The lost art of letter-writing: let the revolution commence

Email and social media keep us in touch. But what about the thrill of seeing a letter on the doormat?

"More than kisses, letters mingle souls", John Donne wrote, in To Sir Henry Wotton, four centuries before I discovered the lines – in Soundings, during my Leaving Cert English class – and was floored. They rang true as a bell, a perfect articulation of an instinct I had always felt but failed to make explicit. The thought lingered in my subconscious, like an almost forgotten dream, until more than a decade later: when I sat down to attempt to write for the first time, those words were the first that fell out of my pen. It remains the epigraph to my debut novel, The Lost Letters of William Woolf, and my conviction of its truth remains firmer than ever.

The novel evolved as a meditation on the lost art, and power, of letter-writing and called on me to reflect on when and why my obsession with letters began. Like many narratives of my life, the answers are lost and found somewhere in the pages of a book. When I think of my childhood, growing up in Portlaoise, the nostalgic images I call to mind of school trips, sports days and birthday parties are rarities among the myriad memories I have of visiting the library, discovering books and voracious reading.

It was the 1980s, I was a child, and in all honesty I had little, if anything, to write to anyone about, but a letter-writer I became nonetheless

My mother shared the classic books she had adored as a child with me, and I too fell in love with Little Women, the trials of the Ingalls family, the adventures of Anne of Avonlea and, long before I was fully able to appreciate them, all the novels of Jane Austen. In those timeless stories, letters were often pivotal to the plots and sewn into the fabric of the characters' lives in powerful ways. My longing grew for an envelope to arrive addressed to me that would reveal the secret truth of another's heart, solve a great mystery, or spur an unexpected adventure.

I became determined to find correspondents of my own, to try to force a letter-writing revolution from my boxroom and build a time capsule of my life through the letters I received. This was easier said than done; it was the 1980s, I was a child, and in all honesty I had little, if anything, to write to anyone about, but a letter-writer I became nonetheless.


A lucky break came when The Den, on RTÉ's Network 2, introduced a pen-pal segment where children shared a profile and invited others from around the country to write to them. I was beside myself to be chosen and couldn't believe my fortune when letters started flooding in from across the nation. I replied to each and every one. My primary school, Scoil Bhríde, also began an international pen-pal programme, and I wrote to children in Japan, Russia and the United States. I wonder where Aiko, Mikhail and Candice are now. Maybe one day they will pick up my novel, recognise the name, and remember the Irish girl they once wrote to who dreamed of becoming a writer. Those letters were my first opportunity to make friends across borders, to experience how understanding a culture different from your own broadens your mind, and to learn how, no matter where we are from, there is more that unites us than divides us.

Once I had enjoyed those first forays into letter-writing I was smitten with the whole business. I loved writing to organisations to politely request information for school projects – the Irish Wildlife Society, the Gaiety, the ESB, the zoo, the Dáil – and revelled in the fat parcels they often sent me. I also once wrote to the RTÉ Guide complaining that they prioritised advertising by cutting the children's section, and they printed the letter. I remember my dad discovering it in the magazine and saying he and my mum would have to pay more attention to who I was writing all those letters to!

When my big sister Mary emigrated to London, my upset at her leaving was only assuaged by the significant letter-writing opportunity it offered. All those books that I’d read were filled with sisters writing letters to each other, and it played perfectly into my epistolary fantasies.

I remember once Mary writing to say she loved receiving my letters because the only other post that came were bills. I misunderstood and thought she meant letters from a stranger named Bill, and I was killed with curiosity about who this mysterious Bill was.

Mary tells me that when she next arrived home it was the very first thing I asked her. I was so disappointed to learn the truth and that I hadn’t been privy to a great secret love affair.

In truth, though, writing to Mary taught me how powerful letters could be in sustaining a relationship across land and time. If we hadn’t written to each other, perhaps we would have become strangers, but instead our relationship grew stronger. Now I am the emigrant in London and can communicate daily with friends and family at home and across the globe with WhatsApp groups, text messages, social media, email and FaceTime, but I’m not convinced that our relationships are any better for it.

I fear the immediacy and efficiency give us all a false sense of connection that really doesn’t permeate to the heart of who we are or eradicate loneliness. If those mediums were all to vanish overnight, and we became dependent on letters once again, I think we would all get to know each other in new and profound ways. Yes, we would communicate less frequently, but what we said would matter. Letters are written with such greater consideration and, I believe, come from a deeper consciousness. It is only when you create the opportunity of writing a letter that all the things you have to say reveal themselves, safe in the knowledge that the recipient won’t, and can’t, reply immediately but will also have time to reflect on what they want to say in return.

Every summer at secondary school I attended the Gaeltacht on Inis Oírr. It was in the throes of this excellent rite of passage that my enthusiasm for letter-writing was reignited. Every evening after the céilí the precious post was delivered. Those letters held the gossip from your friends back home – who, of course, you would never normally receive a letter from. It was so revealing how differently people communicate when they write to you – some funnier than usual, others more sincere – and it was always telling who took the time to write at all. Then, when it was all over, the ritual began of writing long letters to your new friends to maintain those relationships during the school year before, with luck, meeting again the following summer. I would give anything to have those letters now, and meet myself as a teenager once again.

Those cards and letters are physical artefacts of our relationship that tell the story of us in beautiful, imperfect handwriting that wrote its way on to my heart

The letters that I have held dear, and never lost, are letters of love. Perhaps it was inevitable that the man who would become my partner wrote to me from the very beginning and still does. He was travelling a lot with his band when we first met, but he sent a letter or a postcard from every place he visited while away. There is no doubt in my mind that the reason our relationship sustained, and thrived, during those early months of separation was his letters. When he shared little moments from his day, what he noticed or missed or remembered, it revealed so much of his nature. The entire practice – the effort it took to write them and find postboxes in strange towns – demonstrated a commitment, care and creativity that proved irresistible. I still have all of those cards and letters, and, unlike the texts and emails we also shared, they are physical artefacts of our relationship that I can touch and remember exactly how it felt to receive them the first time around. They tell the story of us in beautiful, imperfect handwriting that wrote its way on to my heart.

I worry that there are generations of people who will never know the thrill of seeing a letter on their mat, with their name written in the handwriting of someone they love. They won’t have a biscuit tin or hat box under their bed full of letters that speak like ghosts of people they’ve been. We are so busy connecting digitally with as many people as possible that we’re forgetting how to communicate at all. When we shuffle off the mortal coil, will the transcript of our lives just rot on a memory stick somewhere?

So on behalf of my 10-year-old self I say, let the letter-writing revolution commence. Pick up a pen today and write to someone you love or have lost touch with, and I promise you won’t regret it. And if you write to me, I promise I’ll write back. To each and every one.

The Lost Letters of William Woolf is published by Michael Joseph