The Lost Art of Letter Writing

By Anneliese Frew.

Connectedness. What does this actually mean? In the current times, for most of us it means being obsessively and relentlessly contactable and in-contact with the outside world 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. At a time when we have a multitude of channels to keep ‘connected’, how can we ‘connect’ with others in a way that forges, maintains, cherishes and doesn’t underestimate valuable, personal relationships beyond an instant one word reply to a friend, or a hasty, regrettable angry e-mail response? I think there are two ways: one is face to face, the other is by putting pen to paper. Both have their benefits. The former allows for instant, unrehearsed, genuine and sometimes physical contact with people when an e-mail or even a phone call just won’t cut it. The latter is a much more considered, thoughtful and honest way of connecting. It is not instantaneous, does not rely on reading instinctive reaction, facial expression or tone of voice. It relies on reading words, through which facial expression and tone of voice can almost always be perceived. The written word is a powerful thing and something which we should make a conscious effort to keep in mind in today’s fast paced, high tech world. It is a valuable, genuine and very human way to ‘connect’ with others.

For me, the desire to write a letter to someone stems from a want to demonstrate the value I place on my relationship with them. That I might take the time to sit and write to someone, instead of touch-typing an e-mail at the speed of light, is a reflection of their importance to me, or of the importance of my message to them. It shows I want to take the time out of a busy lifestyle to write to them, and is often a reflection of the dedication and care I want to give to ‘connecting’ with them. From writing to a friend you haven’t spoken to for months, to writing to that relative who you only ever see at Christmas or Eid, or writing to your mum who you might speak to on the phone every day. Receiving a letter will put a smile on their face, make them feel appreciated and privileged that you took the time to send them a letter, even though a faster digital alternative was available.

My mum once gave me some good advice when I had a case of writer’s block. I was deliberating about what to write in a sympathy card for a best friend whose mum tragically passed away. My mum said that the best way to write in a meaningful way is not to hold back or over think about what you ‘should’ say but to let your true thoughts and words of condolence flow onto the paper as they come to you. Be honest. There is something so precious and authentic about genuine, honest words that haven’t been preconceived or forced. Even if it’s not what the receiver wants to hear, but needs to. The beauty of a letter is that it gives the receiver time to mull over your message, when the initial reaction might be negative or defensive. Eventually they’ll come around and revisit your letter and be grateful for your frankness.

And you know what the best thing is? You never even have to send it. Unlike irreversibly pressing the send button on your e-mail (unless, like I’ve recently discovered, you know how to put a nifty delay on your e-mail outbox or re-call e-mails in those ‘oops’ moments of clicking send before you meant to), a letter can be written but never needs to be sent. It can be folded and the envelope sealed. The address can be written and the stamp can be attached. But it doesn’t have to be sent immediately, or ever. It can be left on the side or in a drawer until the time comes to post it. Or not. And that’s where the self-indulgent side to letter writing comes in.

The receiver isn’t the only beneficiary. The writer gains too, sometimes more. Writing can be an incredibly therapeutic process. Taking the time out to focus our attention on one thing – writing with ink – is like a mini self-help mechanism. It can be a deep-felt exercise of self-analysis or a quick fix for compartmentalising fleeting worries or noting your to-do list to revisit later. I keep a notepad by my bed for the (frequent) times I wake up in the middle of the night worrying or over-thinking in that obsessive way that only happens at night. Writing means giving ourselves time to reflect and to be honest with ourselves. It means giving ourselves permission to sit still and disconnect from the digital and technological elements that surround us. But then the benefits of giving your writing a recipient or an audience are twofold. You also give the recipient an excuse to stop, make a cup of tea, and sit down to read what you’ve written. You make them feel valued. And your gains increase too. Knowing that someone else is reading your words, sharing your thoughts, worries, ideas, concerns, is cathartic. As humans, we’re programmed to empathise when we can and, when we can’t, we sympathise. Sometimes it’s not easy to be honest. A letter is an easier, gentler way to communicate true thoughts and feelings than connecting face to face. It is substantially more genuine than a hasty e-mail, whilst not losing any of the genuineness of connecting in person. It allows us to communicate words that we may otherwise struggle to convey. And you don’t need to be a writer or a connoisseur of the English language to write a good letter. In fact, spelling mistakes and messy handwriting can exude authenticity and genuineness and encourage the recipient to subconsciously ‘connect’ and sympathise with your message more.

And finally, there’s the excitement of receiving post. Doesn’t it feel nice and slightly mysterious when you see a letter on the doormat handwritten with YOUR name, YOUR address on it? Someone has written to YOU. You observe the envelope, you try to guess the handwriting, you note the stamp and the date. Who is it from? Is it an invitation, a thank you, or just simply a hello?

So, go on. Write a letter. To anyone; to your mum, to your best friend, to your dog, to a stranger. Send it. Or don’t. You’ll gain and so will they. (And those handwriting lessons you were given in school before the days of keyboards won’t have been a total waste of time).


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