I’ve read many more letters than I’ve written. I can say this with absolute certainty. Some years ago I took on the fascinating task of editing the correspondence of Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement. After sifting through an estimated 7,000 items, I put together a book of letters in which I had selected about one tenth of the total and arranged them to tell the story of her life and work.
Cicely Saunders (1918-2005) wrote letters on a phenomenal scale. With more than half an eye to posterity, she kept copies of them too. Neither of these is true for most of us today.
Yet the letter can be a joy to receive: ‘Too much! I’ve got a letter …’ sang Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band on taking delivery of a billet doux from the USA one day in the 1960s. The writing of a letter also brings its pleasures, as authors from Austen to Hemingway to Orwell have acknowledged. Lewis Carrol enjoyed letter writing so much that he wrote a nine point guide to doing it well, But the pleasure of letter writing is not restricted to the literati.
For the last nine months I’ve written a letter each week to a person I only know slightly. Several years older than me, he lives alone, is in declining health and has been struggling with the added constraints of the pandemic. The weekly task of writing to him, which might seem a guilt-inducing chore (‘oh no, the week is almost over and I haven’t written yet!’) has in fact become an enriching and pleasurable experience. I know he gets my letters and enjoys reading them, as I think do his daughters, who get to peruse them on visits to their father; but I expect and receive no letter by way of reply. I don’t have a problem with the asymmetry, rather it makes my task both easier and more interesting.
There are several aspects to the process.
The material elements are important. I’ve acquired a quantity of A5 writing paper. Having the stock by me means there can be no excuse arising from the search for paper. My weekly missive covers both sides of A5 in full, never more nor less.
I write with a fountain pen. It’s nothing fancy, a well known brand I’ve used since school days, costing about a tenner. But the pen gives a sense of occasion and purpose to the writing. Paper and pen together are the tools of my letter writing craft.
I constrain my writing to thoughts or experiences that have occurred in the previous seven days. This way I avoid possible repetition, as I don’t keep copies of the letters, so can’t check back to what I’ve said previously. I also hope by this means to have something fresh to impart to my reader each week. My subject matter ranges from the quotidian rhythms of domestic life to earth shattering events of major geopolitical import.
For the relatively short time it takes, I give the letter writing my undivided attention. I don’t make a draft of the letter, preferring to let it emerge as pen touches paper. But this means the seven or eight paragraphs must flow confidently, even as their content is forming in my head. Having completed the act of writing, there is a sense of catharsis and satisfaction that is enhanced by placing it in the envelope, writing the address of the recipient, and applying the stamp.
Finally, I like to prop up the newly prepared letter, like a small trophy, somewhere prominent in the kitchen or near the front door. That way I don’t forget to post it.
Most of us still write letters at some time in our lives. I wonder if youth and old age are the periods when we are more likely to do so? In the former, to the objects of our affection, and passion. In the the latter, to far flung friends and family, retaining and rekindling old acquaintances. There are exceptions to this of course!
Over a lifespan we might write letters in search of employment. Likewise, an occasional letter of complaint or outrage may issue forth. Or we might write some lines of thanks or deep gratitude for an act of kindness, hospitality or exceptional care. A letter of condolence may be a sombre duty we sometimes take on. Whilst a letter of congratulation to someone on a recent success, is the most lightsome of tasks. Letters serve many purposes. I’m reading Pat Barker’s Union Street at the moment, and noticed that one of the children, Kelly, is adept at forging letters to school, in her mother’s hand, the day after playing truant.
Letter writing is said to be in secular decline, but paradoxically has increased during the pandemic. Pen pals are back in fashion. The plop of a handwritten letter onto the door mat is again something to anticipate.
But in the age of texting, emailing, and messaging on all manner of platforms, there is a sense that letter writing needs more encouragement. This the thinking behind the fairly recently established World Letter Writing Day, which happens on 1st September each year. The idea is to encourage us to pick up a pen and write to someone, devoting time, thought, and a measure of skill to our efforts.
Perhaps you know someone who would like to receive a regular letter from you? If you commit, maybe you will find satisfactions in the process that you can’t imagine at the outset. It may be worth trying. With a pen, a sheet of paper, an envelope and stamp, a true act of compassion is at your disposal.