Letters Matter

October 27, 2015

And none will hear the postman’s knock,

without the quickening of the heart.

For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

~ W.H. Auden


I recently received a beautifully drafted thank-you letter in the post from my niece. The mundane daily ritual of sifting through direct mail and bills was punctured by this little pink envelope, nestled on the mat, waiting to be read. Crafted patiently by her five-year-old hand, the spelling errors and spiderish hand captured an innocent moment in time to be treasured.

The joy of receiving a letter in the post can never be replaced by today’s transient technology. Why? What is it about something hand written that adds emotional value far greater than the same words typed and sent digitally? Talking to friends and family, the reasons were numerous and the outpourings heartfelt – many captured below in italics. Handwritten is special, unique, powerful.

Here are seven reasons why letters matter. There are no doubt more.

It shows someone has made the effort. A handwritten letter says ‘I care enough about you to sit down and take time out of my busy day tell you as much’.

‘It shows a willingness to connect in a very un-connected world (emotionally).’

Writing a letter takes time; requiring its author to focus solely on the task itself. You are capturing how you feel and committing those emotions to paper. It can’t be rushed. Whether to convey joy or sadness, gratitude or news, the act of writing feelings down is both cathartic for the author and powerful for the recipient.

‘It’s amazing how a birthday with a 0 at the end encourages people to remind you about why they’re still your friend after so many years. A truly life-affirming experience and the cards remind me I’m actually a pretty ok kind of person in those moments of doubt.’

It’s the element of surprise. A letter can, in a moment, trigger the full plethora of emotions, often when you least expect it.

‘The nicest thing about a hand written letter is you never expect one, so when one arrives it is a huge treat to sit with a cup of tea and read it.’

‘My mum used to write to me twice a week in my Navy days and receiving them half way through arduous months at sea was always fantastic.’

Then there is the surprise of discovering long-forgotten missives and re-awakening their tenor.

‘I love looking back at them all – from angst-filled notes passed round lessons at school in my teens, to love letters, birthday cards and thank you notes.’

It’s the next best thing to the person turning up in person. When you read a letter, you can imagine them saying what is written and you don’t feel quite so far away.

‘Handwritten notes feel like the sender has put an essence of themselves on paper. It always feels like the meaning of the words are enhanced and the handwriting is like hearing their individual voice.’

Our fifteen-year-old son started at boarding school last year. A late decision based on a scholarship offer and one I had not had time to emotionally prepare for. It’s fair to say we struggled far more than he did with the transition; desperate to be in touch, to hear his progress and update him on news from home. For that, digital communication had its place. But when he asked to receive letters by mail it reinforced that digital simply wasn’t enough. A letter can be read, and re-read. It can be locked in a tuck box with pictures and cuttings, to be indulged when a reminder of home is needed. It says ‘I love you and want the world for you’ and somehow writing it down is like a confession, a promise you are willing to sign up to for a lifetime.

It captures a moment in time. Letters have permanence. They create a record of moments in history to be discovered or rediscovered in the future.

‘I keep all my handwritten letters from my grandparents (now deceased), parents and special friends. If ever I am feeling down, I take them out and re-read them, and it makes me feel so much better.’

Tucked in a box, in the attic at home, is a fabric envelope filled with love letters from my husband. I am forever grateful that we started courting before the advent of email. Being away at University whist he was at home in Jersey, the letters were a lifeline. They said I love you; I miss you; I want to share my deepest thoughts with you. The next generation will never know that longing for the post to arrive to get news from home. And for that I’m sad. One day in the future, my boys will uncover their parents’ love letters and will understand something about us that, for now, is private.

It imparts advise, future wishes and aspirations for the recipient.  Reinforcing their permanence, letters have been written for generations, by generations, to pass on a message for the future. From grandparent to grandchild, teacher to pupil, mother to son; people have committed pen to paper to capture words that if spoken would be lost in the ether.

‘The best hand written letter I received was from my grandfather. He actually wrote it when I was very small but to read when I was older. My grandmother found it after he passed away and gave it to me. It is a treasure; even more so because it is handwritten. It is a piece of him.’

‘My daughter asked me to write a letter for her to open when she is 18.   I will write about my hopes and dreams for her – mundane things like being able to cook a roast, speak in public and use an iron as well as wishes for happiness, love and determination to go for it in life.’

It captures the beauty of the handwritten word. Twenty years ago, my twin brother bought me my first Monblanc pen. I loved it then and I’m ashamed to say I use it too infrequently now; my MacBook becoming my modern day writing tool.   But this transition has also deprived recipients of my writing from a 3D experience. Handwritten text imparts feeling, energy and intensity. Pressure depicts vitality; slant conveys emotion; baseline depicts optimism or pessimism. All this lost in type.

‘You can see the emotion they were feeling when they wrote it through their handwriting – how angry words always look scratchy and jagged and words of love are often written with special care and a softer hand.’

It protects and gives life to our beautiful language Evidently, the power of the written word reaches so much further than the words set to paper. The skill of writing, of shaping and forming emotion into words triggers parts of the nervous system that stay quiet during typing. It’s been proven that good handwriting improves reading and maths, leading to better grades.

‘With the death of the hand written letter we have lost our ability to use words. There are so few people now that can motivate, encourage and inspire in day-to-day living, using only the power of words. A letter is elegant; it keeps grammar and spelling at the forefront of your mind.’

Given its immense and unrivalled emotional impact, why are we not championing the handwritten word and fighting to save it, teach it, nurture it? In letting the art of letter writing die, we are all but erasing its magic and depriving future generations of an emotional treasure trove.

Bottom line is letters matter.

They make a difference.

Please write.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Viv Armstrong October 27, 2015 at 9:34 pm

    Martha will be delighted that her letter prompted this blog. You will be pleased to know that, despite the fact the girls have each lost a tooth since we’ve been in Barcelona, they have written to the Spanish tooth fairy requesting a reply in English. This she has done. Her name is Catalina.

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