My first boyfriend and I used to write to each other while he was away at university in Swansea. We started writing letters as friends, hooked up one time when he was back home for the holidays, and then continued writing as a way to share our feelings when he returned to his studies. It was the early 90s and he claimed to not have a phone in his halls (not sure that I completely believed that at the time though!), so letter writing was our only way of keeping in touch. I knew when one of his letters had arrived because my mum would prop it up on the windowsill next to the front door, so I could see it through the mottled glass as I approached the house after a day of sixth-form lessons and a packed bus journey home. I’d sit in my bedroom, poring over every delightfully written word (he had great handwriting) and then write a reply the same night, ready to post in the morning. He must’ve done the same too, as I never went more than a few days without a new piece of correspondence in my hands. I saved those letters for years – not for the content, but to remember the feeling of excitement that came with the arrival of each letter, and the careful thought that I put into writing each reply.
Over two decades later, I handed in my Master’s dissertation and said goodbye to a fantastic group of course mates, some of whom had been in the UK on study visas and so now had to return to their homes many thousands of miles away. One of these lovely new friends asked if we could write to each other when she returned to her native Canada, and I was immediately excited by the prospect of embarking on such a slow paced correspondence in a new millennium. This friend was much younger than me – a digital native who had probably not yet learnt to write in the year when I was posting letters to South Wales a couple of times a week – which made it an even more fascinating conversational experiment. The extended delay in receiving a reply, due to the distance and our respective postal services’ tardiness, was such a novelty at first. Not least because I would inevitably forget about the whole endeavour after each time I’d popped something in the post. After a few months of sharing news, thoughts and idle ramblings, our letters became less frequent and eventually stopped, but it was good while it lasted. I sometimes wonder if she’s at the same address and whether I should send a surprise letter.
Recently I offered to write to a friend who was working away from London for a month. It probably seemed like a very peculiar suggestion in 2019, as writing letters now seems incredibly weird and retro but, on reflection, I thought that maybe kinda sums me up. I had suggested writing letters as a way for me to share my thoughts and feelings in long form, but without the implied pressure that comes from seeing a notification in an app on a phone. With messaging apps and even email, it’s all too easy to feel you ought to reply straight away but also worry that, in doing so, you’d not be giving the message the consideration it deserves. However, once a letter wings its way into the world the sender surrenders to uncertainty and, although that used to terrify me, I’ve been embracing it a lot more recently. When it reaches its destination, there is no obligation to read or reply to the letter… if the recipient reads it, the sender won’t know when that happens. In this way, letter writing is as much about the process as it is about the content.
In recent years, I’ve been handling my emotions in an “instant message” kinda way – it pops up and you respond immediately, to get it out of the way – but I’ve come to realise that I perhaps need to be more of a “letter writer” when processing feelings. When I write letters, I often keep draft notes on my phone so that I can think it over, and I always find myself pausing for thought and lifting my pen off the page when I write what ends up going in the mailbox. I will literally sit with those thoughts and feelings, considering what it all means and which are the best words I can use to express myself. This is why, even though I never got an address from that friend to send them to, I wrote five letters in that month. I still have them, as I suspect they were more engaging to write than they would be to read, and they are also a reminder that sometimes being a little weird and retro – a bit old old fashioned – is exactly what we need.
Image via Suzy Hazelwood‘s Flickr photostream.