How long since you have handwritten a letter? When I first moved out of home, I wrote copious letters, trying to describe all that I was seeing and experiencing. My writing flourished, as I continuously practiced the art, not consciously, but by striving to paint those images I was seeing with words, to recreate in the minds of my readers some semblance of the sights, sounds and smells I was experiencing. Writing a letter was an art form, one that we learned at school, and learnt it well because we had a real need for it. To write a well composed letter was a highly prized skill. Sadly, not any more. Mine usually started with something like “I hope this letter finds you well, as it leaves me…”The letter always took several drafts, as I usually made mistakes, and paper and pens don’t come complete with a backspace or delete button. Liquid paper was a handy invention though, I remember impatiently blowing on it waiting for it to dry, the experimental tap, and inevitably writing on it too soon, carving tracks through the still wet paint.Finally, when I deemed the letter complete, it was time to practice that age old origami skill of folding it so it fit neatly into the envelope. I say origami because there was a particular way that one folded a letter, if one wanted to do it right. As I carefully licked the glue (yeah, I don’t miss that taste), and sealed the flap, my letters always looked as if they were about to burst, stuffed full of descriptions, explanations, thoughts and feelings. My poor family and friends probably received plenty of letters with a little note from the post master carefully glued on the front that politely requested they pay a few extra cents next time they pop into the post office, as my letter had exceeded the weight limit for the standard stamp I had attached. Everyone went to the post office then, and they only sold stamps, and envelopes if you were lucky. Oh and first edition stamps for the collectors.All this effort was worth it though, if you have ever experienced the pleasure of receiving a lovely fat letter (hand addressed, with no window, everyone’s favourite sort) written just for you by someone who lived far away. We had to collect our mail from the post office, as we didn’t have a mail service then. It was always exciting to enter through the door, peering over the counter to see if there was anything in the little pigeon hole with our name written underneath. You didn’t have to ask, the post lady knew what you were there for. As she handed you the letters, she always asked how you were, and how school was going. Polite conversation was also an art form that was regularly practiced. You thanked her for the letters and scurried off, rifling through the pile hoping to see one addressed to you.
At last the long awaited letter arrived, made all the more exciting by the wait. After extricating it from the envelope, you carefully unfold the letter, eager to devour the contents, often rereading it over and over. And when you finally finished reading it for the umpteenth time, you placed it carefully away (my mother kept them tied together with a ribbon) knowing that you would read it again later.
When the reading was over and done with, then came the art of writing the return letter. There was always a “thank you for your letter”, and “it was lovely to hear from you”. A careful rereading of their letter followed as you studiously replied or commented on each point in their letter, answered their questions, and added some extra points of own. My mother always diligently reported on how each member of the family was, who she had heard from, and what was happening at home.
I feel rather nostalgic about writing and receiving letters. These long distance conversations were an art form to write and a pleasure to receive. I don’t feel that way about email, and don’t get me started on texting. Yes, it’s great to have immediate contact all day every day, but I miss the romance of the handwritten letter, knowing that someone has gone to all that effort just for you. I don’t keep emails, but I still have some letters carefully stowed at the back of my drawer. I can’t help but wonder, would we be seeing better literacy in our kids today if the art of writing a well composed letter was considered en essential skill?