Lost Letters

Dear December. Your chilly nights are suddenly upon us and the festive spirit is contagious. Christmas trees have been popping up everywhere since mid November and stacks of sparkly cards are on the shelves, enticing us to take pen to paper and write to our family and friends. Whilst for many, Christmas card writing may be an annual tradition it is also true that, particularly for our social media driven generation, the practice of sending paper messages to our friends and families is disappearing. Many charitable card companies, such as Oxfam, have noted that in the past five year sales have decreased rapidly. One provider said that that in ten years time card sales will be consigned to history as people “simply move on”.

A decrease in Christmas card sales may seem trivial, and affected by the ever rising price of stamps but it reflects a larger, more worrying trend; the dying art of letter writing. We are a generation accustomed to the immediate; from the vast array of information available to us at the click of a search engine button, to the message we can send within seconds to anyone in the world. It is now even possible for us to know when others have viewed our messages and are replying. There is no longer any intrigue to our communications at all, and I do not think it reflects natural human connection. I cannot undermine the wonders of technology and, like everyone I know, I use it everyday: the internet allows us to maintain relationships across great distances, and opens up vast arrays of opportunities to share opinions with others around the globe. However, it also brings about, perhaps subconsciously, an anxiety in our relationships. We can easily become overly analytical about the text message we have just sent in a click, that we can later read over repeatedly or think nothing of delivering a flippant one liner, even to those we love the most. Our increasingly busy lives propelled by the pace of technology and the impatience coupled with it has led to a culture in which slow, long and thoughtful messages are becoming rare. Yes, I know I might seem like an old soul but I’m nostalgic for handwritten letters.

As a child, I would write thank you notes after the festive period, and compose detailed accounts of my life to the tooth fairy (to the extent that I expected a reply every night). When we grow up and life’s responsibilities seem more real by the day, the practice of sitting at a desk and writing a note is no longer a priority. But sometimes, what we need most in our busy schedules, is the time to let our mind change its pace as we think about what we really want to say to those we hold close. I began to really see the value of sending letters when I was travelling during my university exchange in Canada. My gran had just moved into a care home and the time difference meant there was difficulty in calling her. She was one of the few people I knew, even in her generation, who had never possessed a computer or a mobile phone. Even as her eyesight grew weaker she loved receiving and dictating letters. So I began to tell her about my time abroad, even small, insignificant details which I may have told any friend in a text but which seemed to carry more importance on paper. I did not expect a reply from her but I knew that she loved opening the intriguing handwritten envelopes and taking in the large writing that she could actually read. The letter is more personal and thoughtful even in its physical status: it has a direct and tangible link to the sender, and it displays their individuality; handwriting reflects character. Moreover the structure of a letter is not uniform and predictable: it flows of its own accord, and words can mix with other creative forms such as art and music.

Since then, I have spoken to numerous friends of mine, myself included, who have brought letter writing into their relationships, whether separated by distance or even living together. I do believe there is an intimacy created through writing that can be even more profound than speech. Writing is humane, open, exciting and intriguing, unpredictable, sometimes messy, but above all, natural. It is, in a liberating sense, easier to admit our insecurities, and genuine feelings on paper. A letter is incredibly private: in fact, with the knowledge that all our actions on the web are under increasing surveillance, it may be one of the safest forms of expression. In writing by hand, we allow ourselves to be exposed in ways we can never truly achieve through our online presence. Moreover, there is nothing that quite matches the excitement of receiving a letter that is not the dreaded council tax bill or robotic advertisement notice. Whether it is addressed to your friend, parent, sibling, boyfriend or girlfriend, a single letter can bring about a new level of affection and understanding of each other. In a society in which perfectionism seems to surround us in images across the media, it is also refreshing to truly reveal ourselves to be imperfect. A letter is spontaneous. We can make mistakes on paper. We do not have access to the editing tools available to us on a screen. Simultaneously it takes time and effort to compose and that does not go unnoticed.

It may seem that letter writing is a niche form of nostalgia, but I think it extends beyond a mere hipster revival. Admittedly, like many other old forms such as the typewriter and the record player, it is having a sudden comeback. Letters between famous celebrities such as the infamous love notes between Elvis Presley and his first love, Anita Wood, are cropping up as memes on Facebook. New published collections such as Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note, are based entirely on copies of old handwritten notes; from words sent by Ghandi to Hitler, to Iggy Pop’s fan letters, to the heart wrenching final suicide letter composed by Virginia Woolf. However these preserved notes are more than nostalgic images; they open up secret passageways into personalities, inner lives and relationships long gone in ways that other forms of writing can never quite realize. Letters endure through history and allow us to see those we may only know through photos or published works in revealing lights: you may discover the letters exchanged between your great grandparents during the First World War, or be exposed to the intimate connections of a famous historical figure that you admire, be that a writer, politician or artist. A local example of this can be found in the recently published letters of Edwin Morgan, poet laureate for Glasgow from 1999 to 2005 and lecturer at the University of Glasgow. Edwin Morgan, The Midnight Letterbox: Selected Correspondence 1950-2010 includes drafts of work sent to his publishers, and his own thoughts on writing and poetry. Editor Dr John Coyle, from the University, said that: ‘The letters reveal the character of the man and poet – they are lively, acute, astringent, serious and playful, and the range of moods and contexts in which he wrote is astonishing. Above all what emerges is his creativity and responsiveness to life’.

Letter writing in our modern age arguably carries even more value than it did in the past; this has led to projects across a range of different organisations, particularly within the charity sector. During December each year, Amnesty International encourages us to ‘Write for Rights’, in their global letter campaign, one of the largest human rights events in the world. The campaign encourages supporters to write two letters: one to a figure in authority and the other to a victim who is imprisoned or tortured. The success of this campaign in releasing innocent victims of abuse, and bringing torturers to justice, proves both the political power of the pen and the comfort brought about through the written word, supporting those in truly horrific and alienating situations through the words of strangers who genuinely care, and have taken the time to reach out. It is easy to feel disconnected from others in a world that is seemingly more connected than ever before. Projects that encourage letter writing can only be positive, I believe, in reminding us of the time and effort it takes to write as well as bringing us closer to each other, despite the time it takes to receive a reply.

On another note, the practical skills gained in letter writing should not be overlooked. In September 2015, the Royal Mail launched a report into the importance of letter writing for young people’s employability. More than two thirds of businesses stated that they would not hire someone with a poorly written cover letter, a skill that appears to be dying out as we become accustomed to writing shorter messages and fast replies.

It’s been a tough year December, so let’s reach out to each other at the close of this uncertain 2016. Reach out to those who you haven’t spoken to in a while, or those you have, and be proud of your own composition whether you consider yourself to be the world’s best writer or not. Most importantly, let the spontaneity and effort of putting pen to paper, allow you to be open and connect fully with those you hold close. There is no reason why texts, emails and instant messages cannot co-exist with the slow communication of the handwritten note. There is magic in unexpectedly finding a mysterious letter addressed to you: a treasure trove of words and images hidden within, more exciting than any gift money can buy.

* If you would like to get involved with Amnesty International’s ‘Write for Rights’ more information is available here: https://www.amnesty.org/en/get-involved/write-for-rights/

Article by Kirsty Dunlop


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