Wednesday 30 November 2022

Marks on a Page: The Art and Craft of Letter Writing

I think I became a writer because I used to write letters to my friends, and I used to love writing them. I loved the idea that you can put marks on a page and send it off, and two days later, someone laughs somewhere else in the world.
— David Nicholls

I recently shared a selection of open letters I’ve written over the years, but what about regular, personal letters? Letter writing has always been an important part of my life and I thought it might be interesting to explore that a little. The inspiration to do so came when I discovered my friend Louise shares my love of letter writing. “It’s such a lovely thing,” she told me. “That hardly anyone does now. My mom used to make us write thank you letters to all our relatives after Christmas and birthdays so I think it’s been instilled in me.” I can trace my letter writing back to childhood too. I mentioned this last year in a blog post titled Thank You Anyway: The Gift of Ingratitude.

We’re taught to be grateful — or rather, to express gratitude — at an early age, whether we want to or not. I remember writing grudging thank you letters to grandparents, aunts, and uncles every Boxing Day. It’s polite, I was told. It’s expected. But is a forced, ritualistic, thank you really a good thing? If I help someone and for some reason they’re not grateful, wouldn’t it be better if they felt able to say why, without worrying they’ll upset me or push me away?

Grudging thank you notes aside, the first letters I remember writing were to two French penfriends when I was at school. I can’t recall either of their names, and I don’t think the exchanges lasted long, but it opened me to the delight of sharing aspects of my life and learning something of another person’s life that might be quite different to my own.

Letter writing really took off for me during my years at university in Bradford. In those preinternet times, if you wanted to keep in touch with someone you had two options; phone calls or letters. I never felt confident on the telephone, even with close friends, and relied on correspondence to stay in touch with ex-school mates when I was away at university, and with university folk during Christmas and summer break. As I mentioned recently in an article describing my adventures with Teeline shorthand and other writing systems, I corresponded for a time in Elven Tengwar with one school friend who shared my fascination with the writing modes described by JRR Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings.

One university friend, Vicky, was a wonderful letter writer. She left Bradford early when she realised the course wasn’t for her, but we wrote to each other for a year or more afterwards. Her letters — I still have them — were delightful, full of silliness and wonder. She once sent me a large box of gifts, using mini bags of jelly tot sweets as packing material. I miss her a lot. I wrote a good deal of poetry in those days, too. One poem describes the — delicious — agony of waiting for a reply from someone you care about very deeply, hoping they feel the same but knowing they probably don’t.

Faithfully (unanswered)

Faithfully I keep the vows
I never made,
chastening a love I know
yet understand not
in the flames of its integrity
—waiting for devotion doubt denies me.
So few words would despatch misapprehension,
end this love’s charade,
or blow despair upon the wings of a kinder truth.

But tide and time have marked another day
and still no word
—not one—
consoles me.
My mind spins in its circles,
weaving reason out of darkness,
filling the silence with dreams and sighs and promises
beyond regret:
how long before it weaves my love a shroud
and the one I needed fades
like the last strains of a finale …

Tomorrow may bring my consolation
or find me waiting still
—impaled upon a desire
that cannot cede
but wears its agony like a crown of thorns. Renewed and
selfless adoration
in this modern age?

I spent two six-month periods away from Bradford on placement. Letters were a lifeline, and kept the pulse of friendships going when we couldn’t be together in person. This was especially true on my second placement, at the start of my final academic year. The following is taken from a blog post exploring loneliness.

One Friday in September 1982, I arrived in Norwich to begin a six-month work placement at the regional hospital. I unpacked in my tiny room in the nurses’ home, and phoned friends to let them know I’d arrived safely. I enjoyed the months I worked there, but on that first night as I put down the phone, with the weekend ahead of me in a new city with no one I knew, I felt an almost existential loneliness.

I wrote to my best friend Dawn every week of those six months and checked the post each day for replies. I can still remember my excitement when I’d find an envelope from her in my pigeon hole. Letters to and from Dawn continued after I left university and moved to London. I was writing to several friends at that time, on a more or less regular basis.

One thing I like about letter writing is that it finds its own frequency and rhythm. I’d write to some friends more or less by return of post; others every few weeks; others less frequently. Pam (PJ) was a return-of-post kind of friend, and I loved her for that amongst much else. Our letters — I still have many of hers and drafts of mine — were a delightful mix of what we’d been up to, what our mutual friends were up to, our dreams, hopes, and plans for the future. I’d often take a several days to write to a letter. I’d treat myself to each step of the process; jotting down a few ideas, writing the letter in draft, copying it out neatly, addressing the envelope, and walking to the post box to send it off on its way. Thinking about it now brings many warm memories.

After three years in London, I moved north to Newcastle upon Tyne. I continued writing to friends from university and others I’d made during my time in the capital. The frequency and content of the letters reflected the friendships themselves. Some were of the what’s-been-happening-lately variety. Others went much deeper, exploring what we were each thinking and feeling, our hopes and fears, the birth of new relationships, and the pain as relationships fractured and ended.

Around this time I connected with an amazing artist called Yuri Leitch and exchanged many long and detailed letters on topics I knew very little about but was keen to explore. Our friendship led to an introduction to someone who became a close friend and wonderful return-of-post correspondent for several years. Sorcha’s letters were full of life and energy, and I wove her knowledge and love of the Isles of Scilly into some of my fictional work.

My mother was the only member of my family I ever wrote to with any frequency. As her health deteriorated, her replies became intermittent and ultimately stopped altogether. I continued to send letters and cards, nonetheless. The following is from the open letter to my mother, written and published after she died.

It’s been a while since I wrote you. Six months. What was the last thing I sent you? A postcard, probably. Someone — one of your sisters, my aunts — told me a while back that my letters to you went unopened. Hence the postcards: nothing for you to open (or not open), a pretty picture for you to look at, and less aching white space for me to fill each week. It made it easier — for me at least. Nothing too heavy. News from up here in the north. Family. Friends. Work. Then best wishes for your wellbeing and family down there.

I wrote to hide my inability — some would say refusal — to respond to her needs in more meaningful and practical ways. It wasn’t the first time I’d done this. A close friend developed multiple sclerosis, which advanced far more rapidly than she or anyone else anticipated. As I’ve shared elsewhere,

I watched helplessly as the woman I had known was overwhelmed by disease, despair, and grief. The depth of her need terrified me. I wrote to her every day for what turned out to be the last two years of her life, but never once picked up the telephone. I visited her home only once, after her death, to attend a memorial ceremony.

The friend I treated so poorly was none other than PJ. My daily letter writing was rooted in the love and meaning we’d shared in former times, when we’d often correspond by return of post. Her replies fell away, though, as the illness progressed and her hope diminished. I might have responded to those changes by asking how I could help more meaningfully, but I kept on relentlessly mailing my daily thoughts and best wishes until she became too ill to read them, or even have them read to her. I’ve no record of what I said to her, but I know where I was when I wrote the final letter. The following is from a blog post about my favourite writing cafés and coffee shops.

One of my clearest memories is of sitting at the window [of the Rendezvous café in Whitley Bay] one day in September 2005 writing a letter to my friend PJ who I’d known since university. She was very ill with multiple sclerosis and I had written every day for two years. I addressed and sealed the envelope but for some reason, I didn’t post it. A mutual friend phoned me the following evening to tell me PJ had died overnight.

I haven’t always got it wrong with my letter writing, though. I can’t recall how soon I began writing to Fran, but before long I was posting letters to her every week. As we describe in our book, “[w]e love to communicate and use all means available to us. Telephone and video calls, e-mails, text messages, letters, instant messaging, and other social media — each medium has its virtues, and adds its particular spice to our conversations.” You might wonder what handwritten letters and cards gave us, given that it can take up to a week for a letter posted in the UK to be delivered to the US. Immediacy, however, is not always the prime consideration.

In a friendship conducted almost exclusively online there is something special about sitting at a table in my favourite coffee shop, taking up my fountain pen and writing a letter, then sealing the letter into an envelope, addressing it, and taking it to the post office. The fact that a week may elapse before my words reach Fran enhances their significance rather than diminishing it. In a letter, I pay less attention to our day-to-day situation, problems, and activities, and explore more general themes operating on longer timescales. Fran often reads my letters to me once they have reached her.

These days, the person I write to most regularly is my friend Maya. We’ve been friends for many years. There have been times when we’ve struggled, and without the pulse of our letters it’s likely we’d have drifted apart or failed to repair issues when they arose. She sends the best letters, whether written by hand or typed and printed out. Our friendship has always touched on deeper topics but we can do light and fun too! Her letters interweave personal and family news with quizzes, jokes, stories, photos, and illustrations. The envelopes are true works of art, often layered with washi tape, stickers, craft papers, tissue paper, and natural elements such as dried leaves. She tells me she gets a great deal of pleasure crafting her letter and envelope for me each week. My replies are written by hand and far less colourful but — I hope — are as meaningful to Maya as hers are to me.

I’ve talked about writing letters to keep in touch, but what can letters offer that other modes of communication can’t do better and more quickly? It can take days for a letter to reach its recipient, and at least as long again to receive a reply. Why bother, when you could send an e-mail or instant message, or pick up the phone? That inbuilt delay is the whole point, though. It gives us pause to consider what we want to say and how to say it, and to ponder what our loved one might be doing when they receive our letter. Will they open it straight away or wait — as I often do — until they can give it their full attention. We imagine our loved one’s face, their feelings and reaction as they read our words. As author David Nicholls puts it, “I [love] the idea that you can put marks on a page and send it off, and two days later, someone laughs somewhere else in the world.”

It’s not always laughter, of course. Our words might evoke tears, frustration, anger, or more. Likewise, we might experience a range of emotions reading words sent to us from afar. The best letters I’ve ever sent or received were written from the heart, honestly and truthfully, and sometimes the truth is challenging, to say the least. Sometimes it hurts like hell. Where there’s no expectation of an immediate response, e-mails and even instant messages can be written as letters and received in the same way. I exchanged weekly e-mail letters with a friend at a time when we were uncertain if our connection had any future. The discipline of only connecting once a week allowed for a great deal of inner work.

Putting this article together has been more emotional than I imagined it might be. It’s brought back memories of people and moments I’d not thought of a long time. I’m grateful for all the people I’ve corresponded with over the years. Some are still in my life, many are not — and that’s okay. Not every connection lasts forever. No matter the current situation, letters provide a tangible reminder of when channels were open and love flowed “from my heart to your heart.”

I can think of no better way to close than with these words by Soraya Diase Coffelt: “Letter writing can be seen as a gift because someone has taken his/her time to write and think and express love.”

Over to You

Are you someone who loves writing and receiving letters, or do you prefer to keep in touch in other ways? What was the best or most meaningful letter you ever received? Have you ever sent a letter you wished you could recall?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by the author of an envelope crafted by Maya Hayward.


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