information about the writer: mood, character, health, and even wealth. There's nothing nicer than reading something on luxury paper, written with an expensive pen and real ink. The choice of coloured inks and the thickness of pen nibs gave more information about the writer. (I went through a phase of using only green ink.) But often, the most telling of letters are those written on whatever was to hand at the time the urge to communicate took you. I have one written on a paper bag.

Important documents were always handwritten. Birth, death and marriage certificates, wills and job applications. 'Please apply in writing', a job advertisement would say. If you typed it they'd assume your handwriting was illegible. You must be a messy person. They'd definitely attempt to read your character from your style.

Handwriting a letter means you have to think clearly and boldly go where your thoughts take you, because there's no delete button. To have something in writing gave it official status.

And what about the stamps? My interest in travel and geography came about from collecting stamps and having pen-friends all around the world. I guess the equivalent is social networking via computer, but those miniature works of art that you lick and stick are missing.

The franking machine that denotes the time and place a letter was posted had to be across the stamp for me to be satisfied. My imagination worked overtime and pictured the writer walking to a post box to post this object directly to me...  not filtered through wires and networks and megabytes. A hand to hand procedure, like a relay race. Personal.

Despite the fact that most of what ends up in your letterbox is junk mail, the letterbox itself has remained stubbornly letter-sized. The postman can't fit an A4 envelope into it without having to bend and mangle it, leaving half sticking out in the rain, because it's designed for letters.

Every now and then I receive a card with a handwritten message inside. Precious.
But very, very rarely do I ever receive a handwritten letter. I wonder if people bother to read mine, or whether, because they're not written in short sound bytes, they're just skimmed and binned. How are historians of the future to find their primary sources?

Here's a letter from an American GI who was billeted with my mother's family during WW2. This is an historical document. A link with someone from the past. Personal. How will the computer age cope with personal primary sources? Oh, I know they'll come up with something exciting. But it will lack the touch, the scent, the stains and the physicality of a handwritten letter... from one person to another.

For anyone who enjoys a good quality piece of paper and a real pen, here is a website you might find interesting. http://www.apenchantforpaper.blogspot.com/

And if you just long to read a handwritten letter, look up http://www.lettersofnote.com/
for letters from famous and infamous characters. Poignant and illuminating.



  1. My after-college roomate and I send each other a May 23rd letter each year (That's my birthday) and another in October. Those are probably the only handwritten letters I receive...or write. Visiting you from the A to Z Challenge.

  2. I used to write letters to my grandmother, but since she passed away I never get anything good in the mail. I try to send cards to friends and family a couple times a year (nothing yet this year though) so there would be something fun in the mail box to mix it up a little, but nobody ever replies in kind so it's hard to stay motivated. Maybe I'm living in the wrong generation.

  3. I still write back and forth with older relatives, and I get postcards from friends who know I collect them, but that is about it. I used to love finding stationary sets and blank note cards to write to people, but they rarely write back except for the aforementioned anymore. I've also been told my emails are long, though so far everyone's been nice enough to not say TOO long. But, hey, what do they expect when exchanging messages with a writer??

    Good luck on the rest of the A to Z Challenge!

  4. you have great pictures on your site. i love writing letters. i used to write tons of them when i was younger. :) nowadays though emails, text messages and whatnots have taken the place of letters and it's always a pleasure to receive a handwritten card/letter in the mail.