Putting Pen To Paper

Reading & Writing


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!

11 comments on “Putting Pen To Paper”

  1. Cid says:

    Letter writing is important in one particular way: keeping the elderly up to date and on your mind. A great many old folk have no time for computers and mobile phones and the like, and rather than let that mean you lose touch with them for months or years at a time it’s scant effort to write to them occasionally. In my experience they love a letter – I wrote to the grandmother-in-law not long ago to thank her for a present I received via the wife, and by all accounts she was thoroughly pleased to receive it.

  2. Alison says:

    Coincidentally, just last night I sat down with pen and paper and wrote a letter. I don’t usually because I spend so much of my life typing that my handwriting resembles that of a doctor, but I concentrated hard (possibly with a bit of tongue out of corner of mouth type behaviour) and I think it was 99% legible. It is important that we write – too much of life is spent in front of monitors, either at work or for pleasure. We forget how nice it is to live life at a slower pace.

  3. Steve says:

    There was a time when I had beautiful handwriting. No more. Much like what happened to Alison, mine has come to resemble that of a doctor – a drunken one.
    When I’m learning something – yes, we old dogs can still learn – I find that I retain information much better if I write by hand than if I type. There’s something much more personal about writing than typing; it seems to bond one more fully with what’s written.
    I still write songs, lyrics and music, by hand. I expect I always will.

  4. J F Norris says:

    Yes, I do. In fact, I even write rough drafts of articles in pen and transcribe them to my laptop. I’m hopelessly old-fashioned. And I am one of the few people who insists on signing his name so that anyone can read it.

    Letter writing is definitely a lost art. One of my longtime favorite hobbies was going into the stationery departments of department stores and creating my own letterhead and buying fancy pens specifically for writing letters. In the US there are no such places anymore or very, very few of them.

    Writing letters has to be cultivated at an early age and kept up throughout one’s lifetime regardless of the temptations of texting and email and telephones. I can’t imagine anyone who was born in the 1990s or later has ever written a real letter with a pen on paper in his or her life.

  5. Kevin says:

    Writing a proper letter with a good fountain pen on good paper is one of the great pleasures of life – and it is a tactile pleasure, as well as an intellectual one. I really miss writing letters. And I miss receiving them. Emails, texts and phone calls are not the same, and they can’t really replace letters – they do very different jobs, or are used to do different jobs. People don’t seem to take the time to compose their thoughts, or to bother recording their thoughts, as they used to. For those that don’t have the patience to keep a diary, a stack of letters is the next best thing.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I have printed out this post for a friend of mine who has a friend do whatever computer work that is necessary. He has maintained a large correspondence over the years and writes regularly. In spite of the fact that we speak over the phone and meet often for lunch he mails me postcards and includes a letter in the clippings he has saved for me from the Literary Times and such. He will enjoy this so much. The two of us are regular customers at the Vancouver Pen Shop where we have two shelves full of ink choices and a selection of beautiful French letter paper. (n.b. French paper!) They sell and service a number of excellent brands of fountain pen as well as ball points. Letter writing lives, although it doesn’t flourish from my desk as much as it should. By the way, have you noticed that when an illustration is wanted for something to do with writing the picture is almost invariably of a fountain pen?

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Oh – and on a personal note, I am typing up my mother’s correspondence, the received part, of course. She died in November at the age of 99 and had kept many of the letters she’d received since about 1930 when she left home for good. From these letters and postcards I can almost totally recreate her life and can hardly wait to read the whole thing in proper order.

  8. Steve says:

    I have an electronic pen called a “livescribe”. It writes very much like an old fashioned fountain pen – my favorite kind. You write on special paper, and then transfer it from the pen to your computer. Neither the pen or the paper are very expensive, and the process gives me the best of both worlds.

  9. BangBang!! says:

    I used to write to my girlfriend (now my wife) almost daily when we first started walking out and were apart. I can’t imagine people doing that now. I write the occasional letter to a friend when she decides she’s in the mood for it but I miss it too. I rarely even write e-mails, it isn’t the same.

  10. Gretta says:

    Condolences reagarding your mother, Helen. That will be a lovely momento of her life.

    I do all my study notes long-hand, screeds and reams of them, and I did write a letter last month, though when I last wrote a proper letter before then, I couldn’t tell you. Remember back in the Old Days when we used to get lessons at school as to the correct addressing and salutations of letters?

    Given that modern society seems to have lost the capacity for communication on any level other than swearing, ranting or using emoticons and acronyms, I dare say if you gave most of them a pen and paper they’d stare blankly and ask you what you’re supposed to do with them.

    PS: Wondering, admin, what you did with the Chesterton/Searle letters?

  11. Dan Terrell says:

    Found handwriting can have a very strong emotional impact.
    My parents are dead and I have several boxes of their old papers. Every so often I go through a box and find something that brings it all back: letters written to Santa for me by my mother, and then answered by my father, when I was two, three and four. (Santa was a younger man then, some black still in his beard.) Letters to us from London, Dublin and Brussels from Father during WWII on thin, thin paper or blue fold-up mail forms. (He had a “flying bomb” – a dud – fall right behind his rented room in London one blackout night.)
    Letters I wrote home for five years from Kabul and seven from Indonesia, all saved by my Mother, which could nearly be the outline for a book. (Including those about the girl i met, dated and married and brought home)
    And some thank you letters to father from people in the writing and movie business with sentiments and autographs none of us children wants us to sell.
    The point being nearly every one reminds me, or my siblings, of an hour, a day, month or year in the life of our family.
    I have a sister who lifts the lid of these boxes most carefully, as if a dusty voice will come out speaking to her. “Oh, I remember that.”
    A lot of memories in maturing handwriting, and some upright typing, too. How nice read all of your posts.

Comments are closed.

Posted In

Related Posts