Keep the letter alive

From the days when friends sent letters…

According to my teenage niece ‘grammar’ is when the teacher picks her up on using the word ‘like’ too many times in a sentence. I know what she means, but next birthday I’ve resolved to give her Strunk’s The Elements of Style and hope some might rub off.

Sadly, grammar is as out of fashion as handwriting; texting proves that you can be understood without being good at either.

Australian English has always been a looser version of the English language. I’ve always loved our ability to shorten and make casual words we use regularly or for which we have a fondness. For example, I love how redheads are called ‘bluey’, sandwiches are ‘samos’ and parmi nights are all the rage.

But grammar matters. I wish it were still taught, and, as a writer, feel indebted to Mr Kitchener for banging it into us in English. Monday afternoons will always be remembered for the slog of double grammar. It taught us to respect the structure of the written word, to order our thoughts, play with rhythms, organize paragraphs, and how a sentence could be altered just by switching a clause and a predicate, although I still don’t understand why a dangling participle is such a bad thing…

A recent review of the Australian Curriculum found undergraduates possessed “at best a rudimentary knowledge of English grammar”, had “learnt nothing of English grammar at school” (to the point where even identifying the parts of speech in a sentence is beyond them), and that “their grammatical errors were routinely left uncorrected in their essays”.

When it comes to handwriting I also crave that it matters more. I’ve kept drawings from my niece as a toddler before she even knew how to write her own name – scrawled, tenuous letters that can’t find a straight line, hesitant and broken tracks of crayon, patiently awaiting practice. But since those baby steps I’ve never received a letter – only short emails, written, mostly, in text speak.

I want to urge: get off the computer! Leave your desk. Go outside. Sit under a tree. Pick up a pen, a pencil, a scrap of paper or journal – I don’t mind – but use your hand, your whole hand. Not two thumbs. Tell me a story with all your heart and soul and let it leak through your hands and all your fingers, spill and splutter onto the paper, go back and check or don’t. Just use your hand and make it flow.

A friend who works at Australia Post says only 3% of mail posted these days is by personal letter – a figure that floored me. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed it on 730 with Leigh Sales. It’s well known that Australia Post’s letter arm profits have been plunging for the past seven years, and that the cost of a stamp is set to rise to $1 for letters as email replaces physical mail.

How I will miss that feeling of first seeing the postman turn into the driveway then running to the postbox to check what’s arrived. These days there are envelopes but rarely letters. It’s hard to imagine ever waiting on two deliveries a day in the UK.

While worrying about the possible demise of the book, the handwritten personal letter has caught me by surprise because if people aren’t writing letters to each other – and I mean letters, not cards – something human is lost.

There are good arguments for re-acquainting ourselves with writing letters, apart from Oz Post profits.

* If you agree with Edward Snowden that ‘there is no such thing as privacy’ – emails can be read by anyone and our phones tracked – a handwritten letter is safer and more intimate territory, free from the metadata police.

* As a writer, I know that when I start a story, doing it by hand, away from the computer always gets me in the zone. It’s different to putting thoughts straight onto a keyboard. Writing by hand connects to something more primal, more human, a step closer to our sub-conscious.

* In years to come you will find slips of paper inside books, notes scrawled in a journal that will stop you in your tracks and take your thinking into another place. The computer is a void that devours rather than gives.

The upside according to Oz Post is that 25% of parcels are delivered by posties, so just because the letter is dying, doesn’t mean the postie has to die. But this means we are sending things not thoughts.

My grade 3 and 4 teacher Rita Miller taught me how to write using cord cursive. “They don’t teach it any more,” she told me when I called her to refresh my memory of how she taught us to write. “If they do teach writing it is abbreviated script. My grandchildren say ‘Print to me’ because they can’t read linked-up writing.”

I remember now how Rita taught us to make our letters flow, how we’d concentrate on one letter, get that right, and move on to the next. Music was played over the school’s public address to classes from grade 6 down to 3. We’d write in time to the music, doing waves and hoops to a march time beat.

Every now and then Rita does a few hours’ relief work at the Low Head Pilot Station, an historic maritime museum dating back to 1805. I can see how she watches the children who visit, how she’ll ask them kindly to write in the visitors’ book. They’ll take hold of the pencil with their fist and she’ll think how ungainly it looks, how it must ache to write like that, and yet understand because how would they know otherwise?

Always the teacher, Rita thinks at least they might be taught how to hold a pen properly.

First published in Tasweekends, Saturday Mercury, 2015

My Grade 3 teacher Rita Miller (at Low Head in March 2015) taught me how to write and hold a pen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s