Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Dear Susie

an open letter about letter writing...

My dear Susie has paid the nicest public compliment by mentioning my letter writing on her page. Many of my correspondents (most of whom admit they co-respond less than they'd like to) comment that this is a lost art. Those who have become accustomed to receiving my letters say that they don't even think of it until another friend or acquaintance says something like, "you know someone who writes letters?" Today around the office, a co-worker asked me how it was going and I said, "nothing to write home about" (this being a common phrase in my family, like "close enough for government work"). Co-worker says, smarmily, "and do you write home often?" Yes, I do.

This is not an essay commenting on my personal obssessions about letter writing -- a useful channel I have found for my hypergraphia. That post is here.

No, this is a compendium of tips and tricks for people who say they wish they wrote more letters, but can't seem to make it happen. My general observation is... you are trying too hard.
We have all watched too much Ken Burns. Stop trying to write foxhole letters from Antietam and just say what's on your mind.

I grew up writing letters in a letter writing family. As we say, Army children learn to say good-bye to their friends. But also to keep in touch with them. The secret is to make it easy.

Get a basket. Or a box, or a drawer, or any defined place where you will keep your correspondence supplies. Keep it near somewhere you already are on a regular basis -- probably your TV watching place, but could also be your morning coffee, your reading chair, your bedside.

Supplies do not have to be fancy. If fancy/fun stationery inspires you, do it. But it is completely not required. CVS has some very nice notepads, with or without lines. Ditto pens and stamps. Your readers prefer pens over pencils, and dark inks over light; but otherwise, a Bic will do, and the $39 dollar roll of stamps is just as good as the shells from the barrier reef.

You must have stamps in the house. This is the number one obstacle to most frustrated correspondents. Spend the $40 and buy the stamps. Buy them on line at usps.com. Besides the irony of buying your stamps through the mail, you can enjoy shopping for commemoratives there as well as the giant flag roll if that is your preference. Consider pre-stamped envelopes.

Same rule for envelopes. In the house, in your letter "kit."

Start small. The first mistake people make is to use full size paper and feel obligated to fill it.
The endless scroll of the screen does not limit us in email (and I've seen some of the long emails you write) but 11 inches of blank paper turns us to puddles. I recommend a standard 5x7 notecard, or even better, postcards. The postage is cheaper and they too, come pre-printed. Karen taught me to put a stamp on a photo, write on the back and mail. I did this for years before kicking it up a notch to cards.

What did you do today? That's a letter.
What are you doing this weekend? another letter.
Can you believe what the president did today?
I thought of you today because...
Movie I saw...book I read...crazy work story...crazy roommate story...what the baby did cute

See, the thing is, we're all blogging like gangbusters about these very things, and there is no reason you can't write it down and personalize it, 1:1 with a friend, or with a family with whom you once shared some history, and hope to share some future.

When I started this blog, I promised my correspondents this did not replace the letter rotation, and it has not. In the morning, before I have spoken a word, or encountered another human being, I write a letter. Yes, I have some INTJ ways of choosing that recipient, but the letter is to them. Tomorrow it will be to someone else, and as a result, will not be the same letter.
Sometimes I choose the card carefully so suit that recipient; sometimes I let randomization do it for me.

Of course, I enjoy when people write me back. More and more of them do so with email now, and I do not think less of them. They also have microwaves and iPods. But I'll keep writing, even if you don't. Until you move away and don't give me a new address. (you know who you are)

I have learned from many of my parent-recipients that their children enjoy looking at the cards. This was unexpected. I like the idea that it is a novelty to a new generation, but also a fascination. (I am also thankful they can't read; I am not always polite.)

Let's agree to encourage it in them: thank you notes, letters to grandmas, helping out with the holiday cards. Let them narrate if they can't yet write. Five lines if enough to start.

But here's what I'll close with: don't do it if you don't want to, don't enjoy it, or think it's a waste of effort. Stay with electronic methods, or phone calls, or whatever else you do like. Let's not make letter writing a chore, or a medicine we have to take. Keep it fun.

Sincerely yours.....


  1. Every time I read one of your postings, I learn something new, first by following the links, and secondly about you personally. I, too, enjoy the handwritten note amidst my junk mail, etc. When I try to write, I'm one of the large paper people. Whenever I try the half size, I run out of paper before I run out of words. Hence, I continue to use whatever I have handy (including legal pads!) and then cannot finish the letter for a few days. I hope I am not too old to learn a few new tricks and I am shopping for a basket now. I appreciate your suggestions, so don't be surprised if you start getting smaller notes more often rather than an epistle with lots of enclosures that will take you an afternoon to get through. Keep on posting!!!


  2. I believe the computer is the killer to my letter writing. I need to do the letter before sitting with the laptop. Cause then I got to a site, then a link, then a blog then it's midnight and I need a snack before bed. So I need to do the letter before diving into the Internets.

    But thanks for the cards. Such a great gift to give to a frind.


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