The Power of Letter Writing
I am a passionate believer in the power of letters. Though I don’t write so many myself nowadays (though I still do write some) it is still a form of communication which I think is very special, totally unique and creates a very strong bond between two people. I guess it’s why we encourage members to write to each other. Some people think writing letters is old fashioned, slow, inconvenient and pointless when faster and easier means (i.e. technological) can be used. But I think this misses the point which perhaps happens because they have never had the joy of receiving letters themselves or have never discovered the joy of a relationship growing through the medium of letters.
So it was with great joy that I happened upon a BBC Radio 4 podcast about writing letters and the power of them that explains it so much better than I can. This is an edited version of the transcript and I hope you will be enthused to try writing letters to other members, knowing that if you do, the riches you will receive will be far more than you could ever imagine.
Helen Cullen’s talk is not just about the virtues of letter writing. It’s also about what we’ve lost in this digital media age. After all, who would store a hard drive of love letters in a shoebox? Who in the future is going to read them with the same scholarly intensity that gets applied to an archive of letters? And that’s if they can read them at all. Good luck with your backwards compatibility. So with no further ado let’s hear Helen:
“I was 10 years old when my elder sister Mary left our family home in the Irish Midlands and emigrated to London. It was just meant to be for one summer but I was devastated. The fact that I still had four other brilliant siblings for company offered little consolation, for Mary was the person who spent the most time with me. The one for whom playing seemed a joy and less of a burden so I pined for her. There were so many reasons why I would miss her but perhaps none more powerful than the fact Mary had told me how to read long before I ever set foot in a classroom. The only small comfort I could eek from this whole business of her emigrating was the new significant letter-writing opportunity that it offered. All the classic novels I’d read as a little girl were full of sisters writing letters to each other. And to this new separation played perfectly into the epistolary fantasies that I nursed.
There is no doubt in my mind that the first seeds of my dream of becoming a writer one day were sown in those very earliest adventures on the page. And so, as one summer turned into one year, and one year evolved into five years, we sent letters back and forth across the Irish sea. Dozens of them. What I filled all those lined copy book pages with now is a puzzle to me, but no doubt they were full of detailed accounts of the minutiae of our life on Harper’s Lane. The big headlines from school and my small girls’ understanding of the great world that I was encountering. My sister had great patience. I remember once Mary had written to me saying that she loved receiving my letters because the only other letters she received were from a new man in her life. I was so excited to think of my sister’s fabulous new love affair and that I was her confidante.
When she next arrived home on holidays I was waiting, full of questions about who this Bill character was. And I was so disappointed to discover the truth as you can imagine when I realized that she hadn’t been talking about letters of love but utility bills. Trivial as her letters may have been though, they sustained and strengthened our relationship across land and across time. And luckily for me I’ve received letters throughout my life that weren’t just bills. Perhaps considering how much letters mean to me it was inevitable that the man who would become my partner in life, Damian, wrote to me from the very beginning of our relationship and still does. When I first met Damian he was travelling as a musician, an awful lot across Europe. But he sent me a letter or a postcard from every place that he visited.
The psychology of letter writing is intriguing. Is the voice of the letter writer, a carefully curated persona or the most authentic representation of the self? When he shared little moments from his day, what he noticed or missed or remembered, it revealed so much of his nature. The picture postcards he chose because he loved the images or he thought that I would. The language he used to express himself. How he managed to make me reflect or smile or laugh or swoon from a thousand miles away. My favorite postcard that he sent me was from Heilbronn in Germany and it said on the front “Du Bist Meine Kuschelwange” – “You are my cuddle cheek”. Sometimes the postcards, they seem so spontaneous and yet he revealed later that he had often labored for hours thinking about the perfect way to say something that sounded so casual. Interspersed in anecdotes from the gigs he was playing and their sightseeing were bits of breadcrumbs to follow that led to the very heart of him. What he dreamed of, how his parents gave him a model of lifelong love that he strived for, what success and happiness looked like to him. Each letter was a piece of a puzzle that became irresistible not to solve.
I remember spotting a letter box finding application on a smartphone and it really made me smile to think of technology supporting good old-fashioned letter writing and the effort he had gone to. It really saddens me to think that there were whole generations of young people growing up now who may never know the exquisite thrill of an envelope landing on their doormat with their name written by the hand of someone who loves them. In this digital age we can communicate more efficiently and economically than ever before, and yet somehow as a society we’ve become more disconnected and lonelier than we’ve ever been. Despite the fact that my mother, who is in her 80s, is a champion digital communicator, I would rather receive a letter from her in her big curly handwriting any day of the week than a hundred text messages she could send me. My mother was the first person who introduced me to letter writing by explaining the importance of a well-written thank-you note. That way she ensured I was bitten by the bug. It felt very grown-up, being allowed to articulate your thoughts with the world without an adult mediator, and knowing that someone would take the time to read what you had to say.
I discovered that I loved this practice of sitting down and committing to paper all of the thoughts in my head and choosing the best way to express them. Something important clicked. I had a voice and I could use it. Once I had enjoyed those first forays into letter-writing, I was smitten. And I loved writing away to organisations to politely request information for school projects. A lucky break came when a children’s television program on RTE, the Den, introduced a penpal segment where children could share a profile and invite others from around the country to write to them. I was chosen and couldn’t believe it when letters started flooding into our house from all across the nation. I wrote back to each and every one but not long afterwards my school began an international pen pal program. So I was able to write two children in Tokyo, in Russia, and in America. Through those letters I realized I had more in common with Eiko, with Miquel and with Candice than anything that which divided us. It is only when you create the opportunity of writing a letter that all the things you have to say reveal themselves to you. Creative writing, I learned later, was not dissimilar. Every summer, during secondary school, I attended the Gaeltacht. It was in the throes of this that my enthusiasm for letter-writing deepened as a teenager. Every evening after the ceilidh dancing was done, the precious post was delivered. Those letters held all the gossip from your friends back home and of course you would never normally receive a letter from your school friends. It was so revealing how people communicate differently in a letter. Some people are funnier than usual, others more sincere or more profound and it was very revealing who took the time to write at all. I still have so many of the letters that I’ve received throughout my life and unlike the texts and emails that I’ve swapped in my thousands, they are physical artifacts of the relationships that I can touch and remember exactly how it felt to receive them the first time around. They tell the story of life in beautiful imperfect handwriting. The source that writes its way onto your heart.
And so, I believe a lifetime of letter-writing taught me how to become a storyteller. When I sat down to write, the very first words that fell out of my pen were aligned from a John Donne poem called To Sir Henry Wotton. It reads, ‘more than kisses letters mingle souls’. And that line became the epigraph of my debut novel The Lost Letters of William Wolfe. The story that evolved from there became a meditation on the lost art and the power of letter writing and called upon me to reflect upon when and why and how my obsession with letters began.
So I feel, we must inspire others to write letters by being the ones who write first. And give them that thrill of discovering a letter on their mat from us. Encourage them to use their voice, that way hopefully in the future they too will have a biscuit tin or battered suitcase under their bed, full of letters that speak like ghosts of people they’ve been. People they have known and loved and not just a hard drive of emails and text messages that they will never be able to hold on to and remember. As human beings, I believe we crave the tangible and that is why letters resonate in such a deeply emotional way with us. And maybe why vinyl records have made such a big comeback too. So on behalf of my 10 year old self I say, let the letter-writing revolution commence. Please pick up a pen today and write as someone you love or someone you’ve lost touch to, and I’m sure you won’t regret it. Thank You.
Male Host Helen Cullen, very impressive to hear your evangelizing at the end there. But your one-woman campaign, with respect, isn’t working, is it? if letter-writing is so brilliant, why aren’t more people doing it?
Helen Cullen Well, I think that it’s been amazing as I have been going around talking to people about my book, hearing how much people miss having letters in their lives. And I feel that there is a real urge from people to restore it but maybe we’ve lost our confidence about doing it.
Male Host Because you kind of feels like a weird thing to do now?
Helen Cullen It feels like a weird thing to do but actually, it’s such a meditative act. And in the society that we live in now where we’re going so fast all the time and we’re using technology so much and we are in a front of screens we’re almost afraid to be alone with our thoughts. It can be quite intimidating to sit down in front of a page and think about how you want to express yourself. But actually, I feel it’s a really restorative thing to do. And it’s been amazing that lots of people have started writing letters to me now after they’ve read the book or when they’ve heard me speaking and talked about how actually it’s so freeing to sit down and write in that way. And it’s true you only realize what you have to say, I think, when you give yourself permission to say it and create the opportunity for it to happen. So I hope that people will join me in the revolution.
Male Host Now you talk about it being a meditative sort of thing and I get that but you’re a writer so of course you like writing letters. But if you’re someone who’s listening to this who actually prefers emails and texts because they’re informal and they’re immediate you might think actually that’s a more authentic version of myself; and letter writing, it has to be formal and there are conventions and rules. What do you say to those people to free them up to get into that state of mind?
Helen Cullen Well, I think that what you say when you’re writing with a pen in your hand is very different from what you type. I think your brain slows down and you’re writing from somewhere much closer to your subconscious. So it forces you to really think about what you want to say. And there is actually something very freeing about knowing that somebody can’t immediately respond. You know that you’re presenting them with this idea and they have to go away and think about it and reflect and they’re not forced to immediately have an answer for you. So I think that’s very liberating. And I often think about when you’re a child and if someone says to you, will you draw me a picture? Or can you tell me a story. Children just do it automatically and they don’t say “oh I’m not a very creative person”, or “oh I couldn’t possibly think about doing that”. Because they trust themselves that they instinctively know how to do it but somewhere along the way as adults we learn to only do the things that we think we’re good at, that we’ve been measured on in the past and know that we can be successful with and we lose our confidence about expressing ourselves and using our creativity. But I really believe that anyone who gives themselves the chance will find that they have a voice inside them with something that they want to say. And they don’t have to worry about whether or not their grammar’s perfect or their spelling’s perfect or they’re structuring it properly, there is nobody in the world who would receive the letter from them and be thinking anything other than delight that they’ve got a letter on their mat from them, I’m sure at that.
Audience member: My husband I have been together for nearly 40 years and we have a few of our early letters which were very romantic and loving. We’ve got photographs from that time and you can think yourself back to that time by looking at the photographs. You read those letters and you’re in a whole new plane. And I don’t think we could remember those memories in quite the intensity just from looking at a photograph of just one little moment whereas the letter tells us about how we were feeling and the intensity of our love at that time.
Helen Cullen Yeah, absolutely and I think something that’s really interesting about life is that you don’t know you’re living through significant moments sometimes until after the fact. So being able to look back at different periods in your life and understand what was important to you then and how you were understanding what was happening, you know it’s really provocative. Our memories are so unreliable but you can’t escape what you’ve written on the page. So it’s a really incredible thing that you have this archive of your relationship and of your past. I don’t think we’ll all be downloading all the emails we send from our archives anytime soon. And I do think there’s something about email because it’s turned into such a work specific activity for so many of us we associate email with work and with labor. So I don’t know if we associate with pleasure in the way that you can with letters so it maybe stops us from communicating in the same way with the technology.