Jane Austen penned more than her best-selling, wonderful novels that blew open the world of women – she also wrote very long and detailed letters to her sister Cassandra. In these personal letters she would exposit her day-to-day life, moment by moment, emotion by emotion. Perhaps in an earlier version of Twitter, Ms Austen’s favourite complaint was of how expensive paper used to be – and in response to this she would fill out every blank bit of her letters with writing, so as to use up as much space as she possibly could.
Abraham Lincoln also wrote letters in which he was less careful to hide his personality and his feelings. In his speeches, he was an enduring speaker, a brilliant leader, hardly showing any humanity or character. In his own hand, perhaps proving that writing letters can be more personal than most other means of communication, his personality showed through tiny crevasses – crevasses that would make him likeable and recognizable to generations to come. Although it is unlikely Lincoln could have predicted that his letter to break off an engagement would be posted on something called The Internet for millions of people to see, this is a remarkable example of how letters can tell stories.
Much of history can be told by letters, and it is impossible not to wonder how future generations will see our versions of letters; Twitter, Facebook, blogs, tumblrs. Are these the writings that will tell our stories? Although they might hold more information than a piece of paper, albeit a lot of it irrelevant, the information is remarkably of the non-personal kind. It’s information overload.
Two of my favourite novels are written in letter-format. “The Colour Purple”, full of confessions to God himself, and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”, a journey to self-discovery. Writing a letter is nothing short of mailing a part of yourself to another place in the world, hoping for an answer – and in today’s world of technology, receiving and writing letters is an extremely uncommon practice. Who can ever be bothered to write on paper any more? To address an envelope?
The closest we come to self-discovery through writing in today’s world is by writing a Facebook status – and this will never be the same as sitting down with a piece of paper and spilling out your thoughts to send to some one. “Liking” it will never be the same as reading a letter, seeing the loops, shapes and ties of handwriting, the mistakes crossed out, the writing without spell check. It’s a shame, we’re too open, less personal and more superficial on the computer screen than we have ever been before.
Not only a form of traditional art, letter writing can also be therapeutic. The best example I can come up with of this is PostSecret, which you probably already know about. If you don’t, Frank Warren receives thousands of secrets everyday, and he keeps them safe in his house, and posts some of them on his blog. The beauty of it is that a personal secret can apply to many people, but this is unknown until you see you secret posted up on that blog, in all its glory and truth. That’s a piece of some one else, but it’s also a piece of you. If you are unfamiliar with letter writing I recommend you start doing it now – I am adamant that it will not die, for as long as I can hold a pen in my hand.
Below are two of my favourite letters by famous people, and even though I have no photos of them, reading them tells me a lot about the people they were…
From Johnny Cash to his wife June
That’s really nice June. You’ve got a way with words and a way with me as well.
The fire and excitement may be gone now that we don’t go out there and sing them anymore, but the ring of fire still burns around you and I, keeping our love hotter than a pepper sprout.
From Roald Dahl to a little girl who sent him a description of her dream
I must write a special letter and thank you for the dream in the bottle. You are the first person in the world who has sent me one of these and it intrigued me very much. I also liked the dream. Tonight I shall go down to the village and blow it through the bedroom window of some sleeping child and see if it works.
With love from,
Do not leave your Facebook page as your only story-teller. Writing a letter is a unique experience and it cannot be mimicked by email or instant messaging. Don’t let your relationships be marked only by text messaging. Writing a letter can be done with a few simple tools and the desire to share yourself, and that’s why it’s so wonderfully simple.
Photos and editing by Nicole Froio.