Friday, 15 May 2015

The FIRST-CLASS JOY of LETTER WRITING

Fight against the cult of email, the ‘right now’ and the rushed – and embrace the timeless art of putting pen to paper, says Michelle Mackintosh

Written by Michelle Mackintosh
My love affair with letter writing started as a young girl. I loved reading the letters my great-great-grandmother had sent from the UK to her daughter in Australia. It was my first taste of the mystery and nostalgia of different places and times. The handwriting was beautiful, and the language she used was so caring, kind and considerate.

This, in turn, sparked my interest in classic literature, a place where a letter could mean the start or the end of a great friendship or relationship. Think Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy happening upon Miss Bennet while she is reading a letter from her sister Jane; or the beauty of the everyday in Letters Home, a compendium of letters that Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother.

I just love the way a letter can show the complex nuances of different periods in social history. The postage stamp reveals a letter’s place in time, but the design also reflects the important people, trends, styles and colours of a particular era. The letters you send and receive reveal a lot about you. Are your postcards placed in envelopes or left free for the postman to read? A letter is a tangle of niceties and feelings, the said and the unsaid.

Letters are important keepsakes. I still have letters and cards from childhood friends and loved ones who are no longer with us, packaged up in a pretty box, wrapped in a ribbon. My father died when I was quite young. He wrote me a letter to be read once he had passed away. I couldn’t open it for 10 years. I couldn’t bear the thought that it would be the last piece of correspondence I would ever receive from him. He had incredibly distinctive handwriting and I felt comforted by the sealed letter; it was a constant reminder that, in some way, he was still with me.

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The creative side of letter writing also appeals to me. The handwriting, the pen and ink, beautiful papers, envelopes and decorations all draw me in. I love to make things by hand and send them out into the world. I also love how letters can contain tiny little objects or gifts. A feather, maybe? Confetti or sequins, perhaps? Pressed flowers, definitely! I have no doubt that, as a teenager, all of the creativity I put into letter writing and decorating put me on a path to becoming a graphic designer.

One of my favourite things about letter writing and letter art is that anyone can get involved; you don’t need perfect handwriting or an art degree. If your handwriting is a bit wonky, embrace the quirks. If you make a mistake, cross it out. All of the things you put into your letter writing will make your letter all the more yours.

Where some people get their kicks from Twitter or Facebook, I have always loved the personal nature of ‘analogue’ correspondence. I love how instantly recognisable handwriting is – the way it is unique to the sender – and how there can be mistakes, flaws and slip-ups that can’t be amended by the delete button. My left-handed smudges say things about me that a tweet could never convey.

I started to think a lot about writing my new book Snail Mail when I realised I often have trouble working out the tone expressed in emails and online communication. Also, the problems surrounding oversharing, generic language, abruptness and what often seems to be a digital manners drought. In today’s world, communication is instant, everyone is time-poor and language seems to be rushed and sometimes harsh. I worry that there are not enough words in a tweet to say how you really feel and I don’t like the shorthand language used in text messages. But mostly I worry that everything is written so quickly that on occasion, modern communication can lack thoughtfulness.

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To me, manners are all about everyday kindness and respect. A thoughtful gesture, a simple please or thank you: in my experience, it’s these simple gestures that make life worth living. And any relationship, household, school or workplace needs a healthy dose of respect to function properly. Bad manners lead to dysfunction, and good manners can help overcome challenging situations.

I travel to Japan at least three times a year, and I find the kindness and the exquisite manners of the Japanese people endlessly inspiring. In Japan there are whole department stores dedicated to stationery: paper, stickers, pens and everything to make your handmade correspondence as beautiful as possible. Letter-writing culture is not only alive, but flourishing. After every visit I come home with a suitcase full of pretty things to make my parcels, letters and cards extra-special. Manners, etiquette, a love of stationery and calligraphy – it is all too good to be true. While away, I always send myself a postcard, reminding my husband and me of the wonderful time we had. Somehow I always seem to forget that I have sent the postcard, and when it turns up in my mailbox it’s a lovely surprise that reminds me of all the little things, the precious moments that are so easy to forget in our hectic lives.

I’m all about starting a slowcorrespondence revolution. Not everything needs to be ‘right now’ or ‘I need it tomorrow’. Letters take time to write and decorate, and they always take time to arrive, and the anticipation is such an important and powerful thing. And they are worth the wait. After all, they can be kept and treasured forever.

Why not bring back a bit of thoughtfulness into your everyday life? Perhaps start by sending a letter to say thank you or congratulations, or send one just because you are thinking about that special someone. It will brighten their day, and it will brighten yours, too.

Snail Mail by Michelle Mackintosh (Hardie Grant, £14.99).


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