Since I moved to Northern Ireland at the beginning of 2019, I’ve made a more concerted effort to stay in touch with friends from Newcastle and have started writing multiple letters a month. In a depressing, increasingly digital world, alongside going for a walk in the fresh air each day, putting pen to paper has become one of my favourite ways to slow down and enjoy the real world and all it has to offer. The sensations that ground me as I set my phone down and set out to write a letter - the feel of a pen tracing lines, the texture of the paper, the thoughts and dreams that come to my mind as I consider what to write next - these have been life giving. Here’s how I rekindled my love of letter writing…
Pen pal memories from my teenage years
I enjoyed writing letters growing up, especially entering my teenage years. I still have letters I received from my friend Ruthie over years of writing across the Channel (I grew up in France). I remember having theological conversations as I began to form my own Christian faith, and I am still grateful for the gentle rebuke of a friend as I misinterpreted some verses in one of Peter’s epistles. I have vivid memories of choosing pretty stationery to write my letter to Ruthie, and at times having something so pressing to say that I’d pick up a sheet of squared school paper during a boring lesson and start a new letter. I’d often stop and start the same letter multiple times meaning a lot of the letters would be written with two or three different pens in blue, black and finishing off in green. Our letters were filled with the minutia of life as well as deeper thoughts and feelings.
From the age of fourteen, I also had a pen pal from Germany called Sarah I was put in touch with through school. We wrote to each other for three or four years and had an exchange where she came over to Paris, and I went to Munich. It’s easy to forget how different the world was before social media. If we wanted to keep in touch, we had to exchange addresses and landline numbers instead of Instagram handles! I also wrote to a couple of other friends less regularly, and still have those letters and cards tucked away in a box. Perhaps my love for stationery started younger than I thought?
In my late teens, email became the preferred means of communication and I got my first (hand me down brick of a) mobile phone (which only texted in capitals, came with four ringtones and had an antenna out of the top). It was the height of the Hotmail era when AOL was cooler (does it even still exist?!) and choosing a quirky email address became a teenage rite of passage. Some of my letter writing habits shifted online, but my friend Ruthie resisted for a very long time, for which I am now grateful, though it was faffy at the time! By the time I went to uni, I stopped writing and sending letters on a regular basis.
Lockdown letter writing
Fast forward to 2020 when the country was in lockdown and I was looking for things to distract me from he online world and homeschooling, as well as working on a new business idea. I tried sourdough but found it frustrating and confusing if I’m honest. After that failure, I got back in to writing letters and myself and the children loved receiving letters from my parents, my godmother and friends, near and far. As zoom exploded and people quickly got tired of screens to talk to one another, I wasn’t the only person who used snail mail to keep in touch. It was actually the perfect time to start up my Etsy shop selling the greetings cards I started designing. People took to paper and pen to keep in touch and create meaningful memories one with another.
Mindful Connection in a Digital Age
‘Letter-writing is a contemplative activity rather than a quick chore. You can type a text in a matter of seconds without paying attention. Sending letters, on the other hand, takes time and effort.’
Writing to each other takes longer, but the whole process is more intentional. We must carve out time to reply and give each letter our full attention. In many ways, we’re communicating less than before, but I feel more connected to my friend than I have done in years. The conversations are deeper and more varied, and we both share more detail about our daily lives. For whatever reason, spending intentional time creating letters also leaves me with a greater sense of accomplishment than sending an email or text message.
The Mail Art trend
Envelope art isn’t an essential part of exchanging letters, but if you’re looking for another creative outlet, you might enjoy this part of writing letters. I love drawing ribbons or tags to prettify plain envelopes, and write the address inside an object such a hot air balloon.
I’ve also discovered a renewed love for philately. I send most of my letters using beautiful vintage postage stamps. Sone times I’ll choose the stamps first and draw something to match the stamps. Some stamps (especially the limited edition stamps are tiny works of art in their own right. Receiving a hand written envelope (or even calligraphy hand lettered) with beautiful stamps on it absolutely adds to the joy of letter writing.
So long as they add up to the correct postage amount and have never been used before, you can use stamps no matter how old, which gives plenty of exciting options rather than a simple queen’s head. A top tip though, if you’re using old stamps that have 1/2p as part of their value, these no longer count. So if you’re using two stamps that are 15 1/2p each, it adds up to 30p, not 31p.
Where to start with letter writing
The beauty of writing letters is that it’s an easy hobby to get started with. Most of us have someone in our lives we could write to. An old friend who we’re no longer close to, an elderly relative, someone from church who could do with some cheering up or grown-up children who’ve flown the nest. If you’re keen to make new friends and fancy writing to someone you don’t know, there’s a huge letter writing community online you can tap in to. Pop pen pal related hashtags in to Instagram and you’ll find plenty of options. I also have a long standing love for Swap Bot, which is a website that organises swap of letters and parcels on various themes. You can sign up to the ones you want to. Just be mindful about sharing your address with people you meet on the internet, and make sure they are legit before going ahead with that.
When you’ve found someone to write to, savour the process. I like to find a lovely sunny spot, grab a cup of tea and use a fountain pen my best stationery. When I receive a letter in return, I save it to read it in silence and take my time. It really is such a cool way to get to know someone or keep in touch with someone you already know.
I also wrote a blog post with a few ideas of flat things you can include in a card - the stamps will cost the same, these will fit in the envelope and are bound to bring more joy and make your letter even more special!
Letter Writing Supplies and Useful Links
- #outgoinghappymail, #snailmaillover, and @naomibulger for creative inspiration (Naomi’s emails are also gorgeous!)
- Under the rowan trees for washi tape
- Portland Paper Co. for stickers and notelets
- Faith in Wilderness for wax seals
- And Hope Designs for all sorts of stationery - letter writing paper, cards and happy mail stickers.
- MogCherie for hand drawn stickers and postcards
- ArtStamped and And Hope Designs for vintage stamps (postage stamps never expire, so as long as they’re unused and you add enough to cover the current cost of postage, you’re good to go)