Why we should start writing letters

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Why we should start writing letters

The art of letter-writing may be all but lost in our digital age, but there's a richer experience to be had if we went back to using long-form

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Published: Fri 17 Jul 2015, 4:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 21 Jul 2015, 11:23 AM

"Who even writes letters anymore?" pretty much sums up the response when you ask most people if they've taken the time to write to someone. Anyone. Digital communication is undeniably a runaway hit and we use it generously for everything from sending e-vites and e-cards for special occasions to negotiating relationships. We've all heard of folks who have broken up with their boyfriends/girlfriends over an SMS (and we can't help but recall George Clooney's quip in Up in the Air where he likens it to being 'fired over the Internet'), or gotten invited to a wedding through a flash-exposed, low-resolution image of an invitation card shared through Whatsapp.
Deep down, we know there's something wrong with this form of terse communication - the lack of a certain humanness - which is probably why there's a sense of excitement when those of us living in the 'modern' digital age receive something anachronistically hand-written. Dubai resident, Venicia Vessoaker says that that excitement is shared even amongst those who don't personally get letters.
"My dad still writes to everyone in the family through letters and, every year, like clockwork, without fail, he makes sure to wish us for our birthdays by sending us cards." Since Venicia, like many of us in Dubai, has an official postal address, her letters come to her workplace. "Whenever I open the letters or the cards, my colleagues burst into tears - especially the emotional ones. And that makes me emotional too," she says. But they all feel collectively better from the thoughtful expressions sent from thousands of kilometres away.
It's true that many of us miss out on this emotional and physical connect nowadays, and few of us actually put our thoughts to pen and paper. But new research is showing that the mere act of writing by hand can promote quite a few physical and mental benefits, from improving learning abilities to fostering a more positive outlook on life. In Nine Reasons Not To Abandon The Art Of The Handwritten Letter, Alena Hall, the associate editor of Third Metric at The Huffington Post, discusses that the simple act of sending someone a letter conveys a strong message of affection - because you have to put your thoughts out by hand, purchase a stamp, deliver your note to a mailbox and wait for the recipient to receive and respond. She adds that there are demonstrable links between expressive writing and better moods, reduced stress and an improved overall sense of wellbeing. "Similar to keeping a gratitude journal or writing about your future goals, sharing your genuine thoughts with another person can be quite the morale booster," she writes.
As an expatriate nurse in Dubai, Manju Kumar, like many of her friends, regularly writes to her family through Facebook and chats with them over Whatsapp and iMessage. But just like Venicia's father, Manju's father also sends her letters filled with emotion and warmth. "His letters are usually about the happenings in my home town - and we do call each other on the phone to get updates - but there's something special about reading the words and imagining him talking to me," says Manju. However, she says that it's been a terribly long time since she's written back. "I feel like my handwriting would be quite bad now," she laughs.  
Perhaps one of the best facets of letter-writing is that unlike Facebook messages or texts and IMs, you have to focus all of your senses to the task at hand. There's little in the way of distractions and there are no email alerts, new message pings or private chats in the background. "To write thoughtfully and coherently, we must focus on the present moment and contemplate," writes Alena.
Venicia recalls the days when she used to write to her husband, 20 years ago, when the Internet and, even, mobile phones were rather newfangled. "I used to work in the airlines, as cabin crew, and whenever I was on a long haul flight and had some time, I would write letters to him. Even though it seems mundane now - I used to write to him about the places we were flying over, for example, which can now be conveyed through an SMS - I remember feeling really good about writing to him."
She jokes that he doesn't have a romantic bone in his body anymore, but he used to write to her more frequently than she wrote to him. "He used to write to me every week and my friends used to say that I was very lucky!" She still makes it a point to give him hand-written notes and cards on special occasions, and he does too, and Venicia adds that it's so much more romantic.
There's no denying the romantic aspect of letters. We're all familiar with our grandparents' stories about sneaking letters to each other - a close friend still brings up stories of how his grandfather used to hide love letters under the seat of his boss's bicycle, meant for his oldest daughter (those were the days!) - or how they used to write to each other after migrating to places like the UAE all those years ago. Many of us even wrote to Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy because they didn't have email (and still shouldn't).
Francis, Venicia's father, whose letters still bring tears to her eyes, says, "Romantic letters are ways of expressing your love to your loved ones. It's not just words - it's your feelings that you pour into the letters. Sometimes, expressing your feelings through words can be easier than facing the person. Romance is all about those feelings, and that's what you put down when you write. It's something that is learned, not taught."
Ever the romantic, the 73-year-old Francis, who now lives in Mumbai, tries to recall his first letter when coaxed, but says, "Oh, that's a very long time ago... I started writing letters at the age of 15, ever since I started working to support my family. When I was posted in Jaipur, I wrote to my wife almost every week, and the first letter I received from her... There was a lovely feeling of being missed and loved at the same time. I can't remember what she wrote now, but I still remember that letter."
Today, Francis writes to his grandchildren, one of whom, Chantelle, lives in Dubai. She's only eight, but she's already taken to writing letters. "I've written three letters to my grandfather," she beams, and adds she wants to keep writing letters instead of emails. "I learnt how to write letters in school and I think it's very nice to write to people. I ask my grandfather when he's going to come visit us," she says, before she runs off in a fit of shyness. She has already written three times to her grandfather and she tells me, hopefully, that one day, she will get to see the post office and how her letters actually get delivered. In the time that she's waiting for her next letter, she also talks to her grandfather on the phone.
"It's very easy to pick up the phone and talk to the family; however, the actual act of putting your thoughts down on paper makes it even more special," says Francis. "Sometimes, you forget to say something over the phone, but when you write, you spend a lot of time putting your thoughts down. Plus, when people see your handwriting, they see you, not some obscure person with an electronic signature. That connect comes automatically and it's an emotional connect. It's special, beautiful and satisfying at the same time. I'm old, and not very good with talking on the phone, I'd rather write."
It seems self-defeatingly ironic that his interview came not over a letter, but an email conversation, nonetheless, he forgives me. "Writing letters is obsolete in today's day and age, and the joy you experienced when you received a letter from your loved one is something that today's generation will probably never experience," he says.
His wish? "I wish people would write letters more often than sending WhatsApp messages. It would be nice for the younger generation to experience the emotions and feelings that come with writing letters."


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