To the letter

In a world where so much communication is digital, what place does
letter-writing have anymore? Emma Johnson considers the importance
of a handwritten connection

Last year, the global population sent a total of 306.4 billion emails – every single day. That’s over 111 trillion emails a year. Imagine.

And yet, in 2020, in the UK – in a year when we needed to connect with each other more than ever before – we sent a total of just ten million letters over the course of an entire year. Not even one letter per person.

Communicating in a written form is at an all-time low. We don’t send cards; we mail birthday greetings via a digital paperless service. We don’t write thank-you letters, we text our gratitude instead. We don’t write down our feelings, we click a generic yellow-faced emoji and assume that it will cover the vast depths of the human experience. Our handwriting has got worse, we can lay our hands on a phone quicker than a pen, and many of us would not even recognise our best friend’s handwriting anymore.

The beguiling magic of the handwritten missive seems to have been obliterated by the rush to do things quicker and easier. And, in that rush, we have lost a beautiful connection that comes only from the written word.

‘How wonderful it is to be able to write someone a letter! To feel like conveying your thoughts to a person, to sit at your desk and pick up a pen, to put your thoughts into words like this is truly marvellous,’ writes Haruki Murakami in Norwegian Wood.

How wonderful indeed. The act of sitting down to write to someone speaks to a real intention to connect – a mindful, slower approach to sharing your feelings and experiences in a way that is both lasting, and meaningful.

‘A properly crafted letter is something to be cherished, an act of exposure which gives shape and meaning to the chaos of life,’ says John O’Connell, in For the Love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication.

We reread letters, returning to them over the years, unfolding their creased pages, connecting with the inked words of a loved one. We remember words that were written to us, or that we wrote to others. When we want to connect with someone, we can hold that letter in our hands and think about them. ‘Letters are not only a form of communication,’ says journalist Rosie Blunt, writing for the BBC in 2020. ‘They can act as a museum piece for the future.’ Blunt describes spending lockdown at her parents’ house, working her way through boxes in the attic and discovering letters from her grandmother who died six years before. ‘The scrawled handwriting described historical events such as VE Day and the Queen’s coronation but, most importantly, it captured my granny at her most alive.’

It is letters like this that have a longevity a digital one-liner can never match. ‘I find it hard to imagine that generations to come will one day download the “Collected Tweets of Neil Gaiman” onto their e-reader,’ wrote Peter Geoghegan in The Guardian.

Even a letter that takes only a few minutes to write might speak into the centuries that come after it, immortalising not only a moment in time, but the essence of the person writing them. Love, loss, gratitude, anger, pain – all can be shared, but also remembered.

In 1941, hours before she took her own life, Virginia Woolf wrote her husband a letter. Its words became her last, and some of her best known: ‘I can’t fight any longer… what I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good… everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.’

Decades before, in 1902, a devastating mine collapse in Tennessee killed hundreds and trapped 26, who slowly suffocated. Found next to their bodies were letters to loved ones, including one from Jacob Vowell to his wife and six children: ‘Ellen, I want you to live right and come to heaven. Raise the children the best you can. Oh, how I wish to be with you, goodbye. Oh God, for one more breath. Ellen, remember me as long as you live. Goodbye darling.’

Artist Frida Kahlo’s letters are some of the most evocative depictions of her relationships, and lay bare much of her inner turmoil. From her love letters to artist José Bartoli (‘I don’t know how to write love letters … But I wanted to tell you that my whole being opened for you. Since I fell in love with you everything is transformed and is full of beauty…’) to her rage and heartbreak at her husband Diego Rivera (‘I’m writing to let you know I’m releasing you, I’m amputating you. Be happy and never seek me again… Goodbye from somebody who is crazy and vehemently in love with you!’).

Letters don’t even have to be long to convey the very essence of someone’s wit and personality. Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, two of the twentieth century’s most amusing and gifted writers, shared over 500 letters of literary criticism and personal banter between them, many of which have been immortalised in books and collections since. But it is Mitford’s acerbic brevity on receiving invitations that always raises a smile. ‘Miss Nancy Mitford is unable to do as you ask,’ she would reply to any request she didn’t want to honour. Margaret Atwood, meanwhile, used to decline invitations by asking her agent to respond: ‘Sorry, I can’t do it because I’m dead.’

There’s a lot we can learn from letters. Jon McGregor, who teaches a creative writing course at Nottingham University, asks students to study the letters of others as part of the course, because he believes writing letters allows you to develop your own style. ‘I’ve always been interested in the kinds of writing people do when they don’t think they’re being asked To Write,’ he says. ‘Without really thinking about it, I was experimenting with ways of telling a story, ways of holding a reader’s attention, playing with voice and form and technique.’

This was exactly the case for Nina Stibbe, an aspiring author who got her big break when her sister discovered some of Stibbe’s letters from the 1980s when she was working as a nanny in London. Not under pressure to ‘write’ in the professional sense, Stibbe’s letters were playful, funny and gripping to read – but, most of all, they had an authenticity that had eluded her writing thus far. The discovery of these letters was to change her writing career. ‘The thing that really counted was the young Stibbe’s voice: the warmth with which she writes to her sister, the easy intimacy, the wit,’ explains Sam Jordison in The Guardian. In writing letters, Stibbe had found her true voice.

And, for others, it’s not just voice, but creativity as a whole. When McGregor turned his course into a global letter- writing project, he saw entries that spoke of lives captured in more than just words. ‘There were crossings out and rewritings, marginalia, diagrams, doodles, cover notes and Post-it notes… there were pressed flowers, and bookmarks, and even a lock of hair. At least two letters arrived stuffed into plastic bottles, the stamps held on with Sellotape and hope.’

Battered, creased and stained, but ultimately beautiful, these letters bore traces of the journeys they had made from where they were written. ‘They were physical objects, with all the tactility and uniqueness and marks of time which that implies,’ he says. ‘And it became more apparent than ever that these marks of time are what distinguish letters from emails and other digital correspondence.’

Writing and receiving letters are true acts of mindfulness. Letters take time to write, and take time to read and to respond to. ‘Maybe you need to mull over some of the points, or maybe your schedule doesn’t allow for a response right now – the point of writing letters is to celebrate the slowness and make space for the process,’ says writer Emily Torres.

A connection with a thoughtful missive involves more than just your eyes and the click of a mouse. The sound of weighted paper hitting a doormat offers a promise of connection that cannot be replicated by the arrival of an email. ‘The thrill of receiving that battered envelope with its longed-for contents – all the better for the wait,’ notes John O’Connell.

We write for many reasons: to share news, to apologise, to say thank you, to console or comfort, to congratulate, to set boundaries, to paint a picture with words, to pass on wisdom, to declare our love. Why we write is important, but what also speaks volumes is the time taken to write. That a close friend has dedicated that time to your relationship is clear before you read a word. ‘Letters are a place for writers to get their message across uninterrupted. It’s all about you telling your story in a way that invites the other person to feel seen, recognized, supported, and understood,’ says Torres.

We write to be heard, to offer our attention, to share a considered dialogue that speaks to the deep empathy or feeling between two people.  And, as we do it, we create tangible pieces of our history, missives of love, humour and adventure that can be passed down for generations, a unique gift of connection from our life, to the lives of others.