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Sunday, July 3, 2022

P.S. I still love writing letters

Martha Wells explains the continued value of letter-writing in the digital age

Apart from the formulaic thank-you letters following primary school birthday parties, the first ten years of my life did not feature much letter writing. My initiation to this world was not especially out of choice. It was in writing letters home to my family to be posted across the Channel in the summer of 2014 that I first properly engaged with this rather formal mode of correspondence.

Perhaps part of what appealed to me was the time for consideration that you get with writing. For someone who has always struggled with social anxiety, the idea that I could take as much time as I wanted to carefully contemplate what I wanted to say was incredibly appealing. I think the therapeutic nature of the activity was something I appreciated back then, even if I didn’t acknowledge that explicitly. Reflecting on what has happened in the recent past and laying out thoughts and opinions is undoubtedly one of the biggest perks of the process. 

After letter writing stopped being a necessity, my writing pads and envelopes were discarded in the bottom drawer of a dresser for a few years. However, in searching for an activity to keep away the boredom, or rather an excuse to hide from my siblings, it was during lockdown that my love for letter writing was reignited. Being older, the contents of my letters had evolved to become ever so slightly more sophisticated. 

Of course this was also related to the context of lockdown. When you haven’t done anything of interest all week, you have to find something to fill the pages with, and you find yourself getting profound faster than ever with the backdrop of a global pandemic and nothing much else to distract you. My letters at that time weren’t just comparisons of my experiences of COVID with those of my friends. Lockdown also stretched over quite a few significant life events: I entered adulthood, finished school, and started making decisions about what to do next with my life. There’s definitely a parallel between journalling and letter writing, with each having its own set of different advantages. I think what letters provide are a more obvious objective, even though this becomes sort of superficial once you start writing. Journalling can be more authentic and raw, but equally doesn’t have the appeal of external validation… 

The other long-form version of communication that seemed to take off during lockdown and since is voice messages. These are probably the closest thing to letters, of course with a little 21st century twist. Don’t get me wrong, I love receiving a twenty-minute-long personal podcast (even if I have to switch to 1.5x speed during double deadline weeks), but the ping of a WhatsApp notification isn’t quite the same thing as an envelope arriving on your doorstep or peeking out of your pidge.

Of course, something must also be said for the aesthetic value of writing itself. The freshness of the paper and the comfort of writing with a lovely pen are unquestionably part of the attraction. Although naturally the materials you use don’t really matter, and the value of the letters you write aren’t impacted by whether you’re using posh writing paper or the back of an old worksheet. Funnily enough, I can’t remember a single instance where I’ve bought my own writing materials – they seem to sort of appear in my life when necessary and float out again after they’ve served their time. In a time when almost the entirety of school or university work is online, the physicality of letter writing can’t be overlooked. Having a material piece of evidence for productivity is something I’ve missed since work shifted into the virtual realm. Plus, the childlike joy you get from posting a letter is a pretty satisfying feeling.

For some time during the first lockdown in 2020, there were postal processing issues in Hong Kong and the letters I was writing to my friends there were arriving as late as two months after posting. With one particular friend, we resorted to writing out letters with pen and paper and then scanning and sending them over WhatsApp. I’m not sure exactly what this demonstrates, apart from perhaps the fact that we’d forgotten how to communicate with anyone outside of our immediate families… but I feel like there should be some deeper message about technology hidden within that anecdote.

Maybe it’s not just the medium that creates a contrast between communicating via social media compared to pen and ink. With the rise of so-called ‘casual Instagram’ social media seems to be concerned with the idea that coolness should be effortless. The necessity of curation in your online presences seems as dominant as ever but this performance is now supposed to result in a casual appearance. With this context, what I love perhaps the most about letter writing is the amount of effort that the process requires. Hear me out, I promise I’m not saying that I usually have the time to write pages upon pages every day! It’s just that there’s something rewarding and refreshing about unabashedly putting a significant amount of time and energy into something for someone else. Who knows how long we’ll be around for, why not be unapologetic about your affections?

So, when you find the time, why not try penning a few messages – I promise it’s worth it. Besides, on top of all these many positives, the greatest bit about writing letters is that sometimes people write them back!

Image credit: Darkmoon_Art / Pixabay License via Pixabay

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