Why now may be the perfect time to discover the joy of letter writing

Sick of Zoom, WhatsApp and Slack? Buy a packet of stamps, says Alice Vincent, and revel in the delayed gratification.

Mica Murphy/Penguin

Just weeks into the self-isolation and social distancing imposed by Covid-19 has seen our screen-time rocket. Unable to visit those loved ones we don’t live with in person, we are compensating with technology: WhatsApp groups clutter up with memes and creative solutions for home-schooling parents; families, many of whom have never seen one another via a webcam before, share stories at bedtime and G&Ts after through Zoom and Skype. Friends try to compensate for birthday drinks on Houseparty. Meanwhile, on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, wit, whimsy, fear and loathing burble away in silence and constant distraction.

Receiving proper, physical post has become a small joy. The rattle of the letterbox offers a reminder of normalcy and a welcome daily reprieve while working from home – even if it only brings a bill or a note from the council about the pandemic. Often, I try to open the door in time to bellow thanks to the back of the person who delivered it.

'The rattle of the letterbox offers a reminder of normalcy and a welcome daily reprieve while working from home'

In some ways, it feels like a good time to send letters. Not only is this an extraordinary moment in history, but the time we would usually spend seeing our friends and family has been recalibrated, funnelled into hours spent on our sofas and beds, between the same walls each day.

This weekend, I rummaged in cupboards to cobble together a birthday card for my five-year-old nephew. I wrapped up books in tissue paper and slid them into re-purposed jiffy bags. I clicked a new cartridge of green ink into a fountain pen, carefully wrote addresses on envelopes that held creamy card. Piled it all up in a box by the door and then cycled down to the post office. Returned home with an empty rucksack and a purse full of stamps.

There wasn’t much substance in anything that went in the letterbox and it may all end up in the recycling bin. But letters at least hold some permanence. Sometimes I wonder whether we’ll want to read our old emails. If we will long for the text messages and WhatsApps lost to old phones with flat batteries. The sweet nothings, great revelations and banal observations that preserve a life in a time and place (what we ate for dinner, whose words framed our comings and goings) we share these days can’t be filed in a box and unearthed by those who come after us. I can rattle through my inbox, pick any day from the past decade and delve into the person I was then, but the blur of thousands of emails would be meaningless to others.

'We rely upon letters to know about, and drink more from, the writers we still read now'

And yet, we rely upon letters to know about, and drink more from, the writers we still read now. If books are the finished product, the masterpieces and perfect manuscripts, authors’ letters often give glinting insight into their working progress and more besides.

Take, for instance, the grasping ambition of American short story writer Eudora Welty. Four decades before she went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter, she wrote to The New Yorker: ‘How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning – a little paragraph each night, if you can’t hire me from daylight to dusk, although I would work like a slave.’ Her letter - which, perhaps even more satisfyingly, went ignored - is all the more endearing for the naivety it holds. It is proof that even great writers start small.

And then there are the letters of the authors known for their personal life. Virginia Woolf’s life-long battle with her mental health can be traced through the fragmentary rhythm of her writing, her fascination with the internal narrative, the characters she created who readers mostly knew from the inside. But it was the last thing she ever wrote, a letter to her husband Leonard, that has seen her – a little wrongly, in some ways – defined by her suicide. ‘I can’t fight any longer’, she wrote, on Tuesday, March 1941. ‘I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.’

'Letters hold tragedy, but they hold hope and delight, too'

Letters hold tragedy, but they hold hope and delight, too. EB White was known as an essayist and, more famously, as the author of Charlotte’s Web. But it was only when a 1973 letter to a reader named Mr Nadeau was published that it was clear that White was wise and kind, and used his words in such ways. Asked by Nadeau what his opinion was on humanity’s bleak future, White offered measured positivity: ‘It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbour [sic] seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right.

That letter is one that feels particularly pertinent now. ‘Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day’, White signs off. And that’s the other good thing about author letters – you can borrow bits of them for your own. Grab a pen, re-use an envelope, dash off a little hello, how are you, on some lined paper. Fancy stationary is nice, but hardly essential. Then send it off on its way: a dose of delayed gratification at a time when the world seems to be spinning so quickly.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more