Zachary Omitowoju & Rory Waterman
Throughout his placement with Nottingham Creative Writing Hub, Zach and I had a number of fascinating and wide-ranging conversations. One of the topics we discussed was the impact of social media, and another was letter-writing, which is a passion of Zach’s. It was his idea that we put together this blog post, with him going first. So we did!
A pastime I have become more fascinated by is letter-writing. Primary school was where I first tried this, and I still have vague recollections of sending letters to Santa and other people I could never remember, and I was all so easily impressed and excited about the concept.
After primary school, I remember every Sunday we had to write letters to our parents whilst I was at boarding school in Lancashire. During the time, I have to admit that I always took the opportunity for granted and would rather have been doing anything else. It made no sense to me why I had to even letter write at the time when I had no idea what to write and Instagram was becoming more and more popular. Why on earth would I want to write letters that would take forever to receive? I mean, at least they were, right?
My thoughts have drastically changed since those preteen years. In a world full of endless ways to communicate, which is an ever-changing sea of emojis and filters – and in the midst of a paralysing global pandemic – it is no wonder people are not as happy. As a result, I have found people to be just way too judgemental in my experience, more and more, and about any and everything.
But I decided to restart letter-writing when I started university, and it has been a rewarding experience that I could not be more grateful for. One would think sitting down and writing a letter is considered ‘old fashioned.’ You would not believe the amount of people, both from my generation and older, who ask: Why write a letter when you can text, call, or FaceTime? They first offer a glance of confusion, and quickly assume you meant something else, before asking again. But writing letters is still just as important and a billion times more meaningful to me now.
Since the beginning of the first lockdown last spring, I have written more and it has made me feel a range of emotions, from anxiety to nostalgia, which I will always cherish. Personally, whenever I receive a letter in the mailbox it just brightens my day. Just grabbing an envelope out of the mailbox with my name on it in actual human handwriting (rather than fast food leaflets or bank statements that make me feel guilty for all that I have spent in a month) puts a smile on my face.
Reading a letter is like reading a small chapter of a person’s life story written especially for you. There is a feeling of personalisation when I look back on the letters I have received. I feel so honoured knowing that someone has taken the time out of their day to sit down with just a pen and paper to write to me. That someone was thinking about me longer than debating to send me a two-sentence Snapchat message while waiting in line at the drive thru. I cannot even express this enough (nor should I have to), but no matter what is inside, the thought is always what counts most of all – not that I wish to deny the popularity or significance of social media to many people, especially at this time of enforced distance.
However, I hardly ever feel any of these things from a social media message. Only when I am holding a handwritten letter rather than my phone does my day become twice as bright. If you ever feel like making someone’s day, grab a pen, notecard, envelope and a stamp, write something and send, and rest assured they’ll feel the same way.
(Send me one, any day. I will automatically love you and be a very happy chappy).
I rarely write ‘proper’ letters these days, but I used to write them all the time. Holidays or trips to see my father in Ireland when I was in my teens included the frequent dispatch of envelopes stuffed with numbered, scrawled, defaced postcards to various friends, my girlfriend, sometimes even my mum. Every now and then, someone shows me one of these documents. They are infrequently silly, a bit rude, mawkish, navel-gazing – and sometimes genuinely witty. I’m impressed by the kid, embarrassed by him. He was me. He wasn’t me. I’m glad he belonged to a world that couldn’t bestow upon him a Twitter account.
Letters also spawned teenage – and enduring – friendships. Apart from a few people in Ireland, my first friend who grew up more than a twenty-minute bike ride from my rural Lincolnshire home was a kid in London who wrote to me when I advertised myself as a potential penfriend in a music magazine. We were both fifteen. He’d always put his phone number on his letters, so I decided I would too. Then one day he called me: would I like to come down to his house and go to some gigs? We never wrote to one another again, and I got very used to saving up my money and taking exciting train journeys to That London instead.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I’ve always loved writing, though. Language is primarily a spoken medium – writing is just a way to make a record of it. And I like talking to people too (which will come as no surprise to…), but for me the primary pleasure in writing is in the control it gives me to say precisely what I want in the way I want to say it, however contradictory that might be. And there I go using the word ‘say’ for writing, too – because, dear reader, I want my words to hit you in the ear. Or the mind’s ear.
We often talk ourselves to what we think – stumblingly, falteringly. We might say things we don’t mean, or that we come to realise we don’t mean any longer, and we should be permitted to do so – or to have different responses from one another to complicated things. We should think very carefully before we write people off for saying things we don’t agree with – not least because they might not mean what they say, and we might not have considered every angle either. Communicating, deeply and openly, is important and rewarding. If we don’t talk – about our problems, our desires, our beliefs – we often struggle to think as deeply, because we aren’t testing our thoughts out. When we write for an audience of more than one, we can delete our pauses, our missteps, the things we don’t quite mean or don’t mean at all. Letter writing exists somewhere between the two, or can do. We are talking to someone in private – about ourselves, our feelings, our hopes, maybe about our world. And we can take our time.
Zach mentions the shadowy past in which Instagram suddenly came to prominence. He is 20, and I am 39; in my conception of the world, Instagram appeared about ten minutes ago, and Twitter about ten minutes before that. Tweeting is a bit like speaking – or at least a bit like proclaiming. However, tweets cannot be edited once they’re posted, and the format lends itself to quick-fire. A million people might see our quick-fire, but probably only about three will do so. The possibility of making an impact is, potentially, overwhelming and stifling all at once, and I wonder what my fifteen-year-old penfriending self would’ve made of it. He probably wouldn’t have sought a penfriend, because a bewildering array of people would have been at his fingertips already – within reach and yet often also out of it. Would he have been more lonely? While social media can certainly bring people together, is it good at helping us to be social, or to be ourselves? Are we hardwired for this kind of narrow yet vast communication? And what do we make of the people harvesting our data and pushing us together and apart through algorithms? Do we think about them and their impact enough? Are many of us being coerced into an addictive behaviour in which we talk past or through one another too often?
Answers on a postcard, please. Or, for added security, in an envelope.
Social media hasn’t destroyed the letter, though. Email did that, with its practical instantaneousness. Almost all of my long-form correspondences now are conducted by email. At any one time, I either owe or am owed emails from all over the world – at present: New York and California in the US, Australia, South Korea, Germany, Zimbabwe. It’s very exciting. But these epistles all look the same at first glance, more or less, and affect no other senses. I don’t get to unfold their pages, keep the stamps, smell them (that sounds odd), hold the photos folded inside their pages, struggle to tell a j from an s or to follow an asterisk to its insert. I don’t want to shave away at my personality in any medium, for that way be dragons – but it is in my private emails that many of my ideas come alive, in the company where I am most allowed to be a full and fully-flawed human. But there is more of myself in a handwritten letter than there is in an email. Or there would be, if I still wrote them.
Would I have these correspondences by letter if email didn’t exist again all of a sudden? Letters are fiddly things. They take longer to write, send and arrive. You have trudge to the letter box – do you even know where the nearest one is? – or to one of our depleted stock of Post Offices, then pay money, then wait. I would if I had to, all the same, for those are parts of the process, parts of the joy. Still, I don’t have to and I don’t do it very often any more. And I am poorer for that, however many pennies or minutes I save.
So, Zach has the right approach, I think. The student can be the teacher.
Zachary Omitowoju is a BA Media Production student at NTU, and was on placement with Nottingham Creative Writing Hub January-April 2021, as part of the humanities-wide NTU ‘Humanities at Work’ module. Rory Waterman is a poet and critic, and is on the English staff at NTU. He convenes Nottingham Creative Writing Hub.