When I was a child and really, through to my teenage years (late teenage years if I’m to be honest), letter writing was well and truly A Thing, and boy did I write. My mailbox was always a happy place. Bright envelopes filled with long letters from friends from all over the world well outweighed the bills and junk mail of the day. But then, the internet happened.
Given that most of us were still in our late teens or early 20’s at best, we saw the dawn of the internet age in the early 1990’s as an amazing thing! It allowed us to talk to one another in real-time without racking up outrageous, long-distance phone bills (ask your parents, 2000s kids – calling outside of your area code was like accidentally hitting the internet browser button on your first cell phone) via AIM or ICQ chats and chatrooms. It allowed us to write to one another via e-mail without spending money on postage, or having to delay gratification and wait for the mail. It allowed us to connect via Friendster, then MySpace, and eventually, Facebook. In short, it was amazing. We could send pictures, send “letters”, and send instant love. We could follow one another’s attempts at early HTML and CSS coding, investigate one another’s personal websites, and later, follow each other’s blogs.
Yet…as the internet evolved, our interactions became less personal. Texting replaced chats and became a little bit of a chore, not to mention nigh impossible with overseas friends (at least until apps like Skype, FaceTime, and WhatsApp came along). E-mail became burdensome – especially as more and more work places adopted it and the last thing anyone wanted to do when they got home was check more e-mail. Social media interaction rose, but became less personal – a quick like, maybe a comment (or a poke back in the early days of Facebook when that was still acceptable). And through it all, checking our post boxes each day held no joy – only bills and circulars.
Then, through Live Journal (remember that?), I learned that people did still write letters and exchange happy mail. I missed letter writing so much that I would sometimes have dreams of having a post box full of lovingly decorated envelopes, thick with long, handwritten letters inside, so discovering this was rather like finding out that unicorns really did exist after all!
So it was, that in 2011, I picked up a pen and wrote the first letter I’d written since 1994. Words flowed from my mind through the pen, and I had to force myself to finally end that first letter. It was as if a dam had burst. I was so excited about the person I was writing to that I just wanted to “talk” for hours on end! Well, that letter led to more, and soon, my post box was a happy place again.
Letter writing led to swapping mail art too, and as some of you know, for the last few years, I’ve swapped various bits of mail art via Swap-Bot, a site that, while still active, has definitely had it’s day. Nevertheless, for a long time, I managed different themed groups (one of which inspired this blog) and spent most of my free time making artist trading cards, handmade post cards, art journal pages, and artist trading coins (ATCOs) for swaps on that site. Yet I found myself increasingly unhappy. Why? Because my letter pile was being neglected – and the quality of mail I was receiving through Swap-Bot was in decline. By neglecting my mail pile for swap deadlines, I had essentially shut off the flow of the most meaningful post I received, the post that made me happiest.
In October 2018, I realised that it was time to move on from swapping, reconnect myself to pen and stationery, and focus on the friendships that were lying untended on my desk. So, I left Swap-Bot and picked up the pen once more.
I also joined several snail mail groups on Facebook and that’s when I realised that, even as the art of letter writing is not lost, it is certainly changing. It seemed to me that more people just wanted mail (even e-mail or text pals) and for a little while, I questioned whether or not I was being too picky when I looked through pen pal profiles.
You see, for me, it’s all about connection. Yes, I have a drawer so full of stationery of all kinds that I’ve put a moratorium on buying more until that drawer is near empty (should be sometime in 3020…) and yes, I pick up postcards and things to tuck in to letters sometimes – tea, washi samples, stickers, and so on. But at the end of the day, what I really care about is receiving a letter that is a conversation. Letter writing has always been about building and tending to life long friendships. I have grown some friendships so strong that we may only write a few times a year, but when we do, we write our letters in small notebooks because there just isn’t enough paper in a stationery or letterset pack.
Reading and replying to long letters is, for me, like curling up in the corner of a dimly lit pub, by a fire, with a friend you haven’t seen in a while – and letting your true self shine. It’s not about an overflowing post box or loads of random extras crammed in to an envelope, but about sowing the seeds, and tending the garden of true and meaningful friendships. It’s about delaying gratification, hand writing your end of the conversation (my preference anyway – handwritten always feels so much more personal), and cherishing a friendship so much that you’re willing to spend money and time to see it grow.
That is the true art of letter writing as far as I’m concerned. It isn’t about how pretty the envelope or stationery is; how many extras you can smash into an envelope for the price of a stamp; or how much mail you receive in one day, even if it’s only a few lines on a tatty bit of card. The true art of letter writing it is two people willing to spend quiet time “together”, writing, and waiting for the next flow in conversation to arrive to keep that friendship growing.
Do you still write letters? Did you ever? Tell us why – or why not – in the comments!