Napkin Notes: For the Love of Handwritten Letters


“You can pen it on a plane, transcribe it on a train, fabricate it in front of a fireplace.”

By Shirley Eu | Twitter: @ysoblu

“It’s curious how emblematic a single letter can be, how it can encapsulate an era or sum up a complex relationship.” – Jennifer Williams,Writing Personal Notes and Letters.

The beauty of being written to, is the sense of importance it gives the receiver. It is immensely pleasing and flattering to be singled out and acknowledged as someone worthy of a letter. A letter shows that you’ve chosen to make friendship and the arduousness of sitting down, a priority. It is an idoneous gift of time and affection that emailing rarely achieves and never attempts.

When I was 13, I recall a strange phase whereby I would write letters to my best friend who sat in front of me in class. Never mind we saw each other every single day, talked during every recess hour and walked to the same bus stop in tandem. She would hand me an envelope (usually pink and sweet smelling) with at least several sheets of matching stock paper to speed me up to date with everything that was au courant in her life. Considering we were at that age where an acne breakout was front page-worthy, I look back and wonder what else we could’ve filled reams of paper with such secretive gratification?

I had spent a small fortune on paper and envelopes writing out thoughts and feelings that were consistent with my theory of symptomatic existentialism. If I feel it, it’s important to write it down and share it with another soul. It was through letter-writing therapy that I understood the mechanics, aesthetics and value of human individuality and our persistent need to seek to be heard and understood. Again and again, and again.

Letter writing was first threatened when the telegraph was first born in 1825 and significantly improved by Samuel Morse (who gave us the morse code) around 1835. That was followed, thirty odd years later, by the first telephonic utterance: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you,” which heralded the new era of transmitting and receiving sound, effectively dealing a lethal blow to the romance of letter writing.

With telephone, email, instant messaging, FaceBook and Twitter upping the ante on our state of brevity, we have exchanged haikus for billet-doux; post-its for letters; 10Q for Thank you. Who did the research on writing 140 words on Twitter? Why 140? Pinterest allows you 200 words to say who you are. Look on your pinboards and see the number of images of words you have. We may e-card it, text it, netspeak it all in lieu of notation, longhand and snail mail. Contrary to Polonious’ opinion, I don’t think brevity is the soul of wit. More like BITSOW. That’s more like it. Give it a week and it might turn up on Urban Dic after someone texts:

[[Best diss I heard 2day dude. #bitsow.]]

When I was in my early 20’s, I used to carry a dip pen and an old world jar of Parker’s Quink to write letters, even though Papermates were the “new fountain” pen. I would carry cockled onion skin paper and stamps everywhere I went so that when the mood strikes, I would have the wherewithal to plunge into composition. You can write sitting in a Parisian cafe–in a quiet corner without an electronic doodad. You can pen it on a plane, transcribe it on a train, fabricate it in front of a fireplace.

Once I made it up 11,782 feet to Jungfraujoch (aka the top of Europe) near Interlaken, Switzerland so I could jot down three or four sentences on a postcard to a friend. It’s not just the novelty of being able to send something from that particular place but the concreteness of having this realia (complete with essential coffee stain) travel from your hand into some sack, sack to carrier vehicle, vehicle to processing and distribution centre, then to air mail centre, followed by the passing of many more trolleys into many more hands, to the destination delivery unit to the sorter, to mailbag, to truck, to carrier, to letter box, and into the hand of your delighted friend.

I know that only too well because I was that delighted friend upon which many a postman had delivered rutilant heart-warmers.

In a wooden Crabtree and Evelyn box once crammed with morsels of tea biscuits are letters written to me from a boyfriend. He was a graphic designer who loved to declare very profound feelings of love and desire with colour, wit and 3-D spangles. Throughout our courtship, I squirreled every whit of writing he had ever written to me on crepe paper, napkin, cardboard, mulberry paper, velum and beer coaster. He is still the only man who hand-stitched his own version of Baedeker for what I would need to do on my five-week-long trip to Europe alone.

He wrote three letters a week to me every week I was in England, France and Ireland. Does it surprise you I ended up marrying him?

Some of you might want to try but get befuddled before you begin. Here are some prudent blandishments to launch your letter-writing career. (Your best friend will thank me for it.)

How to Start a Letter:

1. What you were doing five minutes before actually writing.

2. List what’s presently on your table.

3. Imagine where your friend is while reading the letter you are penning.

4. Introduce your peeve #1. Why nobody writes letters anymore, for example.

5. Three random facts: What day is today? What the weather is like? How much ink is left in the pen?

The way to write a letter using different moods, personalities:

1. Lampooning voice

2. Playful

3. Creatively ungrammatical and borderline saucy.

4. In someone else’s point of view. Try the family pet’s.

5. Channel Clement Freud’s personality: verbose, spoken in low, measured tones, highly observant about visible details and proprietarily snobbish. Write the way a parent speaks or draw a picture of your lunch instead of describing it. Paste a newspaper clipping or better still, fold an origami rhino and sign it off, thick-skinnedly yours …

Maybe the Rhino origami was too farouche. Here are other ways to sign off:

1. Yours through time and eternity, … Civil war General George Custer ended a love letter to his wife Elizabeth this way

2. Remembrances to your mother, your affectionate, … John Keats to his sweet Fanny Brawne scored points to include his remembrances to her mum

3. Love and luck, … Patsy Cline to one of her fans. Platonic, yet not entirely loveless.

4. Yours, as ever …

5. Love you more than (insert your favourite food), … Tina Francis, on all her TGIF posts on SheLoves magazine.

I fear we may have come full circle to a new problem where our next generation no longer knows how to write for the sake of loving to communicate. It is not for the want of filling in a text box or fulfilling a quota of x number of words. This is why I am such a hardened zealot for heart-to-heart compositions.

Make your best investment this spring by purchasing your first refillable fountain pen, a stack of lightly ruled or 7×10 Monarch sheets from Crane and Company. After you’ve penned your tenth letter, you’re ready to take on monogrammed ones complete with wax and seal.

Have fun with your adjectives. Use flair with your verbs. Be superfluous. Plagiarize. Pontificate. Be a grammar rebel. Send them something they will remember for a very long time.


About Shirley:
Inquisitive quidnunc (without the gossip), voracious learner, atypical culture vulture, impulsive linguist, simplicity-addict, people-watcher, friend-collector, food-experimentalist. I have a bio. It’s somewhere.

Idelette McVicker
I like soggy cereal and I would like to go to every spot on the map of the earth to meet our world’s women. I dream of a world where no women or girls are for sale. I dream of a world where women and men are partners in doing the work that brings down a new Heaven on earth. My word last year was “roar” and I learned it’s not about my voice rising as much as it is about our collective voices rising in unison to bring down walls of injustice. This year, my own word is “soar.” I have three children and this place–right here, called–is my fourth baby. I am African, although my skin colour doesn’t tell you that story. I am also a little bit Chinese, because my heart lives there amongst the tall skyscrapers of Taipei and the mountains of Chiufen. Give me sweet chai and I think I’m in heaven. I live in Vancouver, Canada and I pledged my heart to Scott 11 years ago. I believe in kindness and calling out the song in each other’s hearts. I also believe that Love covers–my gaps, my mistakes and the distances between us. I blog at and tweet @idelette.
Idelette McVicker

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