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Books

The lost art of letter writing

On September 9, 2012

By Sophia Whitfield

"And none will hear the postman's knock? without a quickening of the heart. For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?" ?W.H. Auden

A handwritten letter may not be as immediate as an email or a Tweet, but it appears that this once lost art is enjoying a bit of a renaissance.

Earlier this year The Rumpus launched a subscription called Letters in the Mail. Every week an author sends out a handwritten letter to subscribers. It was the brainchild of Stephen Elliot who decided on a whim to revitalise the art of letter writing. Within two hours they had 200 subscribers and they have just launched Letters for Kids. Children as young as six could now receive a handwritten letter from popular children’s author Lemony Snicket.

Perhaps it is the nostalgia or the novelty of receiving a letter that we now find so thrilling. Twenty years ago when I first moved to Australia I kept in touch with my parents by writing a weekly Air Mail letter. I have boxes full of letters I received. I can’t bring myself to throw them out. After years of now writing emails the letter still seems so much more personal and intimate. My grandmother wrote to me once a week. I knew when her health was failing her, her writing deteriorated and she began repeating herself. I waited for those letters to arrive. Just the sight of a blue letter in my letterbox filled me with happiness. Now communication is through email, Skype or phone. It is more immediate, but far less memorable.

Perhaps this is why the publishers of Beatrix Potter’s classic books chose to use a letter rather than an email to request A Further Tale of Peter Rabbit. Emma Thompson received a box with two half eaten radishes and a letter addressed to Ms Thompson from Peter Rabbit. He reminded Ms Thompson that he was about to turn 110 years old and remarked that he rather fancied another outing. As he knew Ms Thompson was a little mischievous he thought she would be the perfect person to pen his next adventure and wondered if perhaps she would consider it. Ms Thompson wrote back to Mr Rabbit saying she would give it a go. She admits that they are now less formal with each other and call each other by their first names.

As Emma Thompson does the rounds of interviews to promote her new book, it seems that the reason she accepted the commission was simple. It was the letter she was sent.

So perhaps old traditions have not completely lost their allure. With so much immediate communication available, it is still the traditional we savour. We keep the letters, the emails are deleted.

It seems we are being encouraged to pick up our pens once more and begin writing by hand.

Women of Letters, curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire, pays homage to the lost art of letter writing. Every month inspirational women come together to read aloud letters they have penned around a set theme. The monthly gatherings showcase the diversity of Australian women as well as celebrating the art of letter writing.

Of course art of letter writing is often a far more positive experience than the typing of an email. We are generally far more careful with our words. We choose them well because they are the written word. Emails are far more perfunctory. It is the means of communication we use for work and we put little care into our daily emails, which can be readily deleted.

Our heart does not skip a beat with the ping of the daily email, but it does with the arrival of a letter without a window!

"Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls; for, thus friends absent speak." John Donne

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