I was cleaning out my dad’s office a couple of months ago when I found a big box of old letters from his younger days. It was a goldmine. There were aerograms from his father’s visits to Sri Lanka, long accounts from his sister of her stint as a rose-picker in Israel, postcards from university friends making inside jokes… I ditched the cleaning and spent the whole evening poring over these precious bits of the past.
And it got me thinking. I had felt as envious as fascinated when reading my way through that box. Because what mementoes do I have from my life so far that could even come close to the joy, the intimacy, the concreteness of letters? WhatsApp hardly has the same romance or permanence. What will my children find in a box in my office? The long-dead charger cable for my Motorola? It’s not like Waterstones just started selling The Text Messages of Sylvia Plath in the biography section.
This isn’t just about having mementoes. Taking the time to sit down and write a few hundred words; buying paper and envelopes and stamps; walking to the post box: it showed that you really cared about someone. Sure, text messages can be nice, but they can be fired off in a few seconds while you’re waiting for the bus, sitting in a lecture or waiting for the microwave to ping. They are often mindless and secondary.
That is not to say that I want to go totally back to the ’80s tech-wise. Indeed, some of Dad’s postcards from friends say things like ‘where the hell are you?’ and ‘will be in Brighton in two months…let’s try to meet’. These issues seem of the distant past in our times of instant messaging and Find My Friends. And it is great that I can text a friend at 2, arrange to meet at 3, be ten minutes late, change the location three times and still connect fine. But it has come at the price of forward thinking, and being true to one’s word. After all, with a few taps of the thumb you can bail on pretty much anything.
So I’ve decided to Make Writing Letters Great Again. Yes, I still text people and use Facebook (I’ve long since given up on Snapchat). I will still change the location of meet-ups and probably bail on some things last-minute. But most importantly, I now take time to sit down at my desk or in a café to write to my grandmother/aunt/little cousin/friend on the recycled elephant dung paper my grandfather once brought me back from Sri Lanka (he was a letter-writing master, clearly). I love it. It’s immensely therapeutic – like writing in a diary, but you can revel in the knowledge that someone will spot it on their welcome mat, sit down with it and a cup of tea and read it, and smile. And you can bet that surge of glee when you see a letter drop through the letterbox is better than any fleeting hit of dopamine from a notification on a phone screen.
I urge you: join me. Instead of dropping a quick Facebook status on your friend’s birthday, send them a handwritten card. Write to that uncle or godparent you haven’t seen in years and tell them what you’re up to and what you’re reading and what your new room looks like. It doesn’t matter how long or profound it is – some of my favourite finds from Dad’s box were scrappy bits of paper posted under his bedroom door at university that said things along the lines of ‘wake up, you fat slug’. Writing isn’t dead. Sharing your thoughts and feelings isn’t dead. Making lasting connections with loved ones isn’t dead. Join the epistolary revolution and together we can Make Writing Letters Great Again!