Even with all the quick and snappy ways of keeping in touch with friends and family – texts, emails, video calls – I have never given up writing letters. Real, physical letters that you stuff in an envelope and slap a stamp on.
Originally, I had thought of calling this blog “Letters at Breakfast” because it has always been my fantasy to have a voluminous correspondence. I dreamed of coming down to breakfast and finding a pile of letters at my plate. That this would mean acquiring 1) a cook to prepare the breakfast, 2) a house parlor maid to set the table and put the letters at my place, 3) a postman to deliver the morning mail by 7:30 or 8 a.m., and 4) friends and family to engage in this back and forth letter writing, are mere incidentals. As for the blog title, the posts would have been my letters in return.
I mention this because I have been seeing more and more little articles with titles like Writing Real Letters or Letter Writing is Making a Comeback: Let Us Show You How. These titles promise to reveal the secrets of this latest trend and how you, too, can do it right and be up-to-the-minute. The content, however, of these articles makes me laugh because they have form and function mightily confused.
The advice is 1) it is always much more meaningful to receive a handwritten letter and 2) find the prettiest note paper you can, which seems to mean from the illustrations, pretty pink papers with wide floral borders.
Let me explode both of these tips and offer some practical, down-to-earth advice of my own.
Some people have lovely penmanship, and it is a pleasure to read their elegant, clear hands. Some people have what I can only call difficult penmanship and it is very tiring to read their unintelligible marks. I include myself in this latter category. Because I want my letters to be enjoyed, if I am writing more than a few lines in a card, I type. A typed letter is better than no letter and no one has ever yet complained or thought I was cold and standoffish.
Note paper with wide floral borders leaves very little room to write anything. You can cover four pages with “How are you? I am fine. It’s been ages since I last wrote. I hope the family is well. Not much news here. Hope the weather is good. What have you been doing?” And looking at those four pages, you think, wow, I’ve written a lot. I guess I’ll just send this as it is. Unless you are six years old and learning how to write, that is not a letter.
So, what would I advise? The only rule in “letter writing for fun” is to be newsy and entertaining.
Here are some tips to get beyond your inner six year old:
- As you write imagine having a conversation with your correspondent. What would you talk about if you were together? Think about what has happened recently in your life or about something you’ve seen or read, and write about that. Pretend that you are talking. People often find that having a pen in hand suddenly switches on the formal language part of their brain. Breezy, interesting letters are not written with the formal language part of your brain, which is why it’s important to pretend you are having a chat.
- Don’t think you have to give a complete history of everything. Pick one or two topics. In other words, don’t mistake writing a letter for writing a book, unless, of course, you want to. But if putting words down on paper is slow and laborious, then don’t feel that you have to relate every minute detail along with every he said/she said/and then we…
- Is there something that your correspondent mentioned the last time you spoke? Something you want to comment on, or something you want to add to? Then do it.
- I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to say something concrete. Finding a letter in your mailbox is exciting. But opening it up and finding it is nothing but platitudes and comments on the weather is like looking forward to a roast chicken dinner and all the fixings, and finding out that the only thing on the menu is cotton candy – something that at first glance is definitely unusual and maybe even a little exciting, but equally, something that immediately melts away into nothing and leaves you still hungry.
So, who would have thought at the beginning of the year that writing a letter would be on the trendy/cool list? I’ve written letters for years and years, and have never, not once even for five seconds been on anyone’s trendy and cool list. I’ll enjoy it while it lasts. Although perhaps as I don’t use pink paper with wide floral borders, I don’t qualify. That wouldn’t surprise me.
**Lady Writing a Letter by Albert Edelfelt, 1887/ Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons