They Knew Letter Enthusiasts Would Arise from the Ashes

I read this blog entry by Joel Achenbach on the Washington Post the other day about Facebook’s purchase of Instagram.  Wondering what the future held for such new-fangled inventions like Instagram, Achenbach looked back at his 1993 article about the rise of email. He appended, in full, the almost 20-year-old piece. It reminded me how we used to use email (to send letters to one another rather than to exchange quick bits of info).  It also included his prognostications about the rise of us snail mail devotees enamored with vintage writing implements and the slower pace that letter writing affords. Here’s how he ends his 1993 article:

He says there has been a 15 percent increase in traffic on the Internet every month — the greatest leap in letter-writing since the end of the 1700s, the age of Samuel Johnson, who would think nothing of writing a letter to his neighbor across the street.

Says Saffo, “The people who are on the cutting edge of the electronic frontier are the most avid letter-writers on the planet today. It’s just they don’t use paper. They use screens and electrons.”

Someday, perhaps, the computer revolution that has given us so much velocity in our communication will cause a backlash. A new subculture will emerge that will use inkwells and quill pens. It will champion slow communication, the burdensome writing tools that encourage contemplation and reflection. It will say that handwritten letters have dignity. It will argue that thoughts need time to steep, like a cup of tea.

This will surely happen first in California.

Smart man.  I think I’ll go write a letter while my tea steeps.

Letter Writing Social at the National Postal Museum

If any of you plan to be in Washington, D.C. this weekend, be sure to stop by the National Postal Museum.  Melissa over at Craftgasm is working with Erin at the NPM to host a letter writing social from 12:00-3:00 this Saturday, April 28th.

While you are there, you can write letters, check out our nation’s postal history, buy some stamps and connect with other postal enthusiasts (or philepistlists as Melissa has coined us).

Who knows, maybe I’ll hop in my car and head north.  It certainly is tempting!


Kids Say the Darndest Things

My friend Brandy emailed me this letter.  I have no idea who wrote it, but it made me laugh so I thought I’d share it! It’s pretty dang sweet:Here’s the back:

Be like this kid and write a creative thank you note today! Let your inner overlord loose!

Connect with Others

I’m addicted to TED videos.  I love watching brilliant people talk about something interesting for 15 minutes.  I feel smarter or happier or energized after they’re over. Usually.  But this video just left me concerned.  It makes the point that the internet (and here, specifically, Facebook and Google) is tailoring the information we’re receiving just for us based on our preferences.  So we hear more of what we want to hear and fewer dissenting voices.  This strikes me as dangerous.

Know what’s not edited by an algorithm? A letter.  Reaching out to someone new through a letter puts you in contact with a person who likely holds world views very different from your own.  I find it a wonderful exercise to meet people via mail that I’m just sure I won’t have anything in common with and then find we have a few shared interests on which we can build pen friendships.  I have pen pals who are in high school and who are elderly, male and female, disabled, from big cities and small towns, who are straight, gay, other, who have diverse ethnic backgrounds and who hold different religious beliefs.  I enjoy this, because it’s good for me to stretch my world view once in a while. Meeting a new pen pal is a great way to do it!

We need to reach out to others directly, because, as Jon Stewart just showed us, we can’t rely on our media not to cater to our interests… (Update: I’ve now linked to the Huffington Post article on Stewart’s making fun of Time Magazine’s fluff cover stories in the U.S., because the video of him doing it has disappeared from The Daily Show’s website…)…Update: I found a copy elsewhere, maybe this will stay up!:

We need to reach out to others to find out what our new interests should be! Hearing only what we want to hear reinforces a dogmatic way of thinking. Reaching only for the “fluff” information will hasten brain softening. We become so reassured of our own way of thinking that we know without a doubt that we are right and everyone else is wrong. That’s what Congress sounds like these days. That’s what the media is showing of religious disagreements. That’s the red state vs. blue state concept.

Researcher Brene Brown argues that we are increasingly shielding ourselves from feeling vulnerable.  But as we shy away from sharing ourselves in ways that leave us vulnerable to others, we also lose the opportunities to open up and truly connect with others. (This video is really worth the 20 minutes.)

So as the election season heats up, and it seems like civil discourse is out the window, I encourage you to reach out to others through letters. You may find that people you don’t share political or religious views with are actually nice folks who deserve to be treated with respect, compassion, and understanding even as you disagree. And while you’re at it, let yourself be vulnerable in your letters–share aspects of yourself that you may not generally divulge. Recent letters with my pen pals have shown me that opening up can result in a lovely reciprocation that feels deep and warm and comforting. It puts you at risk for rejection as well. But it’s worth it.

Is this all too touchy feely for you? I admit, it strikes me that way a bit, and I’m writing it. But I think that proves the point that we’ve become so resistant to being vulnerable that we react negatively to it before we give it a chance.

As March arrives and spring is on its way, I encourage you to let yourself bloom out of your winter shell and connect with others fully, openly, and vulnerably in life and in letters.


Happy Valentine’s Day!

I wrote my love letter this morning.  I’m not sure if I followed all the “rules” but I’m pleased with the result.  If you need a little help getting started, go here. And even if you didn’t get valentines into the mail, it’s never too late to send some love via post–using the new Love ribbon stamps! They’re so beautiful!

Plans tonight for cheese and chocolate fondue with friends. Yum! I hope your day is filled with love and friendship, too.

P.S. Be sure to check out Google’s valentine Doodle today!

Back story on the Google Doodle here.



Virginia Woolf’s Letters

Aside from her opening lament for the “loss of the written word” (really? where did it go?), I enjoyed Lisa Jardine’s Point of View in BBC News Magazine recently. Jardine shared heated letter exchanges author Virginia Woolf had with a book critic.  Jardine used these exchanges to show that letter writing can provide an opportunity for us to reflect and breathe after getting unwelcome news so that we may reply in a reasoned, respectful manner. She offers that the medium of letters and the traditional conventions of letter writing prevented rude, dis-embodied comments like we see so frequently these days on the internet.

(photo from Encyclopedia Britannica)

But then Jardine shared excerpts from another series of letters exchanged between Woolf and her former lover Vita Sackville-West, letters that resulted in hurt feelings over what was an apparent misunderstanding.  A postal “flame war” erupted before cooler heads prevailed.

The takeaway? Let’s not romanticize letter writing as a higher form of communication so sophisticated that it prevents us mere humans from getting in our own way.  As it turns out, we’re likely to do that no matter the form our communication takes.

But I still think that letters–with their tangible, mutually touched pages–are a far superior format for communication that matters…like apologizing for sending a nasty letter!  Today, their rarity makes them all the more powerful.

Writing Love Letters

Hear my soul speak:
The very instant that I saw you, did
My heart fly to your service.

I confess that I love
him, I rejoice that I love him, I thank the maker of Heaven and
Earth that gave him to me.  The exultation floods me.
–Emily Dickinson

But to see her was to love her, love but her, and love forever.
–Robert Burns

For the rest of us who are not a Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson or Robert Burns, Valentine’s Day can pose a challenge: How do we express our love in words?  Many of us rely on finding just the right card to express our innermost feelings.  Often, we can find one that works well.

If we can muster it, though, a love letter can be the key to someone’s heart. But where to begin?

There are several good sources that can help you write a love letter.  I’ve read most of them!  It boils down to this:

1. Open the letter with the special endearment you use only for your love: Dear heart; My darling cupcake; To my adorable KissyBear.

2. Say what you need to say. Why are you writing this love letter?  To celebrate your love on Valentine’s Day? Mend a broken heart? Make up after an argument?

3. Count the ways you love your sweetheart. This is an opportunity for you to reminisce about your history together, highlight what you currently love most about your
sweetheart, and look to your future as a couple.

    ***Share a memory from the past that will help your reader get into the mood for a love letter.  “I remember that time when…” “I can’t help but think of your beautiful smile the day I walked toward you down the aisle.” (OK, that rhymed accidentally, poetic skills are not necessary!)
    ***List your love’s characteristics that make your heart glow. Now is your chance to list your love’s best qualities. Trust me, this list will be read again and again.  As an added bonus, perhaps your recognizing them will encourage your love to exhibit these charming characteristics more frequently. Mention the way her giggle makes your heart flutter and she may laugh at your jokes more.  Wax poetic about your love’s signature chocolate chip pancakes and maybe they’ll pop up on the menu tomorrow!
    ***Discuss future plans or hopes.  “I can’t wait to have you all to myself on our trip to Paris.” Or, perhaps more realistically if you’re a busy, married couple with children: “I can’t wait to have five uninterrupted minutes to stare into your sparkling eyes and remind you why you married me in the first place.”

4. Go out with a bang. End on a note that leaves no doubt that your love is strong, enduring, forever.

A few other considerations:

Practice. Write drafts on scrap paper or on your computer so you can revise and reword a few times to make it perfect.

Use nice stationery, a pretty envelope, and embellishments like stickers or ribbons. Presentation makes all the difference. These extra touches show that you believe your loved one is worth the effort.

Write as neatly as you can. Don’t let worries about your handwriting be a reason not to express yourself in your own hand. But do try your best to make it easy for your love to read with eyes full of joyful tears.

If you need inspiration, there are plenty of collections of love letters out there.  The British Museum just released a small volume containing 25 love letters, including one from Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII and my favorite love letter of all time, De Profundis by Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas.  (N.B.: Your letter does not need to be as angst-ridden or long as his.  And I hope that pouring your heart out to your love earns more reciprocation than Oscar received.)

But whether you pen a lengthy tome or jot a few, loving lines, your letter will be valued by the recipient as a tangible expression of your love that will last far longer than chocolates and flowers.

Happy writing and  Happy  (slightly early) Valentine’s Day!


An American in Paris

Since my trip to Paris last year, I’ve had a mini-fantasy of picking up and moving to Paris to write and create and drink and taste and ponder and do all those things that Americans fantasize about doing in Paris.  It’s a city where people have been doing just that for centuries, so it’s the perfect place to fantasize about.

To feed my fantasy, I’ve been reading books like The Paris Wife about Hemingway and his first wife and their time in Paris.  I also really enjoyed the movie Midnight in Paris that brought to life the 1920s art scene (and, ironically, features a main character who recognizes his folly in romanticizing Paris and its past).  I have since moved to reading works by authors writing at that time, like Earnest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

I am reading Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Tender Buttons.  Often, her style is so random that I just let go and read and see where it takes me, what it makes me feel.  But having read some of her work, I really enjoyed the creatvity of this rejection letter sent by her publisher (posted at Letters of Note).

It’s nice to remember that even now-famous writers got rejection letters. It reminds me that what Sir Ken Robinson says is true, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.”  I hope we all are prepared to try and fail and be wrong and continue anyway; only then can we create something worth creating.


A Month of Letters

If you read this blog, you likely have at least a passing interest in writing letters.  Author Mary Robinette Kowal has challenged her readers to send 24 pieces of mail in February (one piece for each day the mail runs next month).

If you are looking for a little challenge to get yourself to send more mail, here is one with an attainable goal.  You don’t have to commit to a full year, just the shortest month of the year! And your recipients will no doubt be pleased at the uptick in your off-line communication.

The best part?  This may encourage you to send more Valentines.  Who couldn’t use a little more love in their lives?

I’m in, are you?

Gratitude During Universal Letter Writing Week

It’s Universal Letter-Writing Week (January 8th-14th) according to the International Society of Friendship and Goodwill.  The ISFG’s first objective is:

To encourage and foster the advancement of international understanding, better human relations, friendship, good will, and peace through a world fellowship of men and women of good will.

What better way is there to improve human relations and build feelings of good will than to show appreciation for the holiday gifts, cocktail parties, sweet treats, and support that people no doubt shared with you during the recent holiday season?  More and more I’m noticing that thank you notes do not generally follow a party, a gift, a favor. We do harm when we don’t recognize the wonderful things people do for us.  It suggests we did not appreciate their acts of generosity and it may reduce such giving in the future. Further, by expressing gratitude, you may actually enjoy your life and the gifts you are given more, just by allowing yourself the opportunity to reflect on the gifts and the people who gave them.

I’m finishing up my holiday thank you letters now (after catching up on my other correspondence that piled up over December!). I’m even including my insurance agent, the loan officer at the bank, a used car salesman, and several people at a local chain electronics store.  All of those individuals provided me with impeccable customer service recently and I want to thank them for making potentially painful transactions a breeze.  To keep the goodwill flowing (by recognizing people when they do a great job or are just plain nice), I plan to send more of these random notes of gratitude throughout the year.  And I am not just doing this because it may be good for my health! (Thank you, 365 Letters for pointing me to that research!)

I am thanking some lucky folks via these lovely letterpressed notes by Austin Press.  I picked them up at Anthropologie at the end of December (just before my stationery fast began).  I love the scalloped edge; it reminds me a bit of postage stamps.

(photo from Austin Press)

Now is the perfect time to take a deep breath after the bustle of the holidays and perhaps pen a few thank you notes to folks who made your holidays extra special. For guidance on writing a good thank you note, there are a lot of online resources.  Check out this link, which I think summarizes well the standard protocol.

While I’m in this thankful mood, thank you for reading this blog, sending letters, and helping build a more connected world!

Yours in letters, Dana