the (dying) art of letter writing

Yesterday I met Postman Pat’s wife. While writing away at my usual hideout, a middle aged lady walked in, sat down opposite me on the communal table, ordered a long black and then proceeded to work her way through the 5 inch (at least) wad of mail that was accompanying her. I kid you not. Plastic wrappings and envelopes strewn across three seats and all.

image by hellojenuine

Even more disruptive and un-communal-table-esque was this lady’s constant chattering – to her mail. No, I promise, I’m not having you on. She conversed with every single piece of paper / card / stamp that she came across – including the Myer catalogues. Ah, isn’t that lovely, Oh, how nice, Oh my God. Oh my God! (this was in response to what look like a cheque so I’m guessing her weekly lotto purchase paid off). My response to her was torn. I honestly didn’t know whether to wedge one of her catalogues up her ass or bless her dear little soul for reminding me of the forgotten joy of letter writing.

In a recent episode of The First Tuesday Book Club, Marieke Hardy – an avid old school, pen to paper letter writer – commented that her favourite thing about The Picture of Dorian Grey was Dorian’s morning letter writing / reading ritual. She found it thoroughly exciting and indulgent and couldn’t think of a better way to start the day. Admittedly, upon re-reading some of Dorian’s morning routine, something tingled inside of me too:

Finally his bell sounded and Victor came in softly with a cup of tea, and a pile of letters on a small tray of old Serves china… [Dorian] sat up, and having sipped some tea, turned over his letters.

Perhaps the 28% of us under 35 who check Facebook before even leaving our beds are crying out for a routine like Dorian’s; or at least the effects of it. How nice it would be to receive a real envelope, without the words “gas”, “electricity”, “water” and “final reminder” insinuated on its front. And then imagine if that envelope was pink… or blue… or even orange. What a thought! And all that before even getting to the gem of a letter on the inside; the gem of a letter that’s not a bill or reminder or appointment. The gem of a letter that’s just a letter. About a friend’s new pair of shoes, or your mother’s qualms about your father. A letter that’s a story, chuckle or perhaps even a little sook, ink blotted – ever so simply – onto a page.

Anyone who is familiar with Patrick White will know that he wrote letters – hundreds of them, perhaps even thousands in his lifetime -from as young as the age of six. On a recent trip away, I stumbled across a book of his letters, Patrick White Letters, and bought it – partly because it was a bargain, partly because I wanted to get into the head of another writer and partly because of my love for and desire to cling to the rituals of the past. I didn’t really know what to expect. This man wrote for a living – surely he couldn’t have all that much more to put into a letter? Alas, to my great surprise he did and it was fascinating to read (although I did feel like a bit of a peeping tom dipping into his sometimes most private of correspondences – especially as White has been quoted as saying that he “hopes any [letters] he has written have been destroyed”). Page after intriguing page was filled with letter after letter to everybody from Santa Claus to Cynthia Nolan and Tom Keneally. I was truly inspired. Aside from the insight I gained into White’s personal life, what I enjoyed most about reading his letters was his voice. All those people who say that you can know a writer through their books / essays / poems – don’t believe them. You can’t. Content aside, how the letters were written was just glorious. I discovered that White could be witty one moment and dry the next; sentimental to one person and scathing to another. A brilliantly confident writer one day and then ever so doubting the next. White, for the first time, became human to me.

I’m not sure if the reason that we don’t write letters anymore is because we’re just too lazy or because it’s more cost effective to send an email or simply because technology won’t allow us – let’s face it, how many obstacles do you need to overcome before having your musings signed, sealed and delivered (stamps, envelopes, post box, working pen etc.)? Regardless, I think there’s something timeless, sincere and plainly thoughtful about sitting down to write someone a letter. You need to think – there’s no backspace button and you can’t cut and paste – and you need to take some time; to choose the paper and the envelope and to compose your thoughts. It really does become an art form and the recipient feels that time and energy and thoughtfulness on the other end. Really, they do.

My grandparents have hundreds of letters between them ranging from after their engagement to their wedding. They got engaged via a photo you see, so a pen and some paper was all that they had to get to know each other. And boy am I grateful. Their letters are just divine. Not only are they filled with words and drawings of anticipation and love but they’re a tangible representation, for me and my children and their children to see, of my grandparents’ relationship and their early ‘courting’ days. Some of the letters are tear stained, others marked with a kiss, all of them though are written carefully, respectfully and with love. They’re saturated with I can’t waits and I love yous and I have them right here. In my hands. Not on a server somewhere. Not in an email account but here, with me, and that is truly amazing.

Technology may have taken over and yes, it’s a very obvious fact that fewer and fewer of us are taking the time to physically write a letter – myself included. There’s nothing wrong with moving with the times but I wonder, and fear, that the haste of this timely movement forward is at the expense of other, perhaps older, but certainly more simple and meaningful things such as the written word and thoughtfulness toward others.

In twenty years time I really, really doubt that my children are going to have access to all the emails and text messages that I’ve shared with my husband and that, ultimately, have documented our relationship. What tears will they know of? What joys and yearnings? None, I imagine. Which makes me think, fuck! I better start writing. Good ol’ pen to paper style.

Do you still write letters? Why / why not?

Happy letter set / stamp / pen purchasing and… letter writing xx

4 thoughts on “the (dying) art of letter writing

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  2. I used cloth during the day and disposables at night,I found line drying the diapers keeps them pretty white too. Keep in mind once the baby is on solids, their poop becomes a solid and it gets easier to change a cloth diaper. With the Kushies liners I also found that if they just peed in the diaper, I washed those liners and reused them until they did poop in them making them last longer. Good luck!

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