Red and blue striped edging on special airmail envelopes, pads of thin lightweight paper, and lined guide sheets saved from long finished pads — memories of the ordinary objects my mom set out on the kitchen table every other week to reconnect with her dad.
These objects were simple but sacred. I knew, even as a child, that she sought the special lightweight paper so she could write as much as possible and not exceed the standard airmail weight. Her letters would fly to her hometown in England all the way from the small town in Namibia where she had made a new life.
She would set out her paper and ballpoint pen, make a cup of coffee, and write her letter. She wrote pages and pages without stopping to think about what to say. Her letters were a ritual and I always wondered what she was writing to her dad. Had so much happened this week?
Her dad returned her letters as religiously. As much as the writing of her letter was a sacred ritual, so too the reading of her dad’s letter. She saved it for a moment when she could read it in its entirety without being disturbed.
The airmail correspondence between my mom and her dad went on for years, unaffected and unabated.
Later, she would write me letters, too. Not the same kind. They were quick catch-ups, special notes to accompany the care packages she would send with people travelling to Cape Town where I went to boarding school.
Admittedly, I took these little letters for granted. Letters were an ordinary thing from my mom, and I was often much more interested in the cache of two-minute noodles and iced zoo biscuits she’d sent me. The thought never crossed my mind to keep them; I thought there’d always be more.
But there wouldn’t always be more letters. A few months after she passed away I boxed up a few recent birthday cards and a small number of short letters she’d written me that had managed to stay out of the bin. I took them with me when I moved.
In the aftermath of her death, I would often look at a photograph of her and I cooking a stir-fry on our balcony that I kept with me in Dropbox. While the memory of her was fresh in my mind and on my skin, the photograph was enough for me to feel her. But I only had the one of her smiling her real smile. She didn’t like having her photo taken and it showed.
Years later, I pulled out those letters and re-read them. They were about nothing important. She’d sent the cheque for my Spanish lessons. She’d added a friend’s parents to my approved-visitors list. She hoped I’d enjoy the goodies.
What I didn’t expect is that after a decade of her being gone and the memory of her voice and physical presence having faded she would be so vivid and alive in her letters.
The photographs had stopped working, I couldn’t feel her there anymore. They didn’t conjure her the way they used to. But in the letters I could hear her voice again, feel who she was again, feel her love for me again. I was overwhelmed by how the words were able to calm and soothe me the way her presence used to, something I didn’t think I’d ever feel again.
In her letters, I found the real her — so clearly after so much time had passed. I could hear her voice in her words and her sentence structure. And I could visit her whenever I wanted, it never faded. Always remained strong.
I wish I had kept more of her letters. They are so much more than photographs, to me. And because she was a great letter writer, her voice is strong and authentic. She is alive in her letters.
“A letter is a soul, so faithful an echo of the speaking voice that to the sensitive it is among the richest treasures of love.” — Honoré de Balzac (Père Goriot)
Now I understand that my mom and her dad’s correspondence was so much more than an exchange of news and happenings. It was about connection, staying close when they could not have been further apart. She could feel his personality in the lightly raised ink on the paper. She could hear his tone of voice, imagine his laughter, sense his mood, all from his words or the words he didn’t write. She could be near him when she missed him. They were together in their letters.
Write Letters To Your Loved Ones
Write letters to the people you love. Tell them all the things you love about them. Tell them about your day, your hopes and dreams and fears. Say what you feel but can’t voice out loud. Write what you cannot find the right moment to say.
Don’t send them. Save them, stack them, and tie them together with string. If you’ve ever wondered what gift you could leave for your loved ones, consider the eternal gift of letters — the gift of you that never fades. Letters from loved ones are unimaginable treasures.
“Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind them.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
And if you find this too bleak to contemplate, then write letters for another reason.
Write Letters To Your Ideal Reader
The first time I ever wrote anything in my personal non-school voice, I was writing a letter. Most of us born before the mid-80s got our start in writing this way.
My first letter went to Santa Claus. My second letter — a proper letter with news and full sentences — went to my grandad. In the beginning, it seemed to me that people learned to write in order to write letters. And the recipient of my letters, the reader, was always firmly in my mind as I composed mine.
My mom taught me about the proper layout and spacing of a letter: date and address top right, leave a line, and Dear so-and-so on the left. She explained to me about opening paragraphs and what we customarily put in those first few lines of a letter: I hope this letter finds you well.
Little did I know these were my first writing lessons. And I went on to learn a great deal about writing from correspondence. The most valuable lesson letter-writing offers you is the development of your voice and style — how to put your personality in words.
Although you may have little cause to write letters nowadays with text messaging, you can still use this written form to develop your voice. The fact that letters are meant for one reader, in particular, helps you with this. Focus on your one ideal reader — the reader your writing is meant for — and write directly to them.
“Writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” — Pico Iyer
Like the letters you write to friends, it’s not so much what you write as how you write it. Practise letting words flow in your own voice, directed to your audience of one.
How is this different from journaling or freewriting? It’s different because it’s meant for someone else. It’s for someone to read. It’s not for you, it’s for them. You’ve got to make it worth the time they spend reading it. Entertain them, enthrall them. It’s an opportunity to practise writing what June Casagrande refers to as ‘reader-serving’ writing because the ‘reader is king’.
“When one is writing a letter, he should think that the recipient will make it into a hanging scroll.” — Yamamoto Tsunetomo (Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai)
Write Letters To Connect
Way back when blogging was new, people used the form very much the way we use our journals. The blog post was sent out into cyberspace for anyone who happened upon it. The internet and the people we could reach through it were unknown. It wasn’t clear what the blog form was for or what readers who came to blogs were looking for; blogging was like writing for yourself and hoping someone would find it and enjoy reading it.
Blogging, the internet, and the online community of content readers have changed tremendously since then. The word content is key, here, because what the hell was content before blogs evolved into instruments of marketing and learning.
The way we write our blog posts and articles is worlds apart from the humble letter. We use different voices, styles, and structures. There are rules and SEO to think about. You’re writing for as wide an audience as possible. It’s good to write in different forms to broaden your skillset, but I missed the tone and ease of writing letters.
After I moved to my self-hosted website, I had a creative conflict over my blog. I wanted to write about the craft of writing and delve into topics that would interest people who might also be interested in my services.
I’ve seen that blogs can be a successful, human-centred marketing tool, one I feel comfortable using without feeling like I’m making an awkward sales pitch. But I also wanted to write about personal growth, life design, creativity, and many other topics that didn’t seem to fit well with the content I create for peers and potential clients.
The way I write changes when I write about these other topics, too. I wanted to write these posts in a more personal, conversational style. They felt more like letters than blog posts, and I came to realise that they belonged in an email newsletter, the modern equivalent of letters in the post box.
I wanted to be able to reach people easily and allow them to have the means to write back to me just as easily. I wanted to connect with people one-on-one and the more private setting of the email inbox was appealing.
And so, separate from my website’s blog, I started my Substack email with the hope of connecting through the form of letter writing.
Maybe traditional letter writing (untraditionally delivered by email) is the creative outlet you’ve been looking for, particularly if you, too, are hoping to make deeper connections with your online readers.
Recovering Lost Treasures
Writing letters for their original purpose of communicating across long distances is no longer necessary or convenient. An email does the job faster and cheaper.
But the art of letter writing is worth recovering.
With smartphones constantly connected to the internet, written (typed) communication has evolved. We write shorter messages more frequently which means we’ve cut out the opportunity to meander in thought on the page (screen). In limited characters, we say only what we need to say and nothing more. Email has followed suit despite its unlimited character cap.
The letter writing form still has much to offer us. It doesn’t need to be written on paper or mailed, but the way we used to write letters enabled us to more deeply connect with loved ones, with the recipient, and with ourselves.
“The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters.” — Lewis Carroll
People explored, discovered, and stayed connected as they composed conversations with someone they held in their mind. They spoke directly, in writing. They left permanent traces of themselves in little paper treasures.
If any of this speaks to you, you might want to recover the art of letter writing.