With typewriter production all but dead (apparently it’s struggling to hang onto the earth around the grave with one feeble hand on a tussock of grass), the MamaMia site posted an article today about the almost lost art of letter writing, by hand.
With the rise of the internet and social media, the only people likely to write a letter by hand are those who don’t own or operate a computer – ageing relatives, typically, who just can’t get the hang of it or don’t want to know about computers.
Time was when receiving a personal letter was exciting, especially if it was from a friend in a far-flung place. There was the texture of the paper for starters – my aunt in Surrey used beautiful thick, creamy paper – and depending on the writer, handwriting that ranged from spider-crawled-out-of-an-inkwell to elegant pseudo-Copperplate. My grandmother was a prolific letter writer and kept her family and far-flung friends up to date with family happenings.
I had a long-distance relationship for a couple of years in the 1980s with a guy who lived in Canada, and we’d send long letters full of our daily lives and photographs to each other. Our letters were stuffed too with newspaper and magazine clippings we thought the other may be interested in. Occasionally the letters would be just that, simple letters with no insertions, but I kept them and read them over and over; even the nasty bust-up ones that signalled the end. I binned the lot during a big life purge about five years ago, with some misgivings, but it was a cleansing feeling as far as those bust-up Dear Jane letters went.
Treasured though are letters and cards from my long-gone father and grandparents. When I see their writing – each one individual and packed with their personalities – I can hear them speak the words on the paper. Their voices flood into my head and I can see their faces. That’s something you just don’t get with email or social media even when, as with Facebook, there’s a face right in front of you.
Then there’s the postcards. Luckily we have friends and family who still send them, as it’s nicer to get a picture and message we can stick on the fridge for a bit rather than read “OMG! In Barcelona! Does anyone know a good tapas bar?” on Twitter or Facebook – a message meant for as many readers as possible. The postcards are personalised for us alone. Nice.
Being so used to using a computer for just about all correspondence these days, I find writing letters by hand quite difficult. My handwriting doesn’t keep up with my brain, whereas my typing almost does. The joy of using a computer means you can edit and delete your work until you get something with which you’re happy. I’m guilty of sending printed letters to family and friends as a result. Yes, the dreaded Christmas Newsletter! However I do personalise it and edit it for each person, usually older relatives. I did write by hand to my cousin Bruce last year (using, I might add, my fountain pen) but because I’m impatient didn’t tell him half the news I would have in a word-processed letter. And of course there’s email and social media, and hitting the send button is far less work than walking down to the post office.
When I write handwritten letters these days I actually draft it on the Mac and then copy it out when I’m happy with it. Daft? Maybe, but it’s the way I organise my thoughts.
Finding good writing paper these days is a challenge, too. There are some awful and twee stationery sets on eBay, but as for plain-printed linen paper, it’s a hard call. I did have some thick parchment-coloured A4 paper put aside which I’ve guillotined down into a more personal size for handwritten letters.
I’d like to think that the odd letters I write give their recipients something in the mail other than bills and junk advertising; certainly I enjoy the ones I receive.
Here’s a challenge: This week, write a letter to a friend or relative. Surprise them. Make them smile. Give them something that perhaps, in this throwaway and delete-button age, they may keep for at least a little while.