Why do we write (letters)?

My son asked me the other day, “Why do we have to write, Mum?” A very reasonable question since he’s been battling with consonants and vowels, CVCC and all that, for about half his life.

“To tell stories,” said his brother, “and to make money.”

“Or to say ‘hello’,” I suggested… they stared at me and I passed out some paper, “here, you guys can write to Granny.”

I remember living with my mum and dad, in the days before email or mobiles (holy cow!) – and, like Harry Potter, in the school holidays my friends and I would send each other notes and postcards. Many of them just had cartoons and scribbles on, but having things LAND on the doormat was a special kind of magic.

When we all dispersed to colleges around the world, those postcards became letters and the words were longer, but the magic was the same. I will never throw away those letters, even though the senders are now in their forties and would laugh hysterically if I were to show them an excerpt.

Later, in my twenties, we entered the realm of email and text, and our letters would eventually trickle to a halt, but for a few years, which coincided with me living alone, the letters persisted. One of my oldest friends, then up in Durham while I was in London, used to send the most fabulous letters about his normal, daily life. He would simply tell me what he’d been doing. I remember now, the pleasure in a steaming cup of coffee, a chocolate croissant, and ripping open his letters to feel as though he and I were just chatting in a café. Like many twenty-somethings freshly out of college, I had moments of loneliness and these letters were beautiful reminders that “our gang” still existed.

Now, I live on a diet of real-life meetings, emails and texts, while letters are too often reserved for Christmas, when I receive mass-mailing inserts from various clans. Even so, occasionally, I receive an ink-on-paper letter or card from my parents, Granny, and a handful of fabulous friends who understand how much I love the plop of paper on mat. My children, on the other hand, receive wonderful letters, cards and gifts for Christmas and birthdays, from their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends – for which we’re all very grateful. They are happy to receive the gifts, whereas I am delighted that they will grow up understanding the joy of holding a piece of inky effort, written and posted just for them. I make them write thank you letters which is in part normal kindness and manners, but also to try and preserve the art.

And so, I explained to my kids, we write to greet people, to stave off loneliness, to say thank you and share happy moments with friends who perhaps couldn’t be with us on special days but who nevertheless thought of us. People who might wake up in the morning with an overdraft or aching neck, but who will now have breakfast with a steaming coffee, a chocolate croissant, and a big smile.

“I’ll write to Granny,” said my son.

21 comments

  1. martha says:

    I love this. it i so true. I sometimes read old letters that my friend sent me back in the day. They were so much more personal than email, more thought out, more personal. These days the only letters I get are from cpmpanies demanding payment. How times have changed! Loved this pot, Martha.

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    • tu says:

      I love the feeling of recognition when you see handwriting in the pile of envelopes, and the sense that the person really touched the paper. I think the words are well thought out, too, because you don’t get a delete button with a pen. The words are slow cooked before they hit the page.

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  2. Jo Carroll says:

    I left uni in 1971, and a friend and I have been writing letters to each other ever since. We generally wait about two weeks to reply – which means twelve letters each per year, except in times of trauma (sick relatives, divorces, widowhood, children challenges) when they have been even more frequent.

    There can’t be many people who have sustained a correspondence like this – but it has sustained us for decades.

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    • tu says:

      Oh, how magical, what a wonderful collection of letters and what a great friendship. Twenty years ago, when I lived in London I had a group of four or five very close friends and we’re all still in touch which is great, but sadly the one who writes most has simply been too busy with kids and career in the last few years and we’ve drifted apart. I miss those letters! Luckily I still have the others to prod for occasional posts and they do humour me with emails and photos, bless them.

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  3. alisonwells says:

    I have such fond memories of letters. Love letters from a long distance romance, a whole summer of letters between my friend and I age 14, talking about our favourite pop star (John Taylor from Duran Duran) and writing poems to compete in his affections, letters to and from parents when I started college, letters my best friend wrote to each other age 9 to 19 after I moved from England to live in Ireland as a child. And now, as you say, there is nothing to beat the occasional letter that arrives. Thinking about this and the movement of books to the e-reader – there is so much to be lost in the physicality of things and the resonances they hold.

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    • tu says:

      John Taylor was definitely the one, wasn’t he. I wrote a blog post a while ago (have lost it now) about my Nan’s cookery book; it had all her scribbles in the margins. A book can be such a communal thing, and as well as being solid in itself, also we know that other people have touched them, which can be lovely if it’s your nan. Although… kind of germy in a hotel or hospital, I suppose… but, yeah, mostly lovely!

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  4. rburdock says:

    This is a beautiful post. Thank you. And as a traditionalist I couldn’t agree more about the thrill of receiving (and sending) a handwritten letter. What worries me though, is that we may never again see the publication of letter collections from our favourite authors. This would be such a loss.

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    • tu says:

      Thanks, Rob! I love reading letter collections, especially really old ones which give little insights into personal opinion and lifestyles of the time. Although, as far as the future goes… if I ever became famous (hah!) and someone published my old letters, they’d… realise… how… ridiculous… I really am… it would feel really intrusive and totally cringeworthy.

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  5. As much as I have embraced digital technology, I mourn the loss of the tactical feel of the things, it is replacing. The smell of vinyl and wonderful covers replaced by a fiddly plastic box with a small cover now replaced by an.mp3. The smell and feel of a book replaced by a file on a Kindle and above all letters. Even concert tickets are being replaced by an email which can be scanned on a mobile phone. The photograph is hanging in there but only just.
    Funnily enough, letters have been the thing I have missed the least on a day to day basis, mainly because there seem so many other ways of keeping in touch these days. My Dad wrote to me at Durham Uni in the first year because we didn’t have a home phone! Now we talk virtually every day irrespective of wherever I am in the world. I keep in touch with other people I wouldn’t have written to via Facebook, Twitter etc. and I have never really thought about letters much, until now.
    There is just something wonderful about letters though. I have a wonderful collection of letters and cards over the years and they’re not going to be replaced by digital. Hopefully letters will enjoy something of a revival, like vinyl. Hopelessly out of date but never bettered.
    I haven’t written a proper letter in years. Perhaps it’s time I started again?

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    • tu says:

      Oh, you were at Durham too — some good people went there! We have a gorgeous stash of my Granny’s letters to my dad in the pre-phone era and they’re beautiful. I also have a postcard that my dad sent to me when he was away on business, I think when I was three. So sweet. I don’t know if I’ve hit an age of nostalgia, or whether I’m watching my children start to write more, but I’m missing the time of letters. I love email/text/tweets etc, I’m a full-on geek, but I know in years to come, I won’t have kept all of them. I do have all my letters, and since some of my friends date back from the pre-teen era (not to mention my family), they’re a real life story. My son wants his own web page and I’ll build him one, but right now, I’m trying to get him to write to close friends on pieces of paper first. Just to experience letters.

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  6. rebeccaemin says:

    I love this post. I also have a massive collection of letters from friends when I was at school. One of my old school friends was having a clear-out recently and she offered me the ones I had written to her, which of course I said yes to. It was so funny to read what I had written all those years ago.

    I still have one person I write to, and he writes back to me longhand too. He is one of my oldest friends (both in age and length of friendship). Your post has inspired me to get my pen out and send a letter…

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    • tu says:

      Cool! But hard work. Longhand is deliciously idle! In fact, I think the most important thing about longhand is to remember that it’s OK to write six lines and post it. Any more is almost greedy.

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