A sext is all well and good, says Ruth Bratt, but nothing says I love you like the smell of ink on paper.
According to the research, a third of children write letters between the ages of eight and 11 (while your mum stands over you, saying, “If someone is kind enough to send you a present, you can take five minutes to write and thank them”). Only a quarter do aged 11–14 (your mum has got sick of standing over you and now just says, “Well, if you don’t write to say thank you, don’t be surprised if you don’t get a present next year”), and between 14–16 only 16.5 per cent write letters (the ones who wrote without their mum telling them to). Only one in six teenagers writes letters outside class and some people blame overwhelming teenage emotions for this lack of letter-writing.
Wait. Teenage emotions stopping you from writing letters? Ha! I didn’t write much in my diary, and what I did write is excruciating, but I wrote a lot of letters, from an early age – thank-you letters, letters to a girl I met on holiday, letters to the French pen-friend foisted on me at school.
We moved to America when I was 11, so I wrote to my best friend on a weekly basis because phoning was expensive and no one had invented the internet. When we moved back from America when I was 13, letters were the only way of keeping in contact with my friends in Cleveland, because they still hadn’t invented the internet.
My friend Kate and I wrote pages and pages to each other, filled with the minutiae that occupy teenagers’ minds. I wrote to Kate about my new school and who I fancied, and whether the American boys I fancied fancied me, and I wrote to the American boys I fancied (but never told them that I fancied them) and we became closer friends through the pages. On a month-long French exchange, my friends from school and I wrote to each other daily; my boyfriend sent me poems, beautiful love poems, some of which I still have.
It makes me sad to think that 83 per cent of teenagers have never written a love letter. Oh, the joy and fear of writing down how you feel, how you hope they feel and knowing they will actually see it. It’s way easier in a letter than in person. The pressure is off – I’ve always been way more honest and open in letters.
Having said that, in France I mostly wrote about awkwardness. I had to share a bed with my French exchange and to get into her bedroom, you had to go through her sister’s bedroom. Her sister was older, with a boyfriend, and they were always doing it. One day when they were doing it, I wanted to leave my room, but that meant going through the room where they were doing it. After about 45 minutes, I opened the door, said very loudly and Britishly, “Excusez-moi!” and walked through. Living it was excruciating; writing it down and sending it to someone was funny.
Then they invented the internet. Email is different. It’s faster, less of a thought process. Writing a letter could take days, weeks. There are additions, addendums, post-scripts, clarifications; sometimes what you’ve written at the start of the letter is no longer true by the end of the letter.
“I have rediscovered my urge to write letters. It’s harder than email – you have to put aside time, and thought. But the rewards are greater.”
And then you wait for a reply. Waiting for a letter to arrive is an exquisite tension, and then when it does, there’s the joy and release of ripping open the envelope and reading, and re-reading what’s inside. And then starting a reply, and having to re-read again to make sure you are responding to the right questions.
Of course, the greatest joy of letter-writing is that you only have the response. Even after a mammoth clear-out where I threw away most of my old photographs, what I kept were the letters. I don’t have to cringe at my own naivety or stupidity as I do with my diary; I can read someone else’s response to it. I am not as judgmental of their teenage selves as I am of my teenage self. And the joy they got from hearing from me is as palpable as the joy I felt hearing from them. One letter says, “PLEEEEEEASE keep writing to me the way you have been (your letters are the best…),” because it’s great to get letters. And it’s great to still have them 20 years later.
I have friends who I have been writing to for nearly 27 years. Until recently, email had taken over. But then I wrote a proper letter to Kate in America, my most regular and prolific correspondent, and the greatest joy was receiving a letter in response. So I wrote a letter to my friend Jeff in Canada and he typed one back (typing is just as good as handwritten!) with pictures. I recently saw a friend from university who has moved to Australia and after we’d caught up, I asked for her address.
I have rediscovered my urge to write letters. It’s harder than email – you have to put aside time, and thought. But the rewards are greater. Not just for children, who become better writers by writing, but for adults too. It’s nice to have something you can hold in your hand, and know the time and the effort someone has put into it to let you know that they are thinking of you and have things they want you to know.
I’d urge teenagers to try it. And to write that love letter. Because someone may write you one back, and you can keep it forever, even after that love has gone. Or you can ritually burn it, which brings a satisfaction greater than deleting an email or sex-text. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to turn off the computer and spend a day writing letters to people I love and miss.4749 Views
Ruth is an improviser, comedian, actor, writer and the short half of double act Trodd en Bratt. She is rapidly becoming a middle class cliche who likes to bake and knit. Ruth is in Showstopper! The Improvised Musical currently in Edinburgh and about to embark on a West End run. www.theshowstoppers.org