You know the kind of thing, a handwritten, thoughtful, chatty one from a friend, which gives you a real flavour of what is happening in their lives. It doesn’t happen very often (I now write so few myself) but when it does it is something to take to one’s room and savour over a hot drink. I used to delight in letter writing to university friends, and penpals around the world. The excitement of receiving a letter remains with me to this day. None of us does it often enough, as testified by the dearth of decent writing paper out there in stationery shops when all that’s available are notelets for short messages!
Years ago, I was fortunate to meet with an inspiring psychologist and educationalist called Tom Phillips. One of his areas of expertise was critical textwork. He wrote a book chapter on the analysis of letters. Tom wrote about the death of his father, after which he found 32 letters written by his mother to his father during their courtship. He was able to see how their growing relationship survived obstacles, such as the norms and social mores of his grandmother based in suburban Dublin, while also putting the relationship into context, from what he knew of his parents’ later lives together.
What he found crucial about letters was that they are a language used as a medium for dialogue, for interaction. Letters conveyed meaning, to enable a relationship to progress.
I must admit I always feel I know my friends better after reading a good, long letter from them. Tom went on to construct a textual analysis of some of the letters, which we won’t go into here, but if we can encourage the art of letter-writing to resurface, how fantastic that would be.
A Lost Art?
It’s become known as a lost art, but letter-writing brings pleasure both to the writer and the recipient. It also demonstrates effort. I vow to do it more often.
Sending a letter is the next best thing to turning up personally at someone’s door. Distance becomes less important as (this was taken from a now-defunct blog):
Ink from your pen touches the stationary, your fingers touch the paper, your saliva seals the envelope. Something tangible from your world travels through machines and hands, and deposits itself in another’s mailbox. Your letter is then carried inside as an invited guest.
Letters remain important, for they:
- Use the conventions of their time, and generally, seem to require some thought, even ones that simply ooze ink from the pen. My letters are messy with added notes in available spaces, a real work in progress, a stream of consciousness.
- Usually, we only see one side of letters, the ones we receive, rather than the whole product as an interactive experience. When you try re-reading your old letters to people, they make little sense!
- Letters feature far less in communications now due to the prevalence of electronic means. Letters – and diaries – can be passed down though, unlike an email username and password. I need a nice big diary for 2018.
- Letters may become worthwhile historical data (for example, letters from the Front) but really letters are private, they are not meant for eavesdroppers but for the person intended.
- They bring simple pleasure. Writing a letter from the heart to a trusted friend is one of the few times you can be authentic, and yourself.