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Before social networking and emails, before text messaging and phone calls, even before telegrams and morse code, people wrote letters. And my whole life, I’ve written letters too.
My earliest letters date back to 1997, when my then-best friend moved schools. Our correspondence ranged from long, effusive letters about mean teachers and nightmare sisters to postcards simply proclaiming, “You are my BEST FRIEND!!!” or, “HERE’S A PHOTO OF ME, YOU CAN PUT IT SOMEWHERE!” Clearly, that ever-present childhood excitement could only be fully expressed in capitals and overused exclamation marks.
Then came postcards from holiday pen pals, beginning eagerly before trailing to a stop as winter began and we forgot the vow of friendship made over swimming pools and suncream. After that, dozens of letters from my cousins—the ten-minute distance between our houses deemed too far so that we required additional correspondence; and a two-year’s worth of exchanges with a friend who moved to Malaysia—largely written in text speak, which is now completely embarrassing. There are, more recently, beautifully open and honest letters from a university friend, whose words I may one day use as a basis for a confessional Judy Blume-esque novel about the tribulations of being a graduate.
I remember writing all these letters—the childhood best friends that came and went, the holiday penpals scattered across the country, the friends separated by university and jobs and growing up. But what I barely remember are the handful of letters from a primary school teacher, who wrote to me after leaving my school. I was surprised when I recently came across the neat adult script amongst the mass of sprawling childish handwriting, having forgotten the letters we exchanged years ago. Looking back, it seems strange that we wrote to each other; writing to an adult as a nine-year-old seems somehow odd, reminiscent of the fictional Matildas and Miss Honeys rather than real-life pen pals. But these letters are, perhaps, the most interesting, making me wonder why the lovely things they contain aren’t permanently engrained in my memory. They should be.
Despite the letters themselves being a blur, here’s what I do remember: as a child, I wrote stories—pages and pages about magical worlds, outdoor adventures and broken homes—inspired by C. S. Lewis, Enid Blyton and Jaqueline Wilson respectively, whose words, I can see in hindsight, hopelessly infuse my own. I used to hand in these rambling narratives to my teachers, and this particular teacher clearly appreciated my imagination more than I did. Her letters are endlessly encouraging: she tells me that I should never stop being creative and imaginative, that she reads my stories to her husband and new primary school class. There’s even a note scribbled on a baby photo, telling me to continue writing so her daughter can one day read my book.
Reading these letters makes me sad, because I no longer write stories. I still write, but my words form essays, articles and blogs—not the books-in-the-making my teacher anticipated.
So why have I stopped writing? Well, because when I was young, I thought all my stories were good. Or more accurately, I didn’t think at all: I wrote because I loved it, without the pressure of creating something Pulitzer-prize worthy. But I no longer possess the unwavering surety of childhood; university, whilst teaching me to read intelligently, has also made me too self-aware and—although it sounds strange to say this—too appreciative of great novels. I used to swallow books whole and move onto the next one, but now I draw them out, marvelling at the way authors put words (just words) together in a way that can mean so much. Consequently, I strive towards the literary perfection that seems so unattainable.
But discovering again this goldmine of support from my old teacher—albeit from over a decade ago—has persuaded me to try and write with the same kind of emphatic abandon as my nine-year-old self. In fact, with the same kind of emphatic abandon that exists in letter writing, because who worries about how they’re writing when they’re sending it to someone they know and love? Writing with such unhindered expression can only be a good thing; if what I write isn’t groundbreaking, nobody has to read it, and if it is—well, maybe it will become the book that had once seemed an inevitable part of my future.
What I’m suggesting is this: maybe in this little way we should regress 200 years before technology overhauled the way we communicate, before it brought us closer together globally but dragged our attention away from reality and towards computer screens, and write letters. They might take longer to arrive in the mailbox of its intended recipient than texts or emails, and perhaps the news won’t be “news” anymore, but letter writing seems, somehow, to facilitate the honesty and transparency of great literature that is sometimes lost in 140-character tweets. And years later, you might also discover a forgotten letter that will change the way you think.
Among other things, Catherine likes to write, mostly about cultural topics such as literature, theatre, film and TV.