As we emerge from the Christmas haze and thoughts turn to thank you’s, writer Brett Braley-Palko reflects on the art of practising your gratitude and the pleasure of letter writing
IMAGES: BRETT BRALEY-PALKO
In July 1965, Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire – the youngest of the iconic Mitford sisters – wrote to her sister, Diana, “Wouldn’t it be dread[ful] if one had… sisters who didn’t write?”
As one with a sister who doesn’t write – I have to say, it is a bit dreadful. I am a lifelong letter writer. I recall the mundane to old friends on a regular basis. I pick up stamps when I am in town solely on the merit of ‘just in case’. The crescent of my hand is often stained with smudged ink. I couldn’t wait for my first anniversary with my husband (year one is the paper anniversary) and bought a new box of letterhead christening our newly-formed household name of Braley-Palko. I chose hunter green on ecru. I thought it would add a subtly that doesn’t seem to exist much outside of a stationery shop anymore.
You see, my hands are never idle for long if there is something to say. I email enough for my job. And even if I dash off a text with a hundred exclamation marks, it always comes off a bit stiff. By process of elimination, my preference is to write.
But perhaps there is more to it than that. Perhaps my proclivity for letters hinges on the intimacy of the process. I think our world is so conditioned to (incorrectly) believe that receiving mail is formal, business-like. After all, faceless utility bills, bank statements and catalogues are all circulated through the mail. But I do not subscribe to this belief. I think there is a bit of love imbibed in every letter. I believe that we underestimate the attention a letter receives prior to it being posted off to the recipient.
The process is like a soufflé for me; all the ingredients precise, yet it does often come out a little rustic-looking.”
Whether I am scribbling a note to my husband or a three-pager to my best friend, my full attention has to be on the page in front of me. The process is like a soufflé for me; all the ingredients precise, yet it does often come out a little rustic-looking.
Because of this, I do most of my letter writing in the morning, when my husband has left for work and the dogs are still sprawled out in bed, snoring. I like to sit at a small escritoire that was bought secondhand and doubles as a buffet during dinner parties. The light is natural and I have a small potted ivy that drapes down one side. I tend to pick a stationery that suits the recipient: ecru for friends, florals for my mother, and an adorable set of hand-drawn cheetah border for my niece and nephews. I am finicky about page lengths, too – I like to keep it to an odd number of pages. But I am finicky about a lot of things, if you must know. For example, I have a thing about lined notebook paper. I simply don’t use it.
While I would love to say that I have developed a penmanship that is all curls and arches, I think I am too impatient to be that precise. I am a messy writer by nature. I power through in slanted lines and add notations in margins when I have an afterthought. I would much rather cross out an error and keep the train of thought going. All of this is to say, I am careful in delivering a nonchalance to my letters, but I never want to discount the human side to the process. The imperfection of penmanship, of thoughtful fillers, is so often lacking in emails that we tend to forget how human it is to err when everything is delivered to our inboxes so pristine.
And in juxtaposition to emails, the letter will undoubtedly last longer. Do you keep encouraging emails tucked away in the same way you would a card? I doubt it. Iris Murdoch may have been a little impassioned when her Black Prince narrator, Bradley, commented that, “A letter can be endlessly reread and reinterpreted, it stirs imagination and fantasy, it persists,” but I agree with the sentiment wholeheartedly.
Letters are kept in drawers to be pulled out. They occupy a space in our homes; they are sacred in that way. References, penmanship, in-jokes, all of these put the recipient back to a specific time of life. They act as a totem, a relic, a charm bracelet of postcards. They are not out of place in today’s world; they are so wholly cemented in one’s personal history that they stand outside of our modern world of screens and emails entirely.
Letters are kept in drawers to be pulled out. They occupy a space in our homes; they are sacred in that way.”
And perhaps this is not a new sentiment, really. There has always been a preference for faster technology when it was available – the telephone, the pager, the instant message, social media. But lucky for us, those who have stood by the form have found kindred spirits in figures such as the Mitford sisters, Heywood Hill, Evelyn Waugh, to name a few – all prolific letter writers.
I understand that a letter is not like a boomerang; the sentiment doesn’t always come back with the same speed and enthusiasm. But I am not deterred. I am honing the experience, I am practicing my gratitude. I simply do not think the kissy-face emoji has the same gravity as the festive thank you letters I will be penning soon. By writing, I am doing what I can to let others know I am thinking of them.
Beautiful stationery to inspire your next letter…
(BOTTOM L TO R) SET OF 8 NOTE CARDS, AVAILABLE WITH CUSTOM CALIGRAPHY, £38, ROMEO AND JULES; SLOANE PERSONALISED WRITING PAPER, £120 FOR 50, PEMBERLY FOX; WRITING PAPER WITH MATCHING ENVELOPE, £8, ROMEO AND JULES