Is letter-writing a lost art? When was the last time you received a hand-written, personal letter – or wrote one?
Apart from Christmas cards, and the occasional – and increasingly rare – birthday card, it’s years since I opened the letterbox to find several hand-addressed envelopes, perhaps some with red and blue airmail edging and foreign stamps. There’s nothing quite like that feeling of delightful anticipation, carrying fat, travel-marked messages back inside the house, putting the kettle on to boil while you warm the teapot and spoon in the leaves. Then settling back and opening the first one to hear your friend’s voice start speaking inside your head.
It was the way we kept in touch. It was a significant gesture of love, really. That you would take the time to stop, think about them, and write a letter. A girlfriend and I still write letters to each other, if not as often as we used to when we didn’t have telephone connections. It’s always such a buzz to get one, and then start thinking about the response.
I love the act of writing a letter almost as much as receiving one. Sometimes I’m aware of being in communion with the millions of letter writers through the ages, sending news, commenting on news to hand, turning thoughts into words for someone else to read and perhaps to keep. One thing about letters – they can last for hundreds of years. Where would historians and researchers be if people had emailed each other in the last few hundred years? Private letters tell us so much about the lives of ordinary people, in the way that formal records cannot.
Like so many old fashioned practices, there’s a process to follow to do it properly, and to get the most pleasure out of it.
1: Find the right time. Very important. Good letter writing cannot be rushed. My nana used to drive my mum crazy whenever it was time to go shopping. Just as Mum was ready to leave, baby in pram and toddlers dressed, Nana would say: I’ll just write to Biddy, or Pat, one of dozens of our relatives and she’d sit down at the table and write a couple of pages in a small airmail pad before they left. I’ve read a few of Nana’s old letters, and they were mainly just to let the recipient know that she hadn’t forgotten them. There was rarely anything very newsworthy, but she diligently wrote every week.
2: Find the right paper. Even though we live in the age of instant communication – internet, email, texting, tweeting, instagrams, facebook posts, sms and so on, it is still possible to find lovely writing paper. Avoid those cheap airmail pads mum used to have, with blue lines on hard almost shiny paper. No, we need heavy linen paper, or embossed parchment, or perhaps onion-skin paper, very thin and slightly crinkled. There are some beautiful papers around if you start to look, and the occasional specialty paper shop. Colour is completely individual. I love creamy paper, not the harsh white of copy paper, but the warm, aged cream of heavyweight, good quality paper.
3: Find the right pen. Like modern communication, there is a zillion ways to write something, which is interesting considering how much time we spend typing rather than writing these days. I guess people still have to physically sign documents and contracts. Ballpoint, roller ball, felt-tipped pens in a range of thicknesses, steel Rapidographs, ceramic tipped pens… but the crème de la crème is of course, a fountain pen. Writing with a fountain pen slows you down. You don’t dash off a quick note with a fountain pen. You have to work at a slower, more considered pace, perfectly in keeping with the idea of letter writing. And once you’ve chosen your pen, there’s a choice of inks too.
4: Choose your beverage. It might be tea in all its many forms, or coffee, or it might even be a good old scotch, but get it ready. Mulling over writing goes well with sipping tea. Or scotch.
This might seem like a lot of self-indulgent nonsense, but it’s really about putting yourself in the zone. A kind of meditation. You are setting the scene for writing. And if writing is something you value, then the performance of a ritual like this sets the scene, tells the creative juices to start flowing, alerts the right side of the brain that its turn has come.
All in all, it’s not all that different from settling down to write a book.