When was the last time you wrote or received a letter? Let’s be honest, most of what lands in our mailbox is an unappealing mixture of bills and flyers, but there was a time when the thud on the mat, the knock on the door, the snap of the letterbox was a cause for great excitement—or immense anxiety.
In our age of social media apps and smartphones, there is little need for pen and paper. Our once beloved address books are all but forgotten, gathering dust at the back of desk drawers. We’ve even switched from lengthy emails to shorthand via text messages and little blips on Facebook. We are rushed and brief, and explain all in one short click. Yes, it’s inexpensive. Yes, it’s immediate. But where’s the care, the thought, the emotion? Have we become lazy in how we communicate with family and friends, or have we just forgotten the simple pleasures of sending and receiving letters?
There is something undeniably romantic about a handwritten letter. The process and preparation of ink to paper lends so much more to the act of communication: choosing the stationery, testing your pen on an odd scrap, sitting at a desk, hand gliding across the paper. Little flourishes and drawings in the margins to illustrate meaning. Envelope and stamp. It takes time and thought, care and consideration.
There’s also a wonderful permanency in letters. A historical record. A moment captured forever. How will future generations know the social history that precedes them if our communication is all contained in a jumble of emojis in the Cloud: a virtual place that belongs to companies that might easily fail, an impermanent record that can be wiped clean at any moment?
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
The lost art of letter writing is perhaps what makes the epistolary form so appealing to the novelist as a literary device. To capture the heartfelt reflection and personal insight of the written word is a compelling premise for a novel and, indeed, much of what we can learn from history is contained in archived letters of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. This material is gold dust to any writer, the best source of primary research. To read those snippets of everyday life, to understand how people expressed themselves and see a record of the conventions and restrictions of the era can tell us so much about the people and places from our past.
Yet in spite of the historical and emotional appeal, the epistolary form poses its own unique set of challenges. For example, letters leave little room for dialogue, a device often used to create dramatic tension between characters. Without dialogue, the author must create that tension through the characters’ reflections, or in the way they might misread someone’s reply. Postal delays, lost letters, unsent letters, letters crossing in the post—these serve as alternative methods of weaving in tension and conflict.
Continuity is also a challenge. Significant historical dates and events must be referenced in the right letters at the right time. Replies must address the points from the previous letter while also adding to the story and moving the plot along. How a character’s voice is portrayed in their replies must be consistent, as must their reactions and expectations. But despite the challenges it poses, there is intimacy and immediacy in an epistolary novel—both in the writing and the reading.
Next time you want to share news with a friend or a family member, why not take pen to paper? The unexpected surprise of a letter, written with care and carried across miles, is worth a thousand texts, and might even be read with the same care and consideration a hundred years from now. The LOLs and FOMOs? Not so much.
Featured Image: Marie Guillard