Penned with love

Words and photography Naomi Bulger

Few of us exchange letters through the post any more, but a growing number of people are beginning to value how special a handwritten letter can be and the lasting impression it can leave.

Around three decades ago, give or take a year here or there, little Tracey Hassell sat at the desk in her bedroom in Adelaide, Australia, head bent and sock-clad feet swinging, writing another letter to her nana. At first glance, there was nothing particularly profound in this, or any of her letters. “They were not very interesting,” Hassell recalls. “Results of netball games and a summary of birthday presents, mostly. But my parents always encouraged me to write
to Nana because she lived a long way away from us, and was very deaf.”

It wasn’t until years later, after her nana had passed away and while helping to sort through her things, that Hassell understood the true value of what she had given her grandmother when she penned those innocuous words. 

“It was my job to sort through Nana’s dresser,” says Hassell, “the one where she used to sit to fix her hair and place a dab of perfume on her wrists. In the top drawer I found a cache of her special things: stacks of small photographs, a name pin from when she used to call herself Trudy, a newspaper clipping in which she was named ‘belle of the ball,’ and a tied-up bundle of letters.

“Every envelope in that bundle had been carefully cut with a letter opener, and the edges were frayed and bent from frequent opening and rereading. On that day, I discovered that my nana had kept every letter that her grandchildren had ever written to her. Pages and pages of childish handwriting on cheap, floral news-agency stationery, some letters read so many times the paper was worn. 

“To my grandmother, each letter was the voice of a grandchild she had never heard.” 

Handwritten letters have the power to become, over time, the blueprints of a person. Reading a letter from your childhood is like uncovering the architect’s plans for your now century-old house. You shake off the dust, carefully smooth the creases from the fragile paper, and as you read you can recreate, in your mind, the beginning. Likewise, rereading a letter from someone loved and lost can bring a piece of them back to life, knitting their thoughts, joys, hopes and challenges into flesh and bone with every silly story told, with every characteristic flourish of the letter ‘r’, or each ‘i’ dotted with a heart.

Short letters, long letters, gift cards and postcards; letters on pages torn from school books, on pale pink writing paper covered with unicorns (with matching envelopes), on lined sheets decorated with scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers that long ago lost their sugary whiff. Penmanship, paper, pencils and prose – every letter is a unique and tangible artefact of your relationship: a physical piece of who the writer is, or was, and who they are to you. 

Mention letter-writing at a dinner party and you won’t have to wait long before someone calls it a dying practice. “The internet killed the mail,” is the most common lament. And it is certainly true that the speed, accessibility and ease of email, text and social media have forever transformed the way we conduct business, and have had a profound impact on the way loved ones stay in touch.

But marketers say we are now entering the ‘post digital age’, an era in which the concept of online has become so much a part of our everyday lives that there is little benefit any more to separating out ‘digital’ from ‘analogue’ in our discourse. And, perhaps, because digital is no longer shiny and new, increasing numbers of people are eschewing its shiny lights for something that feels more honest, lasting and slow. 

As ‘slow living’ gains popularity worldwide, many are returning to old-fashioned pen, paper and stamps to forge more meaningful connections, express their creativity, and spread kindness. After all, ‘slow’ is about taking the time to really think about what we are doing and put our hearts into it – cooking a meal from scratch, nurturing green and growing things, turning off the television in favour of conversation, writing a letter instead of banging out a text. 

If you think about it, a handwritten letter represents just about everything that is good and wholesome about slow living. A letter is deeply personal: words, feelings,  ideas and stories shared from one person to another, within the privacy of a sealed envelope. 

The mark of the writer is right there on the page, in crossed-out mistakes and afterthoughts in the margins and between the lines. (Sitting at her grandmother’s dresser that day, Hassell decided to write one final letter to her nana, in place of a eulogy). 

In the moment

Writing a letter is an exercise in mindfulness. The very act of writing by hand slows us down and makes multi-tasking almost impossible, forcing us to be present in the moment. We pause and think about our words, and about what we want to express. 

Psychologists call this “reflective functioning,” the capacity to both feel an experience as we write it down, and then to make sense of it as we read it back. Scientists now link expressive writing – particularly expressions of gratitude – with better moods, reduced stress, better sleep and improved health. 

Studies have found significant cognitive benefits to writing by hand, with improvements in memory, creativity and skill development. Beyond that, the letter is a canvas for creative expression. For flourishes in the handwriting and drawings on the back, for illustrated envelopes and handmade gifts inside. “Mail artists” all over the world send decorated mail through the post as gestures of kindness, community and artistic expression. 

Every letter is unique, a tangible expression of the writer; everything from their choice of pen and paper to style of handwriting makes a letter a bespoke and precious object. 

Writing someone a letter is an act of true generosity. For most of us, life today is busier than it has ever been, and our time is one of the greatest gifts we have to give. To tell a friend we love them, that we are thinking of them, can be expressed on Facebook with a poke. It takes considerably more time, effort and focus to put thoughts and feelings onto paper, place them in an envelope, write the address, stick a stamp on it and carry it to the nearest postbox. 

But the joy this gives our friends is immeasurably greater.  And a letter is, by every standard these days, slow. There’s a reason many call it ‘snail mail.’ 

A physical letter travels hundreds or even thousands of kilometres, crosses oceans and highways, passes through dozens of hands, and, when a letter I write finally reaches you, it bears the marks of its journey: creases and smudges, extra stamps and stickers, perhaps even a tear or two, that are the tangible evidence of its adventure, and which become part of its story. Our story.

13 letters to write today

  • Thank someone who doesn’t expect it: your child’s teacher, your barista, your yoga instructor, your postie

  • To someone who lives in the same house as you, telling them what you appreciate about them

  • Say hello to a friend who isn’t on Facebook; enclose photographs

  • The words that don’t come easily face-to-face

  • An invitation to your next catch-up with a friend, instead of texting

  • To a former teacher, to let them know what you remember about their class, and how it mattered to you

  • White down your memories, so that future generations can know what your life was like

  • A letter to your neighbour, telling them how much you enjoy their holiday decorations

  • Write to your food-loving friend and share your favourite recipe

  • A letter of love and support to someone who is going through a difficult time, or who is in hospital

  • To leaders and politicians to advocate for positive change

  • Congradulate someone on their achievements: graduation, a new job, a deadline met, a difficult decision made

  • To your mother or father, sharing the story of something they did or daid to you in your childhood that made you feel special and loved
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