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The Power of Letter Writing

Lockdowns have triggered a resurgence in letter writing--a good thing

I came across an article the other day on the art of writing love letters and what caught my attention was the story of Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables, an insatiable womanizer who had affairs into his late 70s. He kept his mistress Juliette for 50 years, demanding she write to him every day—most likely because it kept her housebound, unable to have a life of her own. Fed up with their arrangement, Juliette once threw their letters into the fire, but Hugo demanded she rewrite every single one. While many historians describe her as his prisoner, she was loyal to Hugo and eventually edited some of his greatest work.

With my interest was piqued, I Googled “love letters” and was surprised to learn that since the pandemic, there has been an uptick in writing love letters and letters in general. Due to lockdowns, travel restrictions, and having less contact, many relationships have become distant, whether it’s

love letter to the air....

geography separating us or time (between visits.) This waiting to have contact again, which was certainly the norm in Hugo’s time, has further underscored our yearning to be together. If not in body, then in mind.

This isn’t anything new, though. People often turn to writing during turbulent times to process what’s happening. Just think back to your tumultuous teenage years, when you filled diaries with the frustrations, exhilarations and trials of budding adulthood. Or we write when feeling isolated, just as young soldiers did during wartime, penning letters home from thousands of kilometers away. As social animals that thrive when connected, we seek acknowledgement and a sense of mattering.

I see the return to letter writing as a positive and welcome development. For those who don’t like to write, letters are attractive because all you need to do is think of the person receiving it and start the conversation. As novelist Jon McGregor puts it, “letter writing takes the self-consciousness out of being literary. “ The good thing is, the benefits of writing go deep. Letters provide a space for thinking, giving the writer time to process and understand the nuances of their own nature as they grapple with everything else. It also stimulates courage for when we dare to reveal our inner landscape we show ourselves, as much as a loved one, what we really think.

This is much more complex than how we normally communicate. On the average day, we write with incredible frequency but in a condensed fashion, shooting off quick bursts of short text and the odd email. Our writing is perfunctory and efficient, little thought or effort is put into it, and the purpose of texting or chatting is to get things done, not enjoy a lengthy, meaningful exchange with another human being.

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, though, when travel was onerous and slow, people spent hours composing love letters because they might not see each other for weeks. Or months. Letter length was extremely important for two reasons. First, letters showcased your level of education and refinement, and those exalted, long-winded declarations were meant to impress, like a peacock showing off its plumage. Second, postage was also paid by the recipient, so they wanted their money’s worth—which meant length mattered—as did pressed flowers, scented pages, and signs the letter had been on a journey.

Whenever I teach writing, I tell my students that some of us are much bolder in writing than in person. So often, we don’t ask the questions we long to out of a fear of looking stupid, and we don’t confess our deepest longings for the same reason. But with letters it’s different. They provide an intimate space in which we can dare to explore and experience ourselves (and archive it for the future.)

Some links you might like:

More Love Letters (writing letters to those in need)

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