Do you remember the last time you received a hand-written letter in the mail? Chances are you can still see the hand-addressed envelope and stamp. Maybe the letter was written on tasteful stationery in the familiar handwriting of someone close to you. I’d wager you saved that letter in a special place, maybe along with other letters you received over the years.
Think of your past experiences with letter writing. Did you have a pen pal as a child? If so, you were probably very excited each time an envelope with your name and address written in your distant friend’s handwriting. Maybe you collected the exotic stamps from the envelopes? Do you still have old love letters tied with ribbon that you can’t bear to discard even though the relationship ended years ago? Have you saved heartfelt notes of condolence?
Receiving a hand-written letter is a special treat in this age of instant electronic messaging. The bulk of modern communication is by email, with notes dashed off so quickly they often demonstrate a lack of attention to grammar, spelling and complete sentences. Emails provide an efficient way to share information, but are hardly suited for expressing deep feelings. Other than notes of condolence, hand-written communication is now rare.
In times past, hand-penned letters have provided insight into the lives of famous figures (including many writers) and have furnished personal information invaluable to historians and biographers. But it is the letters of (so called) ordinary people, passed down through generations in a family that have become an integral part of that family’s history. Personal letters may have chronicled immigration and separation from family, love won or lost, war, marriage, birth, divorce, employment, illness and death, along with the day-to-day events in the family’s life. Personal letters are invaluable to the family memoirist.
An old book I found on my home bookshelf gave me some insight into letter writing a hundred years ago. The Complete Letter Writer for Ladies & Gentlemen was published by George Routledge and Sons, London around 1890. At that time, much of the communication between persons who could read and write was by letter. I was intrigued by the fact the book contains model letters organized in separate sections for women and men, this organization reflecting the societal roles of the genders at that time. The contents demonstrate just how many situations required a letter. The women’s section includes: “Matrimonial answer after meeting the previous evening”, “to a future husband respecting his misconduct”, and “to the mistress of a school regarding placing daughters”. The men’s section offers: “Letter to a horse dealer”, “letter to a son on his marriage” and “recommending a successor”. In all model letters, the wording is stiff, reserved and formal.
It’s a relief that we are no longer constrained by such conventions and can feel free to allow our feelings to live on the page of a hand-written letter. A letter is a form of personal and private communication. It tells the recipient that the writer took the time to reflect and share their thoughts and innermost feelings. It’s tangible, can be held, and can’t be erased with the push of a button.
By writing a letter you are creating a keepsake. Just thinking about the following reasons for writing may give you the urge to pick up a pen:
- a feeling of deep gratitude for what someone has done, or for how they have acted in a long-standing relationship
- a sincere apology and an invitation to begin to repair a relationship
- empathy and support for someone going through a life challenge
As a writer, you in particular have the ability to craft a warm, insightful, funny, empathetic, compelling letter depending on the occasion and your own writing style and personality. Is there someone who would value receiving a letter from you? You may find the following suggestions helpful in getting started:
A special message deserves special paper. Stationery stores are rare, but if you live in or near a large city, search online for a store near you. You could also check the Etsy website for unique stationery designs and personalized stationery. Click HERE to be taken to the site. Bookstores often offer a selection of writing materials.
Choose a pen that writes smoothly and freely. For a classic touch, use a fountain pen. Several companies, such as German-based Lamy, produce high-quality, contemporary fountain pens. Check HERE to view their online selection.
A drop of essential oil or a spritz of perfume can add olfactory pizazz, especially to a romantic letter.
As many of us rarely have much practice writing and we often write quickly, our handwriting can be difficult to read. Try to slow down as you write your letter and concentrate on the form of the individual letters in words. If your handwriting is truly illegible, check with your local library for books on improving your penmanship
Writing the Letter
- begin by visualizing the person to whom you are writing, then jot down some notes about what you want to share
- date the page
- use your powers of observation when you describe events – including sight, sound, touch, taste and smell
- as you begin to write, let your true feelings flow and your personality shine on the page
- use an appropriate closing depending on your relationship to the person. Some options are: “love”, “with affection”, “sincerely”
If you have any misgivings about what you have written, put the letter away overnight and reread it the next day. Remember, once it has been sent it will be a permanent record of your feelings in the moment.
Until next time,
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Our blog posts will continue over the summer, but we won’t be offering any more writing retreats until the autumn. We hope you’ll consider joining us for a Day Away to Write on October 6, 2013. The leaves will be just starting to turn – a perfect time for a country drive.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS AND DRAWINGS IN THIS POST ARE BY JANIS MCCALLEN.