“I used to write
I used to write letters
I used to sign my name
I used to sleep at night
Before the flashing light settled deep in my brain” – Arcade Fire, “We Used to Wait” (from The Suburbs)
It figures that Arcade Fire, a band from Montreal, would speak to my current frame of mind. I am a dual citizen of Canada and the USA who did graduate study in Montreal and am living through the great pandemic of 2020. What I have been thinking about is this: In our new world of instant connectivity and constant social media interaction, have we lost something vital that helped past generations survive similar uncertainties – the venerable art of letter writing?
I must admit I have always been old fashioned about letter writing. To this day, I still like getting mail. I subscribe to print magazines. Every year I send out an actual hard copy Christmas newsletter and Christmas cards. Perhaps I am a dinosaur. I have fond memories of getting mail from American grandparents when I was a child growing up in Canada, of receiving notes and letters from my parents when I was living away from home as an undergraduate and sending and receiving countless letters to my future wife when we lived in separate cities during undergraduate summers and graduate school (as well as research trips). In the day – I loved getting postcards too. There would be a professional photo on the front of the card with exotic stamps and a cheery scrawl on the back of the card outlining whatever foreign adventure the sender was on. I always got a kick out of picking up letters from the mailbox, sorting through them and opening them. Letters are so tangible and personal. There is something special when you realize that a person has taken the time to compose some ordered thoughts on a piece of paper by hand and send them your way. Better still, you can read them at leisure. If the letter is long you can even read it in segments and re-read it. If the letter is meaningful you can keep it for years.
Which brings me to my two points – Why have we lost the art of letter writing and can the pandemic offer a chance at a revival? I suppose no one writes letters anymore because it takes too long and seems to be too much effort. Better to send a GIF, make a post, send an emoji or tap out a few words on Facebook to “Stay in touch”. However, I would hazard to say that this does not really fill people’s hunger for connection. Social media’s greatest advantages are the ability to send images and quick succinct (hopefully witty) sentences and phrases. It cannot be denied that the ability to chronicle one’s trips, days, adventures by picture sent from mobile phones through Instagram or other apps as well as putting on Facebook gives a sense of immediacy. What I worry about though is that people cannot dig as deep when they have a character limit on Twitter or messaging services. Let’s also admit that there is not often too much contemplation put into most instant communication. The point is not to choose your words carefully but to send them quickly. It gives a dopamine hit to the brain to send and receive such things. Reflection is usually absent. People are busy and the technology exists, so it is used. It all makes sense. However, as Arcade Fire’s words point out – it has also created enormous anxiety over what people are missing or what others are up to. Maybe no one sleeps at night anymore.
Letter writing is something different. It is almost a form of meditation. By getting out a blank piece of paper you can craft your own tale and tell your own narrative. Events, observations, thoughts over the past few weeks (or months if it has been a while) can flow out of your pen. Inner thoughts not always best shared through social media (which might be reposted to others) can also be revealed. Due to the pandemic, I have not been able to travel to see family in Canada or friends more distant in places like the UK. I have taken my own advice and begun to rediscover letter writing. I took a deep breath, got out some pieces of lined paper and started. I found it very rewarding. Sitting down for 45 minutes to an hour and just writing out my thoughts made me feel more focused and more connected. I was able to explain to myself as I explained to others the meaning of what I have been experiencing through the pandemic. I was able to shape my thoughts and put them into a narrative. It felt personal. It felt real. I felt more relaxed and calmer. When it was done it felt concrete. I put it into an envelope – sealed it up and then had an excuse to get outside and walk to a mailbox. Then (again as Arcade Fire sang) I waited until it was received. Inevitably the recipients got back to me in more modern ways through email or telephone conversations. However, they were as pleasantly surprised to get an 8-page handwritten letter as I was to send it. My mother complimented my letter as “newsy” which is a nice way to put it. I will see if my recipients are inspired enough to write me back but that is beside the point. The art of composing and writing letters was invigorating and I will repeat it. Though they are not always happy about it I have even conscripted my children into writing much shorter letters to their relatives as well.
As a historian I have read and continue to read countless letters from the past. In British archives, I have seen the indecipherable handwriting of Lord Curzon (one-time Viceroy of India). I have read over the letters of other early 20th century worthies like Lord Roberts and Lord and Lady Milner. I have sat in the home of the descendants of female aristocratic leaders like Lady Forster and read her words retrieved from a trunk in the basement of their home. I have held letters written and signed by British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan. I have sat in Hong Kong and read the letters and correspondence of past governors like Sir Murray MacLehose. When I wrote an article about the Shakespeare Tercentenary of 1916, I did research in the National Archives in Washington, DC and read letters by President Wilson. There is something enthralling about holding the correspondence of long dead figures you are studying. They literally spring to life out of the page. I have no illusions that I will have any long-term historical importance myself. However, in a small way by reviving letter writing on my own I feel I am keeping the record going as well as reaching out to people I care about. Letter writing is both therapeutic and meaningful to me. Maybe others may rediscover it too.
To close with more words from Arcade Fire – (also from “We Used to Wait”)
“It may seem strange how we used to wait for letters to arrive
But what’s stranger still is how something so small can keep you alive”