My German primary school had a letter exchange program with a school in the US. I still remember I was paired with a girl named Grace. We exchanged a few missives, probably very brilliant stuff like “school sucks” and “my hamster died today”. The correspondence fizzled out after a few back and forths. But you can hardly expect kids to be the next Virgina Woolf when it comes to letter writing.
In spite of my failed pen-palship with Grace, growing up I still continued writing letters to friends and family, and I do so even now at the less than tender age of nearing thirty. Mind you, these are real, full length letters. Not birthday or thank you cards (although I send those as well, but on separate occasions).
Still, I understand why some might think that writing letters is lame or even intimidating. Why should I write a letter when I have email and social media?, you may ask. What do you even write about? To answer both of those, here are excellent reasons to start writing letters and some tips on how to make them interesting for your reader.
An intentional practice
I won’t bore you with my standard observations about the state of our society and how technology makes things more quickly consumable and therefore less special. We’ve all heard it. I’m a proponent of slowing down to a glacial pace. Letter writing helps you disconnect and reconnect with your own mind. Writing a letter is similar to journalling in that it’s an intentional practice that helps sort through all the stuff that’s going on in your brain. Take the time to ruminate before even putting pen to paper. Don’t rush through the process just to get it done. Think of the person you’re writing to, reflect on what’s been going on in your life, listen as the pen scratches across the paper, watch as the point draws the curves and places the dots.
Writing as therapy
Letters are akin to therapy. I suppose it’s selfish to use a letter intended for someone else to act as a processing tool. But in my experience, good friends appreciate the personal thoughts and revelations that emerge from this stream-of-consciousness writing. Often they recognise some of their own behaviour and thought patterns in it.
Feel connected to friends and family
Curing global loneliness has been a relevant topic as of late. And sure, Zoom parties have been a great help in this era of physical distancing. But are we really connecting through screens and social media? I like to think of letters as a surefire way to tell someone “Hey, I’ve been thinking of you.” It’s more than just a quick check-in text. A letter shows that you really took the time to consider the person and created something special just for them. Connect with your grandparents, university friends or your old neighbours. In my experience, everyone loves getting a letter in their mailbox.
Improve your writing
Although you can never be perfect at writing – and goodness, have I tried – you can use your letters as a way to get into the habit of writing often. Experiment with formats and styles, work in new words and charming turns of phrases, be creative and enjoy the process.
A few tips for writing good letters
Not knowing what to write is a frustrating experience. Once you’ve exhausted the topics of the weather, your general wellbeing, and answered any questions from previous letters, what do you write about?
Be open and honest
First things first: A good letter, much like a good friendship, is not ashamed of its purpose. In order to create a bond with someone, you have to break down the walls that you put up to protect yourself. The best friendships are built on complete honesty and are not afraid of judgment. Think of your letter as an extension of your friendship or as the building block to an even better relationship with someone. Write from the heart and it will most likely be reciprocated.
Write in your own voice
Some people find letters to be an old-fashioned and stuffy undertaking. But don’t be intimidated by the medium. My advice is to write how you would speak to someone. Given, most of us speak differently to different people, but it’s a good guiding principle. With some correspondents I can show off my linguistics prowess, with others I keep it simple, friendly and a bit silly.
It’s okay to be boring
Listen, there are periods in our lives when nothing is going on and everything is a bit blah. So you’re not climbing Everest or going to Bali or launching a business. Who cares? Sometimes the best things to read about are the little mundanities of life. What random thing crossed your mind yesterday? What caught your eye when you looked out the window? I often find that a person’s shower thoughts hardly find a platform for airing. A letter could be just the thing.
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