‘The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters.’
- Lewis Carroll
Once upon a time I used to write letters. As a child I had many overseas pen friends who I enjoyed writing to. I would run to the mail box each day after school in anticipation of their reply.
When I was backpacking in Europe in the early ‘90s I spent many evenings in the hostel writing countless pages to friends at home, filling them in on my adventures.
Releasing my thoughts onto a piece of paper was cathartic and exciting and made me feel closer to home. I would sit for hours planning my letters, choosing exactly the right word or phrase to capture the experience. I would even get a thrill from sticking a foreign stamp onto the envelope and always hoped the recipient would appreciate its exoticism.
‘To write is human, to get mail, divine!’
With the advent of email, mobile phones, texting, Facebook and Twitter my letter writing stopped. I can’t remember the last time I put pen to paper to catch-up with a friend I’ve not seen in a while. It’s faster and more efficient, just to text them.
We’re all following each other’s lives on Facebook anyway. But these are just snippets, a Kodak moment captured with an image, a few abbreviated words or an emoticon. There’s no real substance in a tweet. We’re living in a world where the word ‘address’ has a completely new meaning.
While technology has made our lives easier, it has also made obsolete the joy and the immense sense of satisfaction one receives from penning a lengthy and considered correspondence.
‘Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female.’
As an author of historical fiction much of my research involves reading letters - correspondences written by and to the real life characters in my novels. Very often I feel a little like an eavesdropper, as though I’m listening in on a telephone conversation or reading someone else’s text messages. But it’s through these letters that I’m able to get an authentic glimpse of the person. In those days, people poured their hearts and souls onto the page.
What will remain for historians and authors to scrutinise fifty years from now?
As letters were once one of the only means with which people could communicate they held a great deal of power. This is the reason I like to use them in my novels.
In Perfect North, set in the late 19th century, it is a series of love letters written by a doomed Arctic explorer to his fiancée that sparks the drama of the tale.
When Eleanor Roosevelt in The President’s Lunch is not knitting, she is writing to a friend or relation. The First Lady was an avid letter writer whose immense collection of correspondences gave me an intimate insight into her character.
In my latest book, Hummingbirds, the 18th century pirate Palgrave Williams uses letter writing as a safeguard, as a means of remembering his family in Cape Cod.
I would like to think that one day letter writing might come back into fashion. But I suspect it may not. Besides, I no longer know any of my friend’s addresses.
When was the last time you wrote a letter?