Weekend leisure: The lost art of letter writing

By Danielle Wright

Once a solitary pursuit, letter writing has finally found a crowd. Danielle Wright heads to Alphabet City, a creative community in Mt Eden, where a monthly group is dedicated to this forgotten art.

Letter writers using typewriters and rubber stamps, at Alphabet City in Mt Eden. Photo / Richard Robinson
Letter writers using typewriters and rubber stamps, at Alphabet City in Mt Eden. Photo / Richard Robinson

If you ever owned a typewriter, you'll remember the familiar frustration when all the keys jammed together, or the ribbon rode up where it shouldn't. Likewise, you'll remember the satisfaction when you pushed the carriage return lever after the little bell sounded to announce the end of a line of type.

Around 10 people are experiencing both emotions tonight as they furiously type and talk over the sound of vintage typewriter keys competing with jazz music. Colourful stationery, rubber stamps and stencils are scattered in the middle of a long rectangular table we're all huddled around, with the smell of bread being baked at the rear of the shop.

Erin Fae, who runs Alphabet City with her partner Moira Clunie, has around 20 pen pals around the world and sends a piece of mail every day - it's as regular a part of her day as cleaning her teeth. She receives a lot of mail in return but not as much as she'd like: "An empty PO Box is a sad thing," she jokes.

Next to me is Misha Dyer, originally from Arkansas, who remembers her mum teaching her to type.

"She was a secretary for the US army for 40 years, and, like many working mothers in the 80s, was allowed to bring us in to work when we had a day off school. That's where I learnt to type and craft, really as something to do at her work," remembers Dyer.

Today, she is writing to a friend in Los Angeles, who also happens to be her Facebook friend.

"If there's urgent news we can always get hold of each other that way, but writing a letter seems a more personal way to keep in touch," Dyer explains.

On the other side of me is Jaimee Lowe, whose fingernails happen to be painted the exact same peacock blue as her vintage typewriter, she says: "You have to think so much more about spelling and push the keys so hard it feels like you're bashing the typewriter."

Across the table, Amy Yalland is typing a letter to her "future self" and starts with a reminder to be more patient.

Three men walk into the class and ask excitedly: "Can we use the typewriters?" One of them, Jeremy Lees, picks some illustrated paper with Herb Garden written on the top. He's writing to the Prime Minister because, "he probably gets enough bad emails".

Clunie explains the popularity of the event: "We wanted a social event that's not about eating, drinking or buying anything, it's about a creative community space, not consumption."

Letter-writing has become so popular among a generation who missed out on writing to pen pals as children, that even a Twitter executive, Elizabeth Weil, has a letterpress in her garage and encourages staff to send letters to each other. Yoko Ono took to Twitter in support: "We need letter-writing, exchange of honest thoughts and true information," she announced to her two million closest followers.

Whether a letter is more truthful or more honest than an email or tweet is debatable, but it does seem much easier to become sentimental over a letter than the electronic versions.

My last year of high school was spent doing correspondence school from Hong Kong. Twice a day, I watched from my window as a red mail van, just like Postman Pat's, came down the steep driveway. It was the highlight of an otherwise lonely day and some of the letters from friends with news from home are still tucked away to be discovered again in old age.

If you know someone who might like a letter - maybe a grandparent in a rest home, or a child overseas - send them a letter, it might mean as much to them as the ones I received meant to me.

Wait a minute, Mr Postman

Before you settle down to write, consider the:

* Auckland Letter-Writing Club, which meets on the third Thursday of every month, free to all. Location Alphabet City, 71 Mt Eden Rd, Eden Terrace.

* Letter Writers Alliance, an international group dedicated to preserving the art of letter writing.

* Impressing your pen pals with stationery from Kikki-K or Red Letter Day. For the handmade touch, visit craft markets or online sites such as felt.co.nz for unique stationery. Cat Taylor Designs make upcycled stationery from pages of old music books and pages of Richard Scarry picture books.

- NZ Herald

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