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The Lost Art of Letter Writing

An ode to the beauty of letter writing.

Letter writing is an art form that has been embedded in human existence since time immemorial, manifesting itself in various ways. In spite of the undoubtedly more convenient methods at our disposal in the modern world, letter writing in my opinion remains one of the most intimate and pleasant means of communication.

Letter writing retains a certain joy of expression which is simply lost in static and monolithic digital communication. So many elements of the letter surrender themselves to individualisation; handwriting, illustration, and the inclusion of accompaniments such as clippings from newspapers or poetry excerpts are all characteristics which cannot be authentically reproduced in any other communicative method.

Many of the world’s prolific literary talents have been avid letter writers, one of the most prominent being Romantic poet John Keats, whose adoring letters to his unattainable lover Fanny Brawne were published several times over.

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In my opinion, these musings are one of history’s finest examples of romance. His words would be insignificant had today’s technology been around in the 1800s. One of my (many) favourite quotes by Keats can be found in an 1819 correspondence, wherein he both laments and yearns:

“I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death.”

These words contain an intimacy and insight into the psyche that are suited only to the written letter.

In the 21st Century, it is easy to be blinded by modern technological advancements and to forget what a poignant role letter writing once played in people’s lives. While today letter writing is a novelty of sorts, an anomaly in communication, it was once the most prominent means of connection. Many of life’s grand narratives: birth, marriage, death, and the like, were told via letters. As is clear in the writings of Keats and Brawne, romances once unfurled within the confines of paper and ink and the lamentations of life once scrawled onto a page only to be read by people hundreds of years later.

The permanency of letters, although damaged by unfortunate realities such as misplacement and the natural rotting of paper under certain conditions, is something which is near-impossible in digital communication. Messages, calls, voicemails, and digital photographs are for the most part ephemeral, all meeting the tragic end of being lost to the digital void forever. When cared for properly, this is not a fate which comes to letters. They are moments in time captured for many centuries to come.

Letter writing is not an art form that should be left to rot and is one that certainly still has a place in society today. In my first few months at St Andrews for instance, being away from everyone and everything I know and love for the very first time, letter writing has been one of my greatest joys. I’ve spent many evenings either handwriting or using my typewriter to craft letters to send home to friends and family.

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I find that I’m able to better articulate my feelings and experiences on paper, and although clichéd, it is certainly a cathartic experience. It is an experience utterly severed from the complications of modern technology – when writing the initial letter, the only components are one’s thoughts, the paper, and the pen. Alongside oral communication, it is one of the most unadorned forms of connection, leaving ample room for unfiltered human thought.

Confined most of the day to my screen for academic purposes, receiving messages from those I love – an occurrence which would usually be a sweet reminder of what I have at home – has sadly turned somewhat barren and empty.

Although I of course still treasure these messages dearly, especially from those such as my lovely 73  year old grandmother who has taught herself to text in order to keep in contact with me more regularly, it is still the loveliest feeling to receive something tangible.

I pen this article from isolation, an experience that, despite the fact I consider myself an introvert, has undoubtedly made me long to be around people. Receiving a sweet letter from my English teacher from secondary school, who is now a dear friend, has been one of the things that has kept me from falling completely into despair. Especially in the current climate, letter writing can help us be with our loved ones without physically being there. A single page of writing can in some ways feel more genuine than hours of talking on the phone.

I end with a quote by American poet Emily Dickinson, which I feel perfectly encapsulates the joy of letter writing on an individual level:

“A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.”

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