Letter writing as ritual: the power to connect

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Earlier today, I opened a box that had been hidden away in a forgotten corner of a cupboard. The box contained a collection of letters from my former piano teacher. The first one was dated in 1986. I was eleven years old and had started advanced piano lessons with another teacher. The last letter was written in 2005, the year of my wedding.

I started reading the letters and immediately, I could see her face as it was at that time, hear her voice and remember the piano lessons she gave me. The letters did not only bring her person to life but also this defining period of my life. A period, in which I developed from child to adult, moved out of house, completed my studies, started my professional career and found my current husband. I realised that I had a real gem in my hands.

In this time of email, apps and text messages, writing a letter by hand may seem hopelessly outdated. But handwritten letters and notes have a very special power. It’s the power to bring persons, events and memories to live. It’s the power to connect, move, and appeal to the heart in a unique and personal way.

Look at this inspiring TedTalk by Lakshmi Pratury, in which she shares a series of notes written by her father before he died:

Or consider the following examples:

  • When a mother of one of my best friends was dying, she left a handwritten letter to each of her children. In this letter, she shared her most precious memories, thoughts and wishes for them to keep for their lives to come.
  • When two friends of mine got married, they wrote their vows on a piece of beautiful paper. They have put it in a box as a precious keepsake of the day.
  • Each year on their birthdays, I write a handwritten letter for my daughter and son. In these letters, I tell about what happened in their lives, their development, and their personalities.

In each of these examples, the handwriting adds a special dimension to the letter writing. It makes the communication deeply personal and truly unique. A hand written letter brings this person who wrote it to live. The shapes of the letters form the melody of their voice. The paper still breathes the warmth of their hands. The words they chose make you laugh, because only they could say things in such a way. The space in between the words may move you, as they reveal the feelings the writer may feel for you. A good letter reveals something personal of both the writer and the receiver.

A letter is also far more durable than a text message an app or even an email. After 2005, the correspondence between my former piano teacher and I changed. We started writing emails, or shared updates via birthday- and Christmas cards. Unfortunately, I haven’t kept them. Whereas the handwritten letters from my friend were too precious for me to destroy, I apparently had less difficulty with throwing away the greeting cards or being sloppy in archiving the emails.

In addition to the profound and moving effects that handwritten letters may have, the process of writing a letter is a precious activity in itself. It can be a healing and insightful process. Writing a letter requires time and focus. It’s an invitation to come to the core of things. Creating coherent sentences may help organise the chaos in your head. Writing a letter may also help in expressing feelings that are too sensitive to describe face-to-face. It can be great fun, memorising enjoyable moments, describing what excites you right now, or dreaming about things to come.

So why not book some time, and a place where you won’t be disturbed for a while, and write a letter? It may be a letter to your inner self. For example, a letter in which you describe a problem or an issue that has been bothering you for a while, a letter about your dreams for the future, or a letter about the things you appreciate in your life. It may also be a letter to someone else. For example, a letter in which  you express your love for someone special, a letter to your children in which you share memories and advise for their future lives, or a letter to a friend who you haven’t seen in a while and in which you update them on your life.

Here are some tips that work well for me:

  • Create time. Putting things on paper may take a while, especially when you want to get to the core of things, or if you want to capture something personal.
  • Find a place where you feel comfortable, a place where you can find inspiration and where you won’t be disturbed.
  • You may want to buy special paper. Maybe a colour that expresses the feelings you would like to describe or a colour or texture that reminds you of the person you are addressing your letter to
  • Be yourself. Don’t worry about mistakes or bad handwriting.
  • Prepare and take some time before you start writing. You may want to take some notes of the topics you would like to address, events or memories you would like to share, or collate some key words or symbols that you would like to include. Or just take some time to adjust yourself to the space, and connect to your body by taking some deep breaths. It may help in finding the right focus.
  • Include drawings, photos or pictures from magazines. Sometimes, a visual can express a feeling better than a word and if you prefer drawing to writing it will make it more personal.

What works well for you when writing a letter? When did you last write or receive a hand written letter, and what impact did this have on you? Please share your stories in the comments box. I would love to hear from you!

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