May 28, 2024

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Once upon a time, the soft thud of the post landing on the doormat was a sound synonymous with early morning routine. People would start their day by perusing the morning papers and opening their mail before heading out into the world of work. Now, you’re more likely to be sipping your morning coffee whilst listening to the incessant ‘ping’ of your mobile phone or the not-so-dulcet tones of a computer generated voice telling you repeatedly that: “You have email.” Not quite as poetic somehow.

The history of letter writing dates back to around the 6th century BC, when ancient civilisations began developing relay systems to send and receive mail. The Persian Empire used horses, the Greeks, athletes, and in Arabian countries, pigeons were the postal service of the day. Biblical letters emerged in the first century AD, when the New Testament began to take shape, and the invention of the first mobile printing press during China’s Ch’ing-li period (1041-1048), brought with it an increased fascination with the written word, but the Chinese started printing as early as the 2nd century, using wooden blocks to transfer images and script onto silk.

First introduced to Europe in 1450 by German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg, the printing press sparked something of a renaissance for the written word, and by 1900, literacy rates in England alone had risen from 10-95%.  In recent years though, the art of epistolary communication has experienced something of a decline. People just don’t write to one another anymore.

A dying art-form

According to annual Post Office statistics, today, the average household only receives personal letters about once every seven or eight weeks, compared with once a fortnight back in 1987, and more than 90% of 16-year-olds in the UK said they have never written a letter.

Simon Garfield, author of To the letter: A Journey Through a Vanishing World, believes this decline is due largely to the invention of electronic communication:

“Because of email, letters are dying out. We no longer write in any sort of depth. We don’t express our emotions as we would in a letter, simply because it’s easier not to. To the younger generation especially, the idea of taking the time to write someone a letter – going to the trouble of writing neatly, getting a stamp and an envelope and taking the finished product to a post box when you could click a button instead, seems almost ludicrous.”

As well as pointing out their decline in popularity, Garfield’s book also celebrates what he sees as a precious and life-changing art-form:

“Letters have the power to grant us a larger life. They reveal motivation and deepen understanding. They are evidential. They change lives, and they rewire history. The world once used to run upon their transmission – the lubricant of human interaction and the freefall of ideas, the silent conduit of the worthy and the incidental, the time we were coming for dinner, the account of our marvellous day, the weightiest joys and sorrows of love.”

Since the internet burst onto the scene in the late 1980’s and changed our lives for good, the old-fashioned written word has been forced to take a backseat. Nowadays, post boxes and doormats across the globe are left empty and forgotten, whilst over in cyberspace, our mailboxes are overflowing with impersonal and often unwanted correspondence.

Up until a few years ago, the only person who still wrote letters was my Grandmother. We would write to one another several times a week to give a little insight into the turning of our respective worlds. Then, in 2011 at the age of 73, she got a Macbook and a Facebook account and hasn’t written a single letter since.

Literary letters

Although they may be less influential than they once were, letters have always held great significance in the literary world. During their short courtship, John Keats wrote hundreds of love letters to his neighbour Fanny Brawne; Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford were engaged in a loquacious exchange of witticisms that spanned more than 20 years; and Sylvia Plath wrote enough ‘Letters Home’ to fill an entire book.

Saul Bellow, whose letters were published in 2010, was yet another ardent letter-writer; Grahame Green, Hemmingway, Kerouac and Lord Byron were also partial to the odd epistolary exchange and Jane Austen even wrote the first draft of Pride and Prejudice as a collection of letters, in homage to the father of the epistolary novel, Samuel Richardson.

For modernist poet Amy Lowell, the act of writing a letter was like squeezing desire into little inkdrops and posting it. For Emily Dickinson, it was the route to immortality, and for John Donne, it was the mingling of souls.

But when it comes to modern literature, even the epistolary novel seems to be a thing of the past. Stephen Chobsky’s 1999 bestseller The Perks of Being a Wallflower owes part of its popularity and uniqueness to the fact that it is written entirely as a series of personal letters, but that’s pretty much where it ends. Tao Lin’s 2009 novella Shoplifting from American Apparel is composed partly from the correspondence between two friends, but their medium of choice is Gmail ‘chat,’ not old-fashioned pen and ink, and Lauren Myracle’s Internet Girls trilogy is written from cover to cover in ‘text speak’.

In recent years however, there is evidence to suggest that letters are making a comeback:

“Living in a world where anyone can contact you at any time, where you’re expected to be available to ‘chat’ 24/7 and where you’re just not gonna make it if you don’t document your life on Twitter or Instagram, really does have its drawbacks,” says writer Marianne Kirby.

Tired of the incessant and invasive communication made possible by the internet, many people are moving back towards letter writing, and opting for snail mail as their preferred method of communication.

For Mary Robinettte Kowal, founder of the annual ‘Month of Letters’ project, the joy of letters lies in the element of surprise:

“Unlike an email, a letter is a ticket to the unknown, an insight into someone else’s consciousness, at a time when, of all things, they were thinking of you.”

Kowal started the month-long project in 2013 as a way of encouraging people to switch off their technology and communicate instead using handwritten letters.

“It’s not as immediate as email, but I think it allows a more intimate connection. When I die, do you think anyone will read the old emails I saved? Letters and emails are both forms of communication but a letter represents a physical action that is shared across distance and, in some ways, time. It also comes with a series of small delights, at least for me.”

A second-wind for snail mail?

Stephanie Jones, founder of non-profit organization ‘Handwritten Inspiration,’ turned to letter writing as a means of dealing with anxiety and depression:

“Six months ago, I started posting uplifting pictures or quotes on my personal blog and over time that developed into Handwritten Inspiration. I made a new Tumblr page which allowed people to submit their postal addresses so that people could write to them. Some people just wanted a friend to talk to and we started writing letters back and forth. Others just needed the comfort of knowing someone was there and was thinking of them. I feel you can only do that with handwritten letters.”

The group writes inspirational and uplifting letters once a month to people anywhere in the world who are in need of help, whether they are suffering from depression, anxiety, or just having a bad day.

Jones added: “I think there will always be a place for letters. Whether you’re writing to your favourite band member or your best friend, letters mean so much more. The fact that you took the extra time to write what you wanted to say rather than typing it…that’s emotion that can’t be expressed through a screen.”

It would seem that it’s not just letters that are having a renaissance, but postcards too. Back in 2005, Paulo Magalhaes started ‘Postcrossing,’ an online community which allows people all over the world to communicate with one another by sending and receiving postcards.

Much like the idea of the old fashioned pen-pal, this is open to anyone and is completely free (apart from the cost of a stamp or two) – the only difference being that there’s a bit of twist. Once you’ve signed up, Postcrossing selects you a recipient at random before assigning you an equally mysterious pen-pal, so you never know who, or what you’re going to get.

Magalhaes says that the idea for the project was borne out of a life-long love of hand-written communication: “I always loved to receive mail and postcards were my favourite – the little surprises in the mailbox, with windows to a remote place, with a
message from someone who thought of you, who cares.”

Since it first began nine years ago, the project has attracted almost 500,000 members in more than 200 countries worldwide:

“Postcrossing was never meant to be this large. It started as a small pet project of mine which I hope some friends would indulge me by joining. But it turned out that the concept was much more popular than I expected, and nine years and 24 million postcards later, it is still growing!”

Perhaps there’s hope for letters after all. In a world that is fast becoming saturated with technology, the old fashioned ‘Dear John’ might actually be the most effective weapon of choice. Maybe Shakespeare was right. Maybe the pen really is mightier than the sword, and the Macbook, too.