I was pretty shocked a couple of years ago when one of my children, then in his late teens, asked me where you put the stamp on a letter. He also asked me where you wrote the address on the envelope.
When I was at school we were taught how to write letters, complete with our address top right and theirs top left, above the salutation. These days everyone sends text messages and emails. Sometimes we don’t even bother to add ‘Dear’ and the recipient’s name. We never worry about whether to use ‘yours sincerely’ or ‘yours faithfully’ at the end. We just write ‘cheers’ or ‘best wishes’ and type, not sign, our name.
Overhearing conversations between young people I often hear them saying, “I’ve been talking to so and so,” when they mean they have been emailing, texting, Whatsapping or Facebook messaging them. Sorry, folks, that is not ‘talking’.
I don’t know about you, but when I send emails, I tend to write fast and short. When I read emails I read fast too.
But when I first went abroad 25 years ago, my mother and I wrote letters to each other every Sunday. Thin blue airmail paper and thin blue envelopes with red, white and blue borders, remember? From about Wednesday onwards, I’d eagerly await the sound of Ian’s key in the lock at the end of the day, in the hope that he’d have my letter from home with him. I’d curl up on the sofa and read it through, savouring every word. I’d read it again the next day too and maybe a third time. I’d pass it to Ian and he’d read it and then we’d maybe chat a bit about the parochial goings on in Rutland and how she’d just won first prize of 25p in the local flower show.
At Christmas I write a newsletter, print and post it, my signature and a brief note added to the end, to about 100 people. But that doesn’t count, does it?
Today, as I start a new life with Ian in Kuala Lumpur, the thought of writing letters didn’t cross my mind. Oh no, I had a better idea – I’d write a blog and then my mother, my brother, my friends and anyone else who cared could read something I’d only had to write once. And so sunnyinterval began and I’m thoroughly enjoying posting on it once or twice a week. Writing a blog has become a bit like a diary, allowing me to savour everything that happens knowing I need to pay special attention in case I write about it later. And then I relive it when I write it down and am delighted when people I really care about, and some I never even met, write comments.
Writing a blog brings out the ‘columnist’ in me. The person who wants to write about the mundane in a fun and hopefully compelling way. It lets me practise writing with focus, a purpose and a beginning, middle and end and it lets me write in stories.
Sometimes I put a poem on the blog. I’ve loved writing poetry for my entire life, but it wasn’t until two years ago that I allowed myself the joy of writing several a month. The thing I love about poetry as a medium is that it lets me be more honest and vulnerable about the way I feel or how something has affected me. Only, with a poem, I can wrap the sometimes painful truth up in a metaphor, thereby protecting me a little and allowing readers a peek inside my soul.
So, armed with a diary, of course, my blog and an exercise book for poems, I thought had it all covered.
Then my son, who lives in London, set me a challenge.
“I want you to write me letters,” he said.
“But we can Skype,” I replied. “And Facebook message. We have Whatsapp and email.”
“But I want you to write me letters.”
“OK.” I gulped. “Will you write back, then?” I had visions of renewing my Sunday date with pen and paper and never receiving anything in return, never knowing whether my letters arrived and if he even liked them.
“Tell you what,” he suggested. “You write first, then I’ll reply. Then you reply to me. Like that.”
What a brilliant idea! Isn’t that how my letter writing life used to be when, before the days of email my old girlfriends and I would correspond throughout the year?
And so, quietly excited at the prospect, I went on a hunt for that thin blue airmail paper of yore. I discovered they don’t sell it in the high street any more. For shame. I learned though, through a Facebook plea, that a website called Etsy has it. Anyway, on my first day in KL I bought some proper red, white and blue envelopes and some thinnish yellow paper and on Sunday I wrote my first letter in years and years.
Do you know what? I loved it. I found it opened a part of me that had not been used in ages. I wrote myself dry on topics that, in an email, I’d touched on and in a blog I’d focused on trying to describe in a writerly way, rather than just how I felt. I told him things I’d already told him about briefly on Skype. This was different. And dare I say it, better? I wrote in more detail and watched the pages fall away as, after about half an hour, I’d actually only written about one part of our new life. After 8 sides of paper, I realised that was probably all the envelope could stand and went hunting for a post office.
I am excited that Josh set me this challenge. It has awoken a dormant part of my writing self and it has surprised me. Over the decades since email, I have begun to take the stacatto bursts of communication for granted and considered them normal. They are a new normal. I think I preferred the old ways.
All the latest news, views, and writing tips from Jo Parfitt and the team at Summertime Publishing
Sign up to Summertime's monthly newsletter for your free copy of So You Want to Write a Book?