HMAS Australia, Rotary Photographic Series, 'The Only Girl I Ever Loved', 1914 -1918 / © Museums Victoria / Unsplash
Communication is so much more convenient these days. But despite its ease and instantaneous nature, there's something to be said for slowing things down and writing a good old-fashioned letter.
Following the death of my grandparents, a treasure trove of letters was discovered. They had lived apart for work reasons during some of their many decades together, and writing letters had been a means to maintain the marital bond and communicate what was happening in their day-to-day lives. The letters were an intimate glimpse into the trials and triumphs of their marriage - something I'd rather leave unseen, but a valuable collection nonetheless of a life shared together.
In A Promised Land, former US president Barack Obama writes that he only saw his father once in his life. As he grew up in Hawaii with his dad in Kenya, the only communication he had was in the form of letters with parental advice and nuggets of wisdom. It was a thin but vital link connecting him to his absent father.
Imagine the sense of magic when receiving a letter from a loved one you haven't heard from for weeks or months. Yes, telephone communication was possible - but often prohibitively expensive. Letter-writing was the only viable means for extended communication across great distances.
Yet in this age of instant communications, why bother?
Well, to put it simply, a letter is all the more magical when easier means are available. When a friend living in Canada sent me a letter for my birthday alongside a USB stick with some of my favourite tunes, the circuitous route of communication made it all the more special. Sure, she could have emailed or messaged me a link to download the songs. But that extra effort - as unnecessary as it may seem - turned a routine action of sharing music into a memorable gift.
With that in mind, DO consider writing letters if you have a friend or partner living a long way away. For long-distance friendships or relationships, letters offer a different way of maintaining the bond. Letters require more time, more thoughtfulness. They provide the space for reflection and sharing deeper thoughts and feelings that you may feel awkward saying in person or over a video call. My wife writes semi-regularly to a friend in the US. Their relationship isn't the closest, until you factor in that the contents of their letters are far more detailed and honest than most chats with a friend.
DON'T go cold turkey on digital communications. As appealing as it sounds in an Olde-Worlde kind of way, letters are not the most practical means of communicating in this day and age. Keep pragmatic matters to text or phone calls. Letters can add an extra quality to how you keep in touch, but they should be seen as an addition rather than a replacement.
DO keep in mind that you probably already write letters. Birthday cards and postcards are essentially the same thing. Try to use all the space available on those formats to share the news of what's going on in your life. A birthday card with a generic message is nice - but one scrawled all over with shared moments and wishes from a friend is all the better.
DON'T forget to ask questions. For letter-writing to kick off, you need to start a conversation with the other person. Just as you would on an instant messaging app. But the kind of questions you ask can be more in-depth, more considered. Always been intrigued about an aspect of your friend's family history but never had the opportunity to ask? Now's your chance! A romantic soul who wants to know what makes your other half tick? Ask away!
DO consider writing letters to yourself. This is similar to writing to a long-distance friend in a way, except the 'distance' is time and the friend is, well, yourself. Writing to your future self about your current hopes, dreams, anxieties and concerns can be a useful way to clarify where you are now and where you wish to be. Reading back on it a few years down the line can be a source of further reflection.
You can also be more specific if you like, writing letters for possible future scenarios that you can open if and when the time comes. When I got married, I penned letters to my wife for future events including our honeymoon to New Zealand (didn't happen because of the pandemic) and buying our first house (still very much a work-in-progress). Irrespective of whether or not the events predicted in the letters come to pass, they helped to make concrete the vague dreams and ambitions we had.
DO write letters any which way you like. This is your space to communicate with someone close to you. So you can use your style, your tone, your idiosyncratic words and phrases. Whether you want your writings to be formal, literary, chatty or silly - feel free to do whatever you like. As you get used to the medium you'll find yourself more and more comfortable with writing in a certain way. Until that happens, just go with the flow.
Having said that, DO take the time to get it right. Unlike a text, you can draft and redraft a letter until it's just right - the perfect distillation of your thoughts and feelings. But this isn't something to be published. So inconsistencies, quirks and foibles DON'T necessarily need to be ironed out. The beauty of a letter lies also in its imperfections.