If your house was on fire and you could only take one thing with you, what would it be?’
For me, the answer to this question has always been easy. It’s a box that sits on the top shelf of my wardrobe overflowing with nearly every card, note and letter I have ever received. To look in the box is to see the topography of my life; letters exchanged with my best friends in high school to help manage what seemed like long hours of separation between recess and lunch; cards from my nieces and nephews slowly growing more legible over the years; and sweet notes sent for no reason at all.
So when I heard earlier this year Australia Post had made the decision to reduce letter delivery to every second day to focus on parcel delivery during the COVID-19 crisis, I felt moved to action. On the one hand, I was excited for all my quarantine purchases to make their way to my hot hands more quickly, but on the other hand I felt compelled to come to the defence of the long-lost art of letter writing.
The process of letter writing for an audience of one feels less performative than social media.
It would be wrong to blame the demise of letter writing entirely on COVID-19. The writing, pardon the pun, has been on the wall for letters for some time. Birthday cards replaced by Facebook messages. Letters replaced by emails. And then emails replaced by social media posts. As more of our lives are now online, this trend is only exacerbated.
Now post-lockdown, letter writing is something I am continuing to make a part of my everyday life. Like most pandemic activities, it came about due to the need to add some more activities to my otherwise not so bursting schedule. After all, there are only so many loaves of banana bread one can bake. However, soon it quickly sky rocketed to the top of my favourite pastimes.
While all of the people I have written to so far are people I regularly speak to on the internet, handwritten cards and letters capture an intimacy that is often lost online. Even though we may be physically separated there is something sweet about knowing that cards and pages with my messy handwriting sit in homes everywhere from Sydney to Los Angeles.
It is also a unique way to document what it feels like to be alive in this time. Of course, social media also provides the same opportunity to document our experiences in real time but the process of letter writing for an audience of one feels less performative. It also allowed extended reflections, beyond an Instagram story, about the daily minutiae of life.
Handwritten cards and letters capture an intimacy that is often lost online.
History is also littered with famous correspondence. According to Maria Popova the appeal and allure of letters lies in their ‘way of revealing as much about the subject matter as they do about the author and the recipient’.
There is of course the famed correspondence between poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Their correspondence is perfect quarantine inspiration as it began when Barrett was trapped at home due to chronic illness, and Browning wrote to her to express his admiration of her work. Their correspondence of over 573 love letters culminated in them getting married a year later.
Letters have also been vessels for scientific discovery. It was in a seven-page letter to a friend that Galileo first outlined his arguments on why the Sun did not orbit the Earth, as per church doctrine at the time.
There is also fictional precedent for pandemic letter writing. The book, ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, sales of which have skyrocketed recently, begins with a feverish secret of a letters exchange between the young Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza. Although, it does take them nearly 60 years to get together, so I can appreciate not wanting to make them your life inspiration.
Even if your letter exchanges don’t end up becoming famous or contain a scientific discovery, it’s still worth taking the time to pen a missive. If only for the pleasant surprise it will bring someone when they open their mailbox.
Fatima Malik is a lawyer and a writer. You can follow Fatima on Instagram here.