Writing matters: a love letter to myself?
Updated: Feb 24
Perhaps it’s ironic I’m composing this on a keyboard, but I can touch-type much faster than I can write by hand, which helps when you’re working to a deadline. But when it comes to writing about life, it’s the thought process rather than the processing speed that surely matters most.
A few years ago, I started out on a mission to encourage myself - and others - to step away from the keyboard and screen, and pick up pen and paper instead. Views differ as to the cognitive benefits of handwriting versus typing, but I find I take more time and care over what I want to say when I write by hand because the words aren't so easily corrected, and I prefer my letters to be visually pleasing too: afterthoughts, embellishments, drawings and doodles make letters more personal, more emotive.
“It’s not just a question of writing a letter: it also involves drawing, acquiring a sense of harmony and balance, with rounded forms,” Jouvent asserts. “There is an element of dancing when we write, a melody in the message, which adds emotion to the text.”
['Handwriting vs typing: is the pen still mightier than the keyboard?'.
When we make space and time to allow words to come from deep inside, I believe we create a different dialogue: thoughts may flow in a stream of consciousness, or may take their time to come, but come they will…if you let them. Perhaps that's why writing retreats work so well?
But what purpose do we have for such words?
I have a passion for capturing images of the patterns of life that I see on my travels. A few years ago, I combined my fascination with patterns created by people or nature, with my desire to write words by hand through printing some of my photographic images onto writing cards. I named this project Sgrìobh: the Scottish Gaelic for ‘to write or compose’. This was how I chose to realise my writing mission. Family and friends were gifted packs of writing cards for Christmas and birthdays, and I used them to send 'thank yous' and 'how are yous?'. I still use the writing cards today, but not as often as I did, or should.
Photos: Sgrìobh postcard images taken during trips to Lochaline and Mull
I chose to print A6 postcards because it felt less daunting to write a short, meaningful message on the back of an image which already tells its own story, than to fill a blank A4 page. Most of the images featured on the Sgrìobh writing cards were taken on Mull, or in and around Lochaline: a part of the world where I find it easy to slow down to nature's natural pace, and to open my mind to new thoughts and ideas.
I feel like the West Coast of Scotland is my spiritual home; and when I look back at my family history, it becomes clear why. I was born in Glasgow, and holidayed on the Isle of Arran and near Girvan as a child. Scottish parents, grandparents and great grandparents hail mainly from the West. As a teenager my first camping trip was by Gairloch beach, a special place I've since shared with others, and still love. I purchased my first car so I could drive around the coast of Scotland, including a ferry trip to Mull from the old pier at Lochaline (where many years later I found a home) because I couldn't afford the fare from Oban. (An adventure which I long to repeat, though perhaps in a car that doesn't have a hole in the floor!) Discovering the drama of the wild western coastline sparked something inside of me that has never left: although I no longer have my home in Lochaline, the longing to return never lessens.
Photo: A moody view from my Lochaline home across The Sound of Mull to Mull
The past two years of lockdown life have rekindled the writing flame through a desire to record family memories and stories before they are lost forever. But where to start?
I researched family tree software; sifted through a black metal box my mum had hidden away in a cupboard which contains old birth and death certificates; and spent too long on Pinterest getting ideas for visual ways to present my family trees. I found myself overwhelmed by the story the contents of the tin alone could tell me about who I am, before I'd even begun searching online records. Procrastination set in: I had no idea where to start with recording my life story in a way that felt right for me, and that wouldn't become dominated by many hours spent in front of a screen, keyboarding.
Meeting author and writing retreat specialist, Kate Emmerson gave me a glimpse of an alternative way forward. Kate was introduced to The Arienas Collective by a lovely creative who has attended several of our workshops. Kate works with women on the threshold of making courageous leaps, so it sounded like she'd have my back if my pen to paper mission started to falter. We talked about the writing retreat she was planning to run on Iona - an island I often visited when spending time on Mull - and it quickly became clear that we shared a calling to that part of the world, as well as a belief in the power of writing for recording life journeys.
Kate suggested I try writing letters to my future self. When I thought about this, I realised letter writing was exactly how we used to share life stories with each other in the days before mobile phones and email (I have even kept a few special letters because they remind me of key people or times in my life), but they were always written in the present time, and meant to be read in the present time. I was never a big diary writer, and for some reason struggle with the concept of daily journalling, despite seeing how it has helped so many. But somehow writing a letter to my future self, or for my family to read at a future point in time, felt different. Kaki Okumura suggests this is because future journalling helps us see past the everyday temporary challenges, allowing us to focus on our true future goals, and avoid being swayed by what others are doing or achieving.
So I asked Kate if she could show me, and others like me, how writing letters to our future selves - or future others - could be used to capture our life stories, and she offered to come back with some workshop ideas.
Image credit: Beautiful handwrittten letters by Inpreet Kaur
Like so many creatively-minded others, I’ve procrastinated too long trying to find the 'perfect' way forward, and many memories may have been lost forever. (I envy those who recall dates, events and names with ease - my memory is poor...perhaps because I didn't write things down?) Sadly, too many people who have played a special part in my story have lost their life in the last few years - taking shared memories of our times together with them before I had time to capture them.
So, it's time to face my fear of the blank page, and embark with pen and paper in hand on what may be an emotional personal journey. I’ve dug out my Sgrìobh postcards; will be treating myself to a new pen that encourages my best handwriting (because, why not?); and booked myself a space on Kate’s new ‘Write your story: letters of a lifetime’ workshop, which is running here on 21 March.
I have no idea yet what story my letters will tell. Or if, when and how they may be shared. Perhaps they will be found one day in an even bigger black tin by my grown-up children, and maybe they will share them with future generations yet to be born. What I suspect is they may become part of a bigger story told by many others, and that's as it should be.
"Embrace the next chapter by releasing your past"
[Kate Emmerson, on her Iona Island retreat: Cutting the threads that bind.]
What I do know is that my letters to the future will provide a positive focus for the precious time I spend with my mum in the year ahead, as we both struggle with the inevitable change to our mother-daughter relationship that so often comes as part of the ageing process, and as happy memories fade. So now feels like the perfect time to revisit my mission of putting pen to paper to release my past, and free up my mind for the stories that are yet to come.
Care to join me?
If you'd like to find out more about how letter writing can help you record your life story, check out The Arienas Collective 'Write your story: letters of a lifetime' workshop here.
To find out more about Kate's Iona writing retreat from 27 April to 1 May 2022, visit her website here.