The Art of the Letter

Our resident scribe, James Newman, warbles a rallying cry for the return of pen and paper to our correspondence…

Photo (c) Yannite Kloppin

‘The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters,’ said Lewis Carroll and I subscribe to the sentiment.


Our cultural landscape might be very different today if, instead of handing Elizabeth a letter, Mr. Darcy had ‘slid into her DMs’.


We might never have been inspired by the world of witchcraft and wizardry if Albus Dumbledore had invited Harry Potter to Hogwarts by text: ‘Hazza P – new term starts soon, come over 4 major LOLS & proper bants. Albus’.


The great bastions of art and history in Britain owe much to the humble letter. And yet, letter writing is an art that is dying. Electronic media has not just reduced letter writing, it has nigh-on decimated it.


But today the revolution begins. My mission is to raise the letter from the dead. No more need we grumble at the sound of the postbox, our signal to recycle more junk. No more must we hear envelope hit mat and wince in anticipation of a credit card bill. For I hope to inspire you to lead the charge and raise a smile when you see your Postie, through that wonderful feeling of seeing a handwritten dispatch, perhaps even sealed with a little wax, drop onto the doormat.


‘Isn’t this a waste of time?’

Wash your mouth out! Aside from the joy your letter will give to another, it will inspire joy in you too. A body of research has found significant mental health benefits of letter writing. Letters are a slow, contemplative practice that can help you address sensitive issues and express compassion and gratitude. Things we could do a little more with in our lives. It is all too easy to fire off an email without thinking about the content or consequences.


One of the letters I remember writing the most was to a close family friend with a terminal illness. I lived far away and didn’t feel able to have an awkward phone conversation as I just didn’t know what to say. So, I picked up my pen and wrote.


This letter allowed me to express, in exactly the way I wanted, my compassion and sadness. It allowed me to tell her how important she was to me, to share memories from our past and include jokes that I knew would make her smile. All of these would be things I would struggle to do in conversation.


She died almost ten years ago, but I still remember the first time I saw her after writing the letter. Holding it in her hand she told me how much she had loved it and laughed at it. This broke the ice for both of us and allowed the rest of the time I saw her to be more relaxed.


Letters don’t always have to be initiated by sombre occasions. My own fiancée was wooed by letters I wrote to her telling a story of the love between a fictional soldier lost at sea and his girlfriend back home.


‘Bonjour, bonjour – ‘allo ‘allo’

Now, no child’s life was complete without the customary overseas pen-pal. You remember the one, Enrique from Malaga, you knew the name of his dog – he knew your hobbies were roller-skating and going to the cinema. I can remember being assigned my pen-pal and getting the first letters. That excitement lives on.


Literally, in fact. There are still pen-pals out there, in adulthood, waiting to hear about your favourite colour and what your parents’ jobs are.


I joined InterPals (one such website) over 10 years’ ago. Since then I have received letters and gifts from all over the world. Admittedly, you need to take care on these websites. You can send online messages first, suss them out, then only send your address if you feel comfortable.


Others such as Global Penfriends, PenPal World and Letter Writers Alliance offer similar services.


‘Make someone feel special.’

Last year, I was lucky enough to meet James Timpson, CEO of high-street retailer ‘Timpson’ funnily enough, who gave me advice on running my own consultancy. One of James’s tips was to write handwritten letters that people will remember. Lo and behold, after our meeting, James kindly sent a book and letter to me – and I was over-the-moon!


Handwritten letters are so rare that they really stand out. So, whether you want to make a friend feel good, woo a lover or express compassion – letters are the way to go. Can’t think what to write? Here is some inspiration...


The Love Letter. Whether in a new relationship, or well into a long marriage - nothing gets you brownie points like a letter. Most days, I tell my partner that I love her. However, it is hard to express just how much she means to me. A letter helps to concentrate those reasons – to get across exactly why she is so important.


The Friend Letter is my favourite. There are friends near and far who I appreciate but don’t necessarily talk about how much I appreciate them. Most people know what is happening with the surface of your life – but this is a chance to discuss more substantive things – and check in on them.


The Parent Letter. As we get older, we develop our own lives and don’t always check in with our parents as much as we should. It would be terrible for it to be too late for them to know how much you loved them. Write a letter to thank them, reassure them they did a good job – they probably deserve it after your teenage years.


The Compassionate Letter. The compassionate letter is great for when you are feeling a bit ‘meh’ or very ‘meh’. Writing to yourself to give compassion is a great way to work through your stuff and be a little more at ease with it. Click here for instructions on how to write it.

Photo (c) Suzy Hazlewood

Stationary goals

Now, if I haven’t got you on board so far – this might be the clincher. I used to travel a lot with work and I decided to collect writing paper from each country. This might sound dull – but there are some absolute stunners in my collection, from India to Japan. These special designs are reserved for special people. You know who you are.


So, I implore you to consider joining my revival of a dying art. Together, we can leave a legacy for generations to come. It need not be, ‘Romeo, Romeo, where for art thou friend request,’ but instead a continuation of civil communication that results in a little piece of art for us all to treasure.

James Newman runs a light-hearted 'bookstagram' account over @helikesbooks on Instagram.

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