Write Enough

The global hacking of large corporations and the NHS is a reminder that we should all be maintaining written records of important data. Since losing an entire archive of mails when my Demon email account was take over by Thus in 2012, I print out and file contracts and vital documents and keep an old fashioned address book, and a desk diary.

The importance of written information extends beyond record-keeping. Emails have reduced personal interactions to a stream of constant, cursory, exchanges that bear none of the intimacy or sentiment of the written word on the page.

I recently received a letter from a friend of mine aged 102. ‘I have never been 102 before,’ she wrote. ‘My friends are all losing their memories, and I was not prepared for the change of personality that constant pain would bring.’ She asked me not to visit: ‘I don’t want to be cheered up by people who think it would be good for me.’

Assuring me of her love and asking me to remember the happy times of childhood when I would spend my summers in her care, she said: ‘Be assured I am content and not lonely, but I am not the person I was, and I do not want to be seen this way.’

That letter is by my bed. It brings me both enormous pleasure and comfort and fills me with sadness. Imagine if that had been written as an email – and my friend, despite her great age, was until recently a prolific emailer – would it have had the same impact or would it have felt bad-humoured/careless/sad?

Writing on the page is important for more reasons than cheating the hackers. This is a piece I published a couple of years back on the tricyclereaders.com website:

The Write Stuff

“When I was eight, I got my first pen-pal. Forty years older than me, he was a prisoner on Death Row in Columbus, Georgia.” So began a presentation my daughter gave last week to an advertising agency. “I would write to him about who’d stolen my satsuma at break and as time passed, my suspicions that my best friend was wearing a bra. He wrote back about his daily hour of natural light, and what he was doing to pass time in his cell.”

Their three year exchange was an example of the the thought, the intimacy, and the physical ‘gift’ that a letter on the mat represents. “This Christmas, what would you rather receive?” she asked, “E-cards with your friends’ heads superimposed on the emaciated bodies of dancing elves, or handwritten envelopes pushed through the door with personal greetings from people who thought enough about you to write a note and to stamp and post them? Letters are precious. Write more.”

It was a no-brainer. In recent years I’ve group-sent family emails or e-cards. Last Christmas it was the latter, with our heads superimposed on the emaciated bodies of dancing elves… After my daughter’s peroration I bought a stack of greetings cards. In the half-darkness of a cold Monday afternoon I sat writing personal notes in each: Mrs Scrooge having her epiphany.

Then a shock. The only addresses I could remember, or had recorded, were of people who haven’t moved in years. For newer friends or those who’ve relocated I have only electronic addresses. When visiting we head for a postcode and then call to say: “What’s your house number again?”  Being lost with the art of letter writing is the practice of record keeping.

Computer-generated missives from banks, utilities, fundraisers and estate agents dominate our doormats. Personal notes are rare. Most handwritten letters I’ve sent lately, were of condolence. That won’t be true for most people, but how sad to only take pen to paper to express regret!

The lesson of the season is that the act of writing is in itself a gift whether it’s a single line sending Season’s Greetings, or three pages on playground politics. My New Year’s Resolution is to write one personal letter a week to a friend overseas, or one of my roving children, to an infirm aunty or even, now and then, my local MP. Those of you struggling with perennial resolutions – losing weight, giving up smoking or changing lifestyles – might find it a preferable alternative.