“More than kisses, letters mingle souls; for, thus friends absent speak.’
So said John Donne, a famous English poet and a committed letter writer, and I couldn’t agree more.
If you turn to the dictionary for a definition of a letter, it all sounds very prosaic:
Letter (noun) – a written or printed communication directed to a person or organisation, usually sent by post in an envelope.
A letter is more, so much more. A letter can be magical, totally magical.
We have been writing letters to one another since around the 4th millennium BCE and, it is only in the last decade or so, with the rise of the Internet and mobile phone culture, that we have lost the habit of putting pen to paper. Apparently one third of 16-year olds have never written a letter and it’s estimated that, in the next ten years, we will be sending a third less letters. I think that’s tragic and I wrote my book Kind Regards – the Lost Art of Letter-Writing in the hopes of reigniting a passion for letter-writing, with a sincere wish that people would be inspired to pick up pen and cover a piece of paper with their thoughts and desires, with their hopes and promises. For what is a letter if not a spell in written form? You can entrance with words, ignite passions, forge friendships, salve wounds, soothe hearts, send smiles. Or, of course, you can be a bad faery, and wound and hurt – but that’s another story.
How can anyone not love a letter, a real letter? I have boxes of old letters – and every so often I take them out, carefully unfold them and re-read them. They remind me of the person I once was; the loves and losses I have suffered over the years: they are my own personal history written in ink.
Of course, letters aren’t just a personal form of time travelling, they bring history to life, bridging the years in ink. As I researched Kind Regards, I felt a sense of awe as I read the thoughts of those who experienced the pivotal moments in history – the fall of Rome, the start of a ‘small cult’ called Christianity, the eve of the Second World War, the threat of the cold war.
This is unfiltered history, first person reportage. This isn’t dry reports in history books from academics sitting in universities – these are eye witness accounts from people who actually lived during these seismic events. You read their words and you can touch the past. If this isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.
Edith Wharton’s letters to Henry James from the Front during the First World War were both factual and poetic. ‘Picture this all under a white winter sky,’ she wrote. ‘Driving great flurries of snow across the mud-and-cinder coloured landscape, with the steel-cold Meuse winding in between beaten poplars…poor bandaged creatures in rag-bag clothes leaning in doorways, & always, over & above us, the boom, boom, boom of the guns on the grey heights to the east.’
Other war-time letters, meanwhile, were hugely poignant. Company Sergeant-Major James Milne wrote this to his wife during World War I.
‘My own Beloved Wife, I do not know how to start this letter or not…We are going over the top this forenoon and only God in Heaven knows who will come out of it alive… Eternal love from
Yours for Ever and Ever, Jim’
Luckily Jim survived the war.
It’s not just the big moments in history; letters also give an insight into the everyday life, emotions, hopes, dreams, expectations, loves, disappointments of our forebears. They show that we have more in common with our ancestors than we could ever imagine. They stretch out hands in understanding and empathy through the centuries.
I knew many of the great letter writers, but others I came across during my research came as delectable surprises. Tender love letters stole my heart. The tragic last letters from people facing death brought a lump to my throat. The correspondence between parents of sick or dying children made the mother in me weep.
Truly, is there anything more sublime than a heartfelt love letter? I sighed my way through this section of Kind Regards, swept away time and again by the eloquence of lovers past and present. An email or a text can never compare to the pure physicality of a love letter; the way it employs all the senses: that moment of anticipation before splicing open the envelope; the weight of the paper (and who wouldn’t also sniff the page?); the sight of the handwriting; the first breathless reading; the second careful scanning. Love letters are kept and cherished – and become redolent with meaning. When the relationship goes sour, many people burn (rather than merely throw away) the old letters – symbolically incinerating the past. Can deleting emails ever have that kind of dramatic resonance?
Imagine the excitement of receiving a letter from an absent love when the post was your only means of communication? Love letters send hearts fluttering and, if you want to make an enduring declaration, the letter has no rival. From Heloise and Abelard, through Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, love letters offer the human heart laid bare.
Perhaps the only letter more emotive than a love letter is one written when the author is on the point of death. ‘Farewell, my dear child,’ wrote Sir Thomas Moore to his daughter the day before his execution in 1535. ‘Pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends, that we may merrily meet in Heaven.’
Marie Antoinette wrote to her sister-in-law, just hours before being taken to the guillotine. ‘I am calm, as one always is when one’s conscience is clear. I am deeply saddened to abandon my children: you know that I have lived for them alone.’
Combine love and death and the result can be epistolary fireworks (or waterworks). During the American Civil War, Unionist Major Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife on 14th July 1861. The letter was found in his trunk after his death at the First Battle of Bull Run and was delivered to his widow. ‘Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence can break…If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I loved you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name…’
The therapy of pen and paper
Psychotherapists believe that writing letters – honestly and from the heart – acts as a powerful form of self-therapy; that it can bring clarity and a means of expressing emotions. Often you would be advised to write to someone who has hurt you, putting on paper exactly how you felt at the time, and how you feel now. It’s about expressing all your unspoken feelings. Do you need to send it? It’s up to you.
Many therapists will advise burning the letter as a final way of letting go of troublesome emotions. Can you do that with an email? Yes, of course (without the burning bit). But somehow the act of putting pen to paper gives a further depth and meaning to the words. It’s a form of banishing spell, powerful, meaningful, releasing.
Writing honestly can be a cathartic experience. Whatever your state of mind, age, or position in life, letter-writing can bring clarity and a means of expressing emotions that have maybe been repressed or forgotten.
Choose your tools
Convinced? Let’s get writing! Let’s spin some everyday magic with pen and paper, emotion and intent. Start by choosing the loveliest materials you can. If you’re writing a formal letter then stick to plain white or ivory paper. If it’s a business letter than it’s customary to use a standard size (8½” x 11”) paper with a matching envelope. But if it’s purely personal then the stationers’ shelves are your oyster – let your intuition guide you to the perfect paper, the pristine pen. In the past, one could seal a letter with wax but sadly nowadays it’s likely to become crushed during mechanical processing at the post office.
However you could use embossed and engraved paper, envelopes or note-cards, or embellish your letters with drawings or paintings. All the senses are engaged in a great letter – the paper should feel good as well as look good; and many people spritz their messages with their favourite scent to leave a redolent imprint of themselves on the page.
I love scented ink myself and it’s so easy to make. Simply blend around ten drops of essential oil (rose or lavender were traditional choices but it’s up to you) with a teaspoon of vodka. Add the mixture, a little at a time, to a small bottle of ink (deep colours work the best). Stir thoroughly (maybe adding a few whispered words of intent) and your ink is ready to use.
Whether your letter aims to inform, announce, persuade, declare or thank, a well-written letter is an art form and the ability to write well is a powerful tool. As the writer P.D. James says, ‘No literary form is more revealing, more spontaneous or more individual than a letter.’
Over the centuries people have given masses of advice on how to write the perfect letter. Some hold true today. Don’t ever write a letter (or, indeed, an email) when you’re angry – at least, not one you intend to send. Once you drop that letter in a postbox (or hit ‘send’) it’s too late to retrieve.
Write in a clear, conversational style on the whole. Keep it simple. Write to express, not to impress. Break up your writing into short sections – long unbroken blocks of text can lose your reader. Read your letter out loud to check it flows well and that you aren’t meandering off point too much.
If you find the idea of letter-writing intimidating, start small. Begin with a thank-you. The tradition of the thank-you note extends right back into the ancient Chinese and Egyptian cultures, who wrote politely on slips of papyrus, to fifteenth-century Europe, when the exchanging of handwritten notes became commonplace. A thank-you note is, by its nature, short and succinct so it’s a good place to start. But make sure you get it right – be sure to mention the gift or experience by name, commenting specifically on what you liked about it, and stating why. So, for example, you might mention a particular dish you loved at a dinner party, or explain how you will use a gift. Laziness in writing a thank-you letter can come across as insincerity.
I like to make a ritual of my letter-writing. I light a candle and maybe some incense or put a few drops of essential oil in my aromatherapy burner. I centre myself and state my purpose in writing out loud. I turn the paper into a piece of sacred space, a container for my thoughts and feelings. I lay my hands on it and maybe whisper words of love and caring, those that maybe I can’t put into ink.
If it sounds like magic, that’s because it is – letter-writing is a transformational process. A plain piece of paper becomes covered with words, symbols, incantations as strong as any chant or spoken spell. Sometimes I will draw a little picture, a doodle or just sprinkle a few hearts and stars in the margins. If I’m feeling frivolous, I’ll add some glitter.
I write my envelopes with care – so my words will not be lost. And I often seal them on the back with runes – whatever comes to my fingers as feeling right. You know, don’t you, that the X which signifies a kiss is the ancient rune for love and togetherness? If you’re not familiar with the runes, check them out online and build your own repertoire.
Kind Regards is a miscellany of letters and letter-writing – it’s the kind of book that you dip into, rather than stoically follow from start to finish. In fact, you could also use it as an oracle, close your eyes and flick through the pages until you feel moved to pause – then see what the page says.
I didn’t just want to reproduce great letters (there are plenty of books that do that very well) – I wanted to investigate the whole subject of letter writing: the materials that have been used over the millennia; the history of letter-writing and of the post; the curious and inventive forms of the letter that have emerged over the years. The book gives instructions on how to write all kinds of letters as well as giving lots of delicious snippets from intriguing letters through the ages.
Writing the book made me fall in love with letters all over again. As the Reverend T. Cooke says all too well: “Letters are the trade of life – the fuel of love – the pleasure of friendship – the food of the politician and the entertainment of the curious. To speak to those we love or esteem, is the greatest satisfaction we are capable of knowing; and the next is, being able to converse with them by letter.”
Please help me keep the magic and art of the letter alive. Before you let your fingers alight on your keyboard, before you open that new email or reach for your phone to text, just stop and think. How can the coldness of the keyboard ever compare to the warmth of a physical letter? How can a manufactured font take the place of your own unique handwriting? How can the ping of an incoming email ever compare to the thump of a letter falling onto a doormat?
I beg you, pick up pen and paper instead and write the kind of letter than will be read, re-read, kept and treasured down through the years. Ancient Egyptian letters date back to nearly 3000 BC – can you imagine any email surviving so long?
Who knows what will happen to the letters you write today? Please, let us all do our bit to keep the gentle everyday magic of letter-writing alive and thriving.
Kind Regards – the lost art of letter-writing by Liz Williams (Michael O’Mara).
Liz Williams? Yup, it’s my pen-name. 🙂
This feature first appeared in Faerie Magazine – if you’re not familiar with it, do check it out. It’s US-based but you can buy an online subscription. Rather lovely. www.faeriemag.com
The image is by Zinc Moon – www.zincmoon.com – many thanks for permission to reproduce it here. Please do not reproduce without her permission.