The Art of Letter Writing

by Bon Nightingale

[This week’s blog post is by guest blogger Bon Nightingale who, at 96, still corresponds regularly with friends and family and members of her church. She writes for us about the (nearly) lost art of letter-writing, and the part it’s played in her life.]

I remember when I was seven, my father gave me a pencil box. Oak, with a slide-top. It had compartments inside for pencils and rubber. It smelled of wood, like my dad’s workshop.

I started writing letters to my Grandma – my father’s mother. I went to her for music lessons, and we’d write little notes to each other. At school I enjoyed dictation, the pleasure of forming letters and sentences. I remember writing ‘A Day in the Life of a Cat’ for a composition exercise, and got in trouble because my imagination ran away with me. My cat lived a day as a human. He went on an adventure on a boat. My work was marked with the dreaded ‘see me’ from the teacher, who told me off for using too much imagination. After that I stuck to more factual writing.

We were encouraged to write to pen friends at school, though, and I enjoyed that a great deal. Marie Quérin lived in a little village in France, and we exchanged letters for years – mine in English, hers in French. We started our correspondence when I was about fourteen, and kept writing until we left school, when I was sixteen. We’d write about our daily lives, what we were learning in school.

I’ve always kept a diary, too, encouraged by my dad, who gave me my first little diary notebook. Sadly, my childhood diaries were destroyed in the blitz, but I never lost the habit. I loved writing shorthand as a secretary, pencil work in thick and thin strokes, and typing, the rhythmic clack of keys and the satisfaction of a precise, neat outcome.

Then I met the man whom I would marry in 1942. Doug and I exchanged love letters through our courtship and beyond, through our more than six decades together. He wooed me with poetry. I left notes in his packed lunch. During the war, I’d write to Doug’s brothers, who were in service abroad. We’d use special ‘air letter’ paper, thin as a whisper, careful as to what we said: careless talk cost lives. I wrote to my own brothers too, at school, and later my older brother in the RAF. I’d write about our family – my first daughter was born in an air-raid to the sound of doodlebugs overhead – our dogs, the garden, things we listened to on the radio. The ‘normal’ life they were fighting for.

Letter-writing took a back seat after the war, as we were busy raising our family. Gradually I started again as the children left home, writing to my son and daughter who went away to University. In the 1980s we retired to Yorkshire and I started writing again, keeping in touch with our friends and family down south.

Now, at 96 years of age, I still love writing letters. I write to people who are poorly or need encouragement; to my dear family and friends, sustaining relationships over decades that would otherwise have fallen by the wayside. I still take so much pleasure from holding a pen and watching the ink flow across the paper, making letters and words and meanings.

There is a real skill to writing a letter which is in danger of being lost. I write a lot of emails and text messages too, but it’s not the same. I miss the elegance of the business letters we were taught to write as secretaries: the formal layout, the distinct and specific meaning of different salutations and closings, the carefully constructed sentences. At school I was taught a specific structure for even a less formal letter. One should start with ‘Dear’ or ‘Dearest’. Then thank them for their last letter, and comment upon its contents. Next, one would move on to discuss key subjects, including: the weather, recent activities, wellbeing of family and common acquaintances. The letter would close with something providing the recipient with an opportunity to respond; a question or invitation to debate. And then you would close with the appropriate sign-off: ‘faithfully’ (for business contacts), ‘truly’ (for a professional relationship, such as one’s doctor or bank) and ‘affectionately’ for friends and so forth.

We have more freedom in these modern times to include a wider range of topics in our letters. But the art is in how we express ourselves. A good letter includes vivid descriptions, emotion, and should be sincere and authentic. One should always write from the heart.

Now I have many pens throughout the house. My favourite is a Papermate ballpoint. It’s harder to grip these days, and until a recent cataract operation I was starting to find it hard to see the letters I formed. I write about ten letters a month on average. For all the texts and emails one can send, there’s something so special about an old-fashioned letter you can touch and keep, see next to you by your chair.

My advice would be to find yourself some nice paper, a special pen, and write to someone you care about. They are sure to be delighted to hear from you.

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