The lost art of letter writing

A selection of cards sent to me by far-flung friends hangs over my desk in my home office.
A selection of cards sent to me by far-flung friends hangs over my desk in my home office.

When I was in grade 7, my teacher asked the class if anyone would be interested in writing to a girl who lived in France. Not for credit, just for fun. I volunteered for the task and, over the course of the next six years, I would exchange dozens of letters with her. Our correspondence was severed when we both started university. But that wasn’t the end of my stint as a pen pal.

To this day I regularly swap letters with friends of mine who live elsewhere, mostly pals I went to school with. Of course we all understand there are more efficient ways to keep in touch, but those all lack the charm and soul of getting something in the post. They lack the patina of ink smudges, hand-selected (or handmade) cards and stationery, even the occasional scribble to cover up a spelling error. It’s a delightful visit that replaces the kinds of chats we’d have over coffee or a pint if we lived in the same city.

For all the endearing qualities sending and receiving letters has, it’s also a practical exercise in a quickly disappearing art. To understand how to write a letter is to understand conversation and communication. It requires a direct, thoughtful and deliberate way of addressing a friend’s achievements, failures, worries, career woes; anything they think is important to tell you. There is an art and a craft to penning a letter that’s just different from typing an email.

For me, email is almost entirely utilitarian. Snailmail is an indulgence and a treat; like biting into a perfect french macaron. Letters are a little surprise that creep up on you and land in your mailbox.

Sometimes I send a cute card I’ll find at a favourite stationery shop. Other times I’ll print my own paper or make my own envelopes. Occasionally I’ll even tap out a note on my trusty manual typewriter!

I’ve been a pen pal for more than a decade and I keep every letter I receive. I display the cards people have sent me from all over the world. I keep the letters in my desk at home. They still bring me joy, every last one of them.

A small sample of my letter collection.
A small sample of my letter collection.

Sure, video chat, IM and texting make it easy to catch up with friends who are far away, but somehow it’s the time and effort involved in writing and sending a letter that makes it even sweeter.

Pen pal resources and reading:
The Paper Trail Diary – a blog about paper-loving hobbies including letter writing and pen palling, as well as zines, books and crafts (aka most of my favourite things)

The Postal Society – a place for mail addicts from all over the world. Sign up for an account and take part in mail swaps, chain letters or find a new pen pal.

Instagram – searching various mail-related hashtags shows you just how creative letter writers can get! Suggested hashtags: #snailmail #penpal #snailmailrevolution #writealetter


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