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The International Writers Magazine: Our Dublin Connection

A Month of Letters
• Chris Mills
A letter a day keeps the emails at bay: snail mail challenge in February.

During the dreary month of February, I found an opportunity to put my under-used letter writing skills to the test. I had come across a letter writing challenge A Month of Letters set up by American author Mary Robinette Kowal.

The challenge, simply put was to post one item of mail each day in February, excluding Sundays and the one U.S. Bank Holiday of the month. In other words twenty-four items in total. Being in Europe I figured I could add back in the day for the Bank Holiday (how conscientious was that!). You could write to lots of different people; send replies to letters received; despatch postcards, bookmarks or news clippings. You could send whatever took your fancy as long as you kept it up for the whole of February’s challenge. Just the thing to do to brighten up the early part of the year.

Bulk posting of items was against both the rules and the spirit of the enterprise, though if you were delayed in your mission for some reason it was fine to catch up the next day. Full of optimism I registered my good intentions, planned my February strategy and stocked up on stamps (both national and international for good measure). I did however start at a slight disadvantage as I committed to doing this after the official start date and so had a bit of catching up to do. The organiser had set up a forum facility on the web site to encourage people to share progress. You could also exchange letters and cards with fellow members. This reminded me of my youthful passion for acquiring (but not necessarily managing to keep) a variety of pen friends. I suppose Facebook could really be said to be an updated version of having a pen friend.

While embarking on my letter writing (which was more like postcard writing at times) I jotted down a rough list of people on whom I could inflict my efforts. This was in an attempt to be organised but I ended up working in a much more random way than I would have liked. Having said that, I did take the challenge seriously (“I’ve started so I’ll finish” as Magnus used to say) both because I like a challenge and I have always loved receiving letters myself. Opening an email just does not have the same thrill as tearing open an envelope (sometimes I even neatly cut the envelopes open with a paper knife to add a touch of glamour).  However, the big advantage to having a February challenge was that my dad’s birthday falls in that month; we also have my parents’ anniversary just nudging in there on 1st March (post in good time before the end of February) and I could throw in St Valentine’s Day for good measure. I thought it would have been pushing it too far to post my Mother’s Day contributions that early though. Dublin’s distance from Birmingham is not great enough to justify such forward planning. On the other hand...

As it turned out, I did indeed send more items to mum and dad than to anyone else, partly because a friend, who had set herself a challenge to post one item to her mother in Cape Town, every day for a month, inspired me to do so. I was reminded of just how much some people still rely on and appreciate a letter or a card when families live far apart. I do often forget to pop something in the post, even though I know perfectly well that I am unable to either text or email my parents to keep them up to date with our news. It is easy to slip into the way of assuming that everyone is knee deep in technology, though of course I have no excuse for overlooking the fact that my parents are not. Therefore, during February, they received a positive slew of mail of various sorts. I posted photographs, a book catalogue, cards and chocolate. How antediluvian it can seem actually to print pictures and put them in an envelope instead of simply emailing them. It is a much more satisfying a task to undertake though. That is, as long as you can make the machine at the print shop work for you. However, I digress; back to the letters challenge.

I worked my way through my list of usual suspects and the posting process went smoothly enough during the month, bar one or two hiccups. There was the minor hitch of realising that I needed first to email various friends and colleagues to ask for a postal address. This of course is the result of normally relying on email, Facebook, Twitter etc when you need to contact someone. Rather weirdly, people have become detached from their postal addresses in the same way that they have become detached from land phone lines with traditional area codes. People live in a strange virtual address-less land now, which is a pity because there is not much to thrill in a Gmail or Hotmail address. A physical address can often have a certain poetry or rhythm (I admit it may be misleading but at least potentially more interesting); something to conjure with on the way to the post box.

Another minor hitch occurred while posting one of my overseas cards; almost a ‘Mr Bean’ moment. Perhaps inevitably, rummaging in my bag, I got the stamp booklets mixed up while keeping one eye on the postman, who had just begun to empty the post box. Not only did I miss the collection by only seconds, but I put the wrong stamp on the letter in my haste. I had a truly crazy moment when I had an urge to put my hand in the slot and attempt to retrieve my envelope. Definite potential for a comedy skit there. Fortunately, I restrained the urge to commit the serious offence of tampering with the mail. Despite my error, the card did arrive at its destination in good time.  It was, (I believe) appropriately appreciated by the recipient (my mother).

But what of the other beneficiaries of my letter writing talents? Were my efforts widely valued? Briefly, I would have to say (modestly) that they were. It is surprising how many people say they love receiving letters and are consequently quite excited at the prospect at having something other than billet doux from the gas board plopping onto the doormat. I even got letters in return. This satisfied my own urge to have items that are more interesting than bills come through my letterbox. I do have to report though to a tendency for letter recipients to reply by, yes, you have guessed correctly: the dreaded email. It could not, I discovered entirely be kept at bay for the whole month. Several recipients acknowledged my letter by email and some by text or Facebook messages but not letters. Of course, to be fair it was not them but me doing the challenge, so they were not obliged to put pen to paper in reply.

Despite all of the emphasis on reclaiming the use of snail mail, social media had a large part to play in the success of the challenge. As I said at the beginning, the challenge was announced via the web and it had a dedicated Twitter account and hash tag (@LetterMonth, #LetterMo) to keep writers abreast of updates. Much as I enjoy letters, I have a sneaking fondness for the immediacy of Twitter, so it was fun to be able to combine the two very different modes of communication.

I do hope to keep up my reactivated letter writing habits but I feel that it will not be at the rate of one a day for the rest of the year. Mary Robinette Kowal has provided a link to the Facebook page of a 52 Weeks of Mail challenge, which is a reasonable enough goal to aim for. It actually began last autumn, but you could jump in anytime really I suppose. That will be my next challenge I think. I might even do February’s one again next year. Must keep stocked up on stamps though!
© Chris Mills April 2012

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