Sunday, 25 May 2014

People have been lamenting the untimely demise of the handwritten letter for a long time, since the invention of the typewriter, in fact. In 1890, Edward Aveling wrote in a piece for the Times: “Letter-writing, polite or otherwise, is a vanishing, a lost art. And since the invention of the telegraph, the post-card, and the telephone, the most potent exorcisor of this rare and exquisite spirit is the type-writer.” Yet here we are a over hundred years later and still putting pen to paper and still complaining that the latest technologies have killed the gentle art of correspondence. The most current rants, amusingly, claim that email has faded away, left in the dust of texting and twitter.

I've been writing letters my whole life and while I have gone through periods of pen pals moving on and no longer writing, this simply seems to indicate changing lives rather than the forsaking of pen and paper communication. The Letter Writers Alliance, whose membership is 5000 strong, have an endearing motto: “In this era of instantaneous communication, a handwritten letter is a rare and wondrous item. The Letter Writers Alliance is dedicated to preserving this art form.” They put it simply when they state “To get a letter send a letter.” This is the whole essence of letter writing. Most of the people condemning the act of letter writing to oblivion are too lazy to write a letter and that is why they don't see letters in their box.

For those who have declared letter writing an ancient art form, you may be astonished to know that one website that furnishes pen pals for children receives hundreds of applications per month from children eager to know the thrill of writing and receiving letters, much to the delight of their parents who say they too had pen pals when they were younger and it was a wonderful experience. And not only that, their children's enthusiasm has prompted these same parents to want to join in the fun and find a letter friend as well.

Handwriting has been another catching point when confronted with writing letters and has also been the subject of debate over the last decade, giving a further knock to personal correspondence. To teach or not to teach handwriting, that is the question these days. Some say handwriting is no longer necessary and typing should be taught in it's place to keep up with changing times, others say printing is easier and more legible than cursive, however, recent research indicates that cursive handwriting is a principle motor skill that promotes a more intricate thought process and should be taught.

Handwriting has moved forward, modernized if you like, to accommodate a faster paced world believe it or not. Palmer developed his method of handwriting as a means to faster, more efficient handwriting, replacing that beautiful old curlicue script you see on documents of the 19th century. Even Palmer was updated in the 1950s to a more streamlined way of writing, but did people stop writing? No.

Today's media takes writing to new heights as we email, twitter and text, yet we still like to commit our thoughts to paper. Perhaps it is just the venues that change and not the conscious decision to send an email or text rather than actually write a letter and post it. Journal writing has surged in the past decade. As we go forward and our lives take on new roles, we may find writing letters a bit difficult or a challenge to fit into our daily routine, but the need to express ourselves seems to have matured into a more personal dialogue. The journal has become the modern day diary, metamorphosing into us talking “out” our thoughts, rather than hiding them away under lock and key. Journals are the essence of us, meant to be read by others, to share our thought process and invite comment from others. This has created the niche for blogging which is the natural extension of journalling and allows us to share our thoughts with a multitude of others.

Of course, as life goes on we embrace new technologies and have gone from the excitement of being able to email anyone, anywhere in the world from our computer to using our mobile/cell phones to take it a step further and send and receive messages no matter where we are. Why look back and even comment on the loss of letter writing at this point? Letters are more personal, is the collective response to that, and guess what? As a result of this, stationery sales have boomed as people want to send something more tangible to their electronic correspondents, putting postcards, note-lets and greeting cards in demand. These begin to add a more human touch to the cyber-friendships we have forged. Email and texts are short bursts of communication often done in an abbreviated way but with a pen in hand, the thought process meanders and we say so much more, not more words, more thought for the words we do write. This is noted in a study done by Vanwels & Schellens in 2003 Writing profiles: the effect of the writing mode on passing and revision patterns of experienced writers Journal of Pragmatics, 35 (6), 829-853 DOI 10.1016/SO378-216 6 (02) 00121.2 It was observed that most who took part had a change of writing style when switching from computer to pen.

Today there are many websites that talk about the so-called lost art of letter writing where people congregate to commiserate and devise ways to revive correspondence. I think what some fail to realize is that our love of connecting with others has evolved. Letter writing is a mixed media thing these days and more dynamic because of it. Blogs and websites bring veteran and would-be correspondents together, strengthening our paper conversations. They show the efforts and artistry of others and create opportunities for new friendships and dialogues to be born; uniting those with a common interest. We discuss how and where we like to write, what mediums we use and how different the process is from modern methods. These days not only do we have the ability to to see if our letters and cards have arrived, long lost pen pals are being reunited through the internet. Social networks like the facebook and Myspace communities mirror the spirit of the round robin and our twitterings punctuate every idea, inspiring us to reach out even further.

Throughout time, it is the letters and memoirs of our forebears that allow us an intimate view into their lives and times. While emails and texts may not give such deep-seated details, they do show us the flavour of life and how it has moved to such a frenzied pace. Twitter has people reading and writing on the go, giving small glimpses into the lives of everyone, from the housewife/husband to the celebrities of the hour. This means all of us have a voice in what future generations think about our times, not just those whose voices have become beacons from the past for us through their writing. Today, through technology, everyone has a platform from which to be heard. These modern methods of connectivity allow anyone to leave their unique fingerprint on history. And in saying so, I am reminded of one of the very first ads I read for email pen pals from a woman in China whose words were simply: “May this one voice be heard?”


  1. You took my breath! There is so much I want to say but my head is spinning. Well said, Anna! Well said!

  2. You have an amazing voice. I hope you know this. I'll never miss a post. :)