Modern communication is almost instant. Sending a text message or dashing off a quick email or social media post are immediate ways to keep in touch with one another, but this also means correspondence is becoming rather impersonal. Writing a handwritten letter or card is a nice thing to do, especially around holidays such as Valentine’s Day, but it is so much quicker just to type a message and press “send”. Compare that to taking the time and trouble to find stationery, write the message, address the envelope, walk to the mailbox?and then wait for the recipient to receive it and send a reply. It all seems so?old fashioned.
And yet, despite postal companies across the globe experiencing a huge decrease in the volume of letters processed through their systems, the practice of writing letters is not obsolete. In fact, it is going through a revival as people are rediscovering the art of handwritten mail.
Despite the perception that writing letters is archaic, the history of letter writing shows that the practice shares a lot with modern social media. Writer Simon Garfield, in his book “To the Letter” traces the importance of the letter throughout history, going all the way back to Ancient Greece. He observes that letters were the social medium across the centuries, and compares the “shoebox to the inbox”. In Victorian Britain, for example, letters were collected from post-boxes and delivered to houses several times a day because, in the absence of telephones and vehicles that made long-distance travel possible, letters were the only cheap and reliable way to keep in contact with others. Garfield notes that in 1910, each person in Britain sent an average of 116.7 items of mail per year. For people who immigrated, letters became a vital connection between the old country and the new, especially when many newcomers had few, if any, other families around they could talk to.
But in this age of almost instant communication It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for the rediscovery of letter writing. It may be an aspect of the slow movement that has sought to redress the balance between time-poverty and busy-ness to restore the lost connections that are a result of our fast-faced modern life. It may tie into the fact that people are engaging in paper arts such as scrapbooking and calligraphy; writing letters are perhaps an extension of that creativity.
But there are also very personal reasons for writing letters. Sitting down and taking the time to compose a letter is a wonderful way for the writer to pause and reflect on life and and express it though the physical means of paper and ink. It can even become a spiritual practice or ritual, a way of centering the self and connecting with others in a meaningful way. But a recurrent theme, whenever news stories and blog posts discuss letter writing, is that people know that digital correspondence is easily deleted at the click of a button, while handwritten correspondence feels more permanent?and personal?and the practice is worth saving from extinction.
Calgary-based writer Barb Marshall has embraced letter writing in her own life, and encourages others to put pen to paper in a digital age with her blog “Rite While U Can“. She started the blog in 2013 after moving to Alberta from Ontario. She knew almost no one in her new surroundings and was far away from friends and family. As a result, “the meaning that a letter in my mailbox had tripled in significance. It brought my loved ones into my home in a way that email just couldn’t come close to.” Marshall hosts “letter writing socials” held in local coffee shops where people can drop by, make some handmade cards and notepaper, and write personal messages to their friends and relatives. The most striking aspect of the socials, Marshall notes, is that younger people are the age group most enthusiastic about the concept, especially when it comes to using the manual typewriters she provides to create hand-crafted mail. She hopes that letter-writing socials will catch on in other places.
This past Christmas, Marshall also wanted to use the power of letter writing for the greater good through her #MakeItMerry campaign, inviting people to write cards and letters for vulnerable adults which were distributed anonymously in December through the Calgary Drop-In Centre. Over 1,400 cards were written this year, far surpassing her expectations, and what Marshall discovered through the campaign is that “people wrote wishes for happier times, courage to be the best they can be, hope for safety and warmth, but my heart was moved when I read cards that shared stories. Stories from the person that sent the card about their own lives, the number of kids they had, what they liked to read, everyday real life stuff. I loved these cards because they broke down any barriers between those that have and those that don’t. The card became a conversation between two people, both with hopes and dreams, both with a core desire to be loved.”
Another writer who is eager to get others to write more letters is Mary Robinette Kowal, who, through her Month of Letters challenge, wants people to send one piece of handwritten correspondence every day that the postal service operates during the month of February. What both Kowal and Marshall have in common is they both want to get people feeling a greater connection and sense of intimacy with others through letter writing. Letters are tangible reminders and, as Simon Garfield says, become “treasured, hoarded, moved when we move or forgotten to be found afterwards … Emails are a poke, but letters are a caress and letters stick around to be newly discovered.”
Carla loves paper. She has far too many books, compulsively buys craft supplies, has several boxes of cards and letters from years back years that she just cannot throw out, but feel free to say hi to her on Twitter @LunchBuster.