Letter Writing in Lockdown: How to Say What You Really Mean

Updated: Mar 14

Let’s be honest - none of us really know when we will be getting out of lockdown. Will June 21st actually be another December 19th? As much as we hope that the UK government will not be backtracking away from an easing of the lockdown rules, we might have to face the reality that the world might not return to how it used to be so soon. I don’t want to be all doom and gloom, so look on the bright side, many of us have picked up new habits and hobbies over the course of this year of lockdowns. Some of us have had the time to dust off our knitting needles, or have put on an apron and made the banana bread recipe we’ve been meaning to try forever. Lockdown has been a return to activities that in normal circumstances we’d never have had time to do. For me, this has been a return to letter writing.


Before lockdown, I’d only really associated letter writing with eighteenth-century Jane Austen novels. The only way I’d write a letter would be if I could dress up in a beige-coloured empire-style dress, with quill in hand, hovering over an ink pot, and longingly gazing out of the window, thinking of my Mr Darcy. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating, but I have not written a letter for years, apart from a cover letter for a job or a late thank you letter to a distant relative. With the invention of high-speed internet, and instant communication via a text message, or an email, it’s hard not to see why letter writing has gone out of fashion. Who wants to wait a few days, or even a week for a letter that may or may not arrive in the mail? Normally, not me, though now my situation is quite different from how it used to be before the global pandemic. As I sit at home, day after day, answering email after email, and hanging up my third Zoom call of the day, the desire to turn away from high-speed technology, and a life on social media has increased dramatically. Now, our only communication, aside from shouting across the road to your neighbour, is through a screen. I felt overwhelmed by the number of unread text messages and emails sitting in my inbox, which is why I needed to introduce a change. And so, I turned to letter writing.


It started, first, with a letter from my best-friend on my birthday, who lives at the other end of the country. It was a lovely surprise to see the hand-written address on the envelope, and the A3 note inside detailing how excited she was for our next Facetime and Sims4 session. Despite it taking me shamefully long to reply to her, I found myself sitting down at my desk with a newfound enthusiasm. We would have Facetime calls most weeks, but we’d not have much to update each other on because neither of us was doing very much due to the restrictions. I think this was why letter writing was so much easier. It harks back to a slower pace of life, and it is a space, not for reports on everything you’ve done, but rather for everything you’re thinking. I didn’t have to worry about running out of things to say because the furthest I’d been was from my bed to my fridge; letter writing allows for a more introspective commentary, and believe me, I had a whole range of introspective thoughts brought on by cabin fever.


This is no different to the situation in the book that I am currently reading, which is An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. I won’t spoil the plot too much for those readers out there yet to pick up this title, but it reflected exactly how letter writing can aid a life in lockdown. The novel is about a couple who are newly married. However, very soon after, the husband is convicted of a crime for the sole reason of being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time, in a country that has an incredibly prejudiced justice system. Celestial and Roy’s plans of being a happily married couple are thrown completely off track. In this part of the novel, Jones introduces a section where the narrative is told entirely through letter writing. I think letter writing as a narrative choice is always an interesting one. It goes against the repeated advice of every writing teacher ever, which is the rule to show and not tell. Letter writing is exclusively geared towards telling, where action can only be reported by the letter writer. However, what is offered by the narrative choice of letter writing is the welcomed entry into each character’s most guarded thoughts, the thoughts that an author cannot even admit to in a first person narrative. Letter writing enables the writer to say what they really mean, when they cannot admit these words in an in-person meeting. This is exactly how letter writing functions in this part of the novel. Celestial can admit to Roy that she can no longer cope with being the wife of an incarcerated man, and Roy can react with his unguarded feelings of anger and sadness about being abandoned when what he needs most is a connection to the outside world through his marriage to Celestial. It is tragic, and it is raw.


Whilst I will never be able to come close to understanding the feelings of being a person of colour in a society where the institutional systems are geared against your livelihood, I can somewhat understand that feeling of connection through letter writing. During lockdown, my granny went into a care home, which meant that there were restrictions barring my visiting her for safety reasons. When travelling was allowed we would take the almost two-hour car journey to wave from outside her bedroom window. It just wasn’t the same as being able to catch up over a biscuit and a cup of tea in the living room after her visit for Sunday lunch. This was when letter writing became a much needed resource, alleviating some of the feelings of distance. In that first letter, I wrote about the books I was reading that week, and any news that had happened. To be honest, my letters to her now are not much different, aside from the fact that I have read a lot more books since! One thing that has changed is that I now write her a poem to go with the letter every week. My granny has a love of literature, which she seemed to have passed on to me at a young age. Literature has always been a thing that we have shared together, whether this was a five-year old me writing her a poem, or laterally lending her my favourite books. This new-founded tradition of letter writing has forced me to keep writing poetry in a time where inspiration is limited and I am struggling to string a train of thoughts together. That one promise of a poem and a letter a week has meant that I write a minimum of four poems a month - a great achievement for me.


I recently listened to a podcast on BBC Radio 4, which described a relationship between a writer who took up writing letters to a friend who was living with cancer. Like my letters, these were one-sided conversations, but a conversation that brought a lot of joy to a person experiencing a difficult time. The recipient described the happiness of knowing that someone was taking the time to think only of them in the time it took to write a letter. The letters themselves provided a moment of escapism from a life that was difficult to live.


It is incredible to realise how much the simple act of letter writing can help and change a person’s circumstance. So whilst you might not be Keira Knightley pining for Mr Darcy, if you have a friend or family member who is finding life tough at the moment, consider writing them a letter, regardless of whether you might get one back. It is an activity that takes little time, but has such a large effect. These do not have to be the best literature you’ve ever written, but you do have to let that person into the innermost thoughts in your mind. I’d like to think that, even if we get out of lockdown on June 21st, I will still be writing letters to the people I love. I hope, like many things the pandemic has brought about, that letter writing is here to stay for a little while longer.


Sources

Jones, Tayari (2018) An American Marriage. Algonuin Books.


BBC Radio 4 programme referenced: ‘Correspondents: Short documentaries and adventures with Josie Long about being in touch’ Tuesday 23rd February 2021 at 15:00

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000sj8b


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