Putting Pen To Paper
Does anyone still do this? For a writer, writing letters is a bit of a busman’s holiday, but I still write to friends. The advantages over email are not immediately obvious, but there’s a certain timelessness about letter writing that allows the gathering of thoughts.
It’s a reciprocal pleasure – you write something truthful, you get something truthful back. It’s also less permanent because you can throw a letter away, whereas it takes two people to destroy an email.
Many years ago now, I began corresponding with the author Joanne Harris, and we still write to each other, peppering our letters with scurrilous gossip, complaints, pleasures and jibes, with the odd drawing thrown in. I now have a two-foot stack of letters from Joanne, and she must have the same amount of mine (if she’s kept them).
These I have stored away, but I’ve thrown out too many I should have saved; what possessed me to lose my correspondence with JG Ballard? Some while back, I bought a book in a Charing Cross Road secondhand shop and found letters by Ronald Searle and GK Chesterton tucked in the flyleaf. Letters then become time capsules because the paper and ink lends a sense of the era.
I imagine it’s pointless to try and encourage letter writing; it won’t make anyone money, you can’t advertise in it, but it would improve literacy and the ability to assemble the thoughts in order. A good letter makes its points lightly – that’s why Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ is such a pleasurable read – and yet the lesson is lost on so many of the crime writers whose books I have to slog through. Their prose feels like it has never been read back. I feel like naming names here, but will refrain. Generally, they’re writers who obsess about their careers rather than writing.
Letter writing is done to communicate pleasure or displeasure, and to entertain while stating opinions, and novel writing should do the same. Although looking at the number of ‘Be A Successful Novelist!’ books on the market, it’s obvious that goal gets overlooked.
Lastly, letter writing is a safety valve for frustration. Emails are carefully non-partisan, with few opinions stated in cased someone takes objection. English letters are the traditional home of elegant vitriol, and are worth committing to for that reason alone!