Art of letter writing in an otherwise digital era
A few days back, while sorting my papers, I found an unopened letter writing pad. I held it for some time, trying to remember when was the last time I properly wrote a letter to anyone? My memory took me back to when I was in school when I used to actively write letters to my family, my friends and to strangers, to my pen friends? via letter writing chains I took part in. Though I still do have my pen friend, my uncle who is in his Eighties, we write emails to each other now. I really would love to write an old fashioned letter and post it to him. The joy of receiving a lovingly written letter in response through the letter box is simply priceless.
The art of letter writing is almost extinct. To be able to articulate your thoughts, remember all that is there to say in a flow on paper requires clarity of thought and expression. When writing an email, one has the option of deleting a word, a sentence or even an entire paragraph! Whereas when using a pen on paper, you must really be careful about errors lest you need to cross every other word or sentence you?ve written, making it a blotchy sheet of paper.
Pen and paper
The pandemic crisis and the lockdown has seen a lot of digital content emerge. People are dancing, singing, making funny videos and spoofs, sharing a piece of art and, one notices, some take to writing online blogs. With self-publishing available as an option and with writers? guilds, many are able to write an entire book with support from a community of researchers, ghost writers and editors. With so much content flooding our social media platforms, the good old Samaritan, the pen and a letter pad seem nowhere in sight. Particularly when the right idea to save the environment is to use less paper (though toilet paper and tissues seem to be high in demand).
Correspondence via letters is limited to official communication. With a digital boom, where social media and the internet have made life easier for us and response time minimal. The formality of a well-crafted letter, particularly the sentence, is no longer relevant. Language itself is compromised particularly on social media platforms like Twitter, where phrases, as opposed to sentences, are often used to fit in to the permissible character length. Shortened words and slang have made inroads into the written word.
Purists in literature and language would maintain though that good writing will always have takers. The art of writing as also reading will never go away. The same may not be said for letter writing in particular. Pen friends?, if they exist now, are guised as email buddies?. Messages are shorter, more frequent and punctuation fractured. Gadgets and devices occupy personal leisure time, particularly for adults. Video calls with grandparents and the extended family are the norm.
I have a stash of old letters exchanged with my grandfather and father, when he was away for work, on an inland letter. Post cards exchanged with Ruskin Bond, the author every child in my generation adored. I even have letters and cards exchanged with my friends and cousins. Each letter is a treat to read as it tells a story.
My late daughter loved reading these and then the stories around those letters. It was her way of connecting with places and members of the family she was not able to see otherwise. It also gave her a glimpse of what life was back then for me, growing up in India. Oh yes, she attempted her own letter writing successfully and had a few postcards from her masi (my sister). The next close version of letter writing was diary writing, which has always been encouraged in our household and there are stories galore of these!
How to write letters
The art of correspondence as is explained systematically by J. Willis Westlake, an American English Literature professor in his book, How to Write Letters? published in 1876. It entails structure, composition, punctuation, etiquette and formality for a varied forms of letters; personal and official.
It is fascinating to note his guidance, one that might apply to correspondence in general today:
Take pains; write as plainly and neatly as possible rapidly if you can, slowly if you must. Good writing affects us sympathetically, giving us a higher appreciation both of what is written and of the person who wrote it. Don t say, I haven t time to be so particular. Take time; or else write fewer letters and shorter ones. A neat well-worded letter of one page once a month is better than a slovenly scrawl of four pages once a week. In fact, bad letters are like store bills: the fewer and the shorter they are, the better pleased is the recipient.
What is more pleasing is that letters, effectively written have been known to have delivered defining moments in history. Remember the famous letter by an 11 -year-old girl, Grace Bedell, to the clean-shaven Abraham Lincoln, the then (1860) Republican candidate for American presidency, asking him to grow a beard because his otherwise 'so thin? face would benefit from a beard because all the ladies like whiskers?. Apprehensive of this suggestion, Lincoln did grow a beard: the famous Lincoln beard!
Lakshmi Kaul is the London-based UK Head & Representative at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and an active Indian diaspora campaigner. In this regular Talking Point column for iGlobal?, she will focus on issues that deserve spotlighting within the Global Indian community, referencing her personal experiences.