The Art of
Personal Letter Writing:
Keeping It Alive and Well in the Digital Age
By Michael Kovacs
Part One : Introduction
(I think I should state here that what I will be writing/talking about is: The Personal Letter as Part of a Correspondence. So when I talk about "the letter" I mean it in terms of a written verbal dialogue between two people. Given this definition, a few words need to be said as a preface.....)
“ If I write it down.....it has to mean something.”
~an actual quote from a 17 year old student when I asked him why he does not write letters.
We awaken each day in the opening moments of the 21st century to find communication between people to be omnipresent. EVERYONE seems to be communicating ALL THE TIME! I can count on one hand how many times a gas station attendant has NOT been on the phone when I have been getting gas! Everyone with a cell phone between the ages of 11 and 30 seems to be always texting or updating their social media account every three nanoseconds . So many people are communicating at a rate that only 20 years ago would have seemed like a dream from Philip K Dick via a Halcion side effect.
In Hollywood there is a saying, “Faster, cheaper, better. You can only have two.” While such a paradigm cannot be applied to everything, it could very well be applied to personal communication. Instant gratification has a price tag. Why wait? (Ooops, hold on. I gotta check my e-mail.)
I will not say anything bad about the new speed of communication via the computer age. Like ink and paper, it is simply an invention whose time has come. Besides, I am typing this on a laptop! One should not bite the digital hand that feeds.
This is not an expository or creative writing class, but a brief seminar on the personal letter. Becoming better at the mechanics of grammar and spelling and such are well beyond the scope of this meeting. However, I STRONGLY suggest that if one feels the need to get better on such matters, PLEASE go and take a class with a good teacher. I cannot state which class to take, but it would give to logic that a creative writing course, in its focus on description and story development, would be the place to go.
In the present world, there still seems to be a desire for letters to be read. The desire for letters is there. But whatever time technology saves us (ONLINE DMV CAR REGISTRATION!!! THANK YOU GOD!), usually gets swallowed whole by something else, our human natures directing us to that which requires the least amount of effort. We are in an age where we barely have to leave the couch to pay our bills, order our clothing and movies, and basically amuse ourselves to death. "Oh, a letter takes time and I don't have that kind of time." Yeah, okay, you have watched three hours of cute kitten videos that have made your brain cells atrophy. Yeah, putting on your ipod and writing a letter to someone would have been a REAL waste of time! (BUT THOSE KITTENS SO CUTE WHEN THEY TRY TO GET OUT OF THAT PAPER BAG!)
Also, there is an entire type of psychological therapy called therapeutic letter writing. Let me repeat that. Letter writing is used as a form of therapy! Pen to paper linking up to the inner narrative yet again.
In the past 20 years we have seen personal communication take unprecedented leaps in speed and decrease in cost. Long distance calls, that which could run into the most terrifying of amounts is now free, along with video communication via the internet. Video and audio in real time. Free. Let us not wonder why the letter (and even phone calls, thanks to texting and social media) have been placed in the "used bin" of technology. But in that act lies the odd shift. Texting, digital text on a tiny screen, is less personal than a phone call, a human interactive voice on the other end yet it is more popular than calling. A call MEANS something, it is an investment of time and in real time with a real person. We have chosen the least intimate of all options. If the simple phone call has been shoved aside because it carries too much weight, how much more the letter! Yet, thankfully, it survives.
Part Two : A Horribly Brief, Unnecessarily Eurocentric, but Kinda Cool History of Written Communication
Instead, I would like to focus, at least for a few moments, on the fact that, while communication is evident throughout Nature in both animals and insects, it is the human race that has the ability to write it down. Communication is, according to the dictionary, the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs. Lesion studies in patients with Gerstmann’s syndrome (a neurological disorder that is characterized by a constellation of symptoms that suggests the presence of a lesion in a particular area of the brain) have pointed to the parietal cortex (the part of the brain that integrates sensory information) as being critical for writing. This study at Stanford University showed that the left parietal cortex was involved in writing. This thing that we do all the time is still a mystery, yet it is a built in part of us. A unique part of our brain is used when communicating through writing.
Let us take this one step further. That drive we have within us to translate what we have in our brains, our consciousness, into the physical world pre-dates written language. The Cave Art from the Cave of El Castillo is said to be over 40,000 years old. Before language there was a desire to take a reflection of the outside world via perception and transcribe it. It seems that mankind has always had the desire to make concrete what was going on inside.
So perhaps there is something to be said by our need to communicate, to get it out. We are hardwired for it.
PART THREE: A REALLLLY Brief and REALLLLLLLY Fast Basic History of the Letter
The oldest known relative to contemporary paper is from China from about 200 BC and was used as a substitute for silk. However, Papyrus goes back to about 300 BC and was, over time, taken up by the Greek and Romans. Romans used what is called Atramentum librarium to write with and, with paper and a black substance, you get the letter! There are, thankfully, VOLUMES, of letters from Roman times, two examples being those of the Roman Orator Cicero (January 3, 106 BC – December 7, 43 BC) whose letters helped with the Renaissance many years later, and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121 A.D. – March 17, 180 A.D.). While these men were in no way part of the common people, give them a read when you can and you can see how the behavior of the personal lives of humanity do not change very much over time.
But if one needs a piece of evidence of the power of the letter amongst the common people,at this same time, one need look no further than than the New Testament where the letters of Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jude helped provide the architecture for Christianity. Unlikely this kind of thing could have been done with a text.
For hundreds and hundreds of years, the written word was available and used. But this was usually limited to those who had an education and money (i.e. you were not laboring 15 hours a day in a field or at some other type of agrarian work). While the poor who wrote personal letters wrote of the day to day, the wealthy and powerful, keeping alignment with the Roman habit, wrote personal letters for each other as well as letters made with the idea being that they would be read and reread as part of history long after they were gone.
Fast forward about 1800 years when technology finally takes a bump up allowing paper and ink to become more readily available via wood pulp. At this time you have more and more people getting educated, better technologies for transportation, and things get rolling.
In 1922, Mary Owens Crowther wrote a book called “”How to Write Letters” which you can now download for free on the internet. In it she states as follows, “The heyday of letter writing was in the eighteenth century in England. George Saintsbury, in his interesting ‘A Letter book’ says, ‘By common consent of all opinion worth attention that century was in the two European literatures which were equally free from crudity and decadence-French and English-the very palmiest days of the art. Everybody wrote letters, and a surprising number of people wrote letters well. our own most three most famous epistolers of the male sex, Horace, Walpole, Grey and Cowper-belong wholly to it; and ‘Lady Mary’-our most famous she-ditto-belongs to it by all but her childhood.....” Folks, according to some, this artform peaked before Ben Franklin knew how to build a kite.
I am not so harsh. Why? Because I am talking about the intimate communication between two people. With the 19th and 20th centuries, personal letters were still the most common way of communicating between long distances. Personal letter writing, in volume, just kept expanding.
And I need not state in detail what caused the slow demise of the personal letter in the latter moments of the 20th century: other forms of communication that were quicker.
PART FOUR: Doing It With Words
Okay, so what’s the big deal here? Communication evolves with technology! Big deal!
Okay, let’s take a step back. In order to write a letter, you have to do something somewhat unheard of these days: sit in a space for more than 10 minutes and focus on what you are thinking and feeling. Yeah, sure. This is going to catch on!
Seriously, when one writes a personal letter, one must sit in one place and focus on what one wishes to say. This need to focus, reflect, and transcribe is at least one reason why letter writing is STILL being used as a form of psychological therapy. To transcribe that which is only in the imaginary world of thought has deep weight in making sense of who we are, how we feel, and what we desire.
I would go so far as to say that when one writes a deeply personal letter, something that takes much inner thought, one enters into a meditative state, the focus being not on the world around but the world within. Like all meditative arts, letter writing takes time, practice and focus.
The Form and the Function
Once we state that letter writing is an art form then all of a sudden the statement that a general format makes things easier becomes a Fascist statement to the Creative spirits.
“Nobody tells me what I can or cannot write like! No way! If I wanna write my personal letters on formica copies of French toast in braille Esperanto then I will!”
I think that there needs to be a split here, in the definition of what a letter is: an object that can be defined as a work of art OR an object that, through a common written language, communicates in the same way that a literary work would. DO not get me wrong! The two can be combined! But this, perhaps thankfully, is the exception and not the rule. Artists such as Picasso, Man Ray and Van Gogh (to name only a miniscule fraction of artists) have letters which have the most amazing drawings in them. To those of you who can draw well, I salute and envy you. In my life I have been enchanted when I have received a letter with a drawing in it done by the author telling me where they are or what they are feeling. It is amazing.
Okay, but maybe it is about time to hit the core of the matter.....
What Makes a GREAT Letter?
Okay, fine. It is time to pony up and go for the heart of the matter in this seminar: What is a GREAT letter?
Let’s begin at the beginning:
While it may be fun to mail that Esperanto Braille Formica French toast letter to (hopefully) your friend, you may have slipped the grid when it comes to presentation over function. Maybe. But then again, who’s to say?
Over and over my entire life I have heard people from prior generations say, “Oh, I remember the letters I got from my (friend/future spouse/lover) and they were wonderful.” Nobody has ever mentioned the stationary. Nobody. It was the emotion, the words, the honesty, the passion that was what left the mark. Yes! I love getting beautiful cards in the mail and I even make my own stationary! (More on that later.) But, I think we all have to remember that, in the end, it boils down to the words, to what we say and how we say it.
And how DO we say it?! Start with the delivery system: handwriting.
Okay, for the record, in my life I have been told that I have wonderful handwriting as well as being told that some of my letters look like a blind person writing in Sanskrit. While I take all of these critiques as true, I believe my average falls somewhere in between.
Handwriting is so personal and we keep forgetting that in the digital age. children in America do not even write in script anymore. (That is a whole other essay, believe me.) So, handwriting a letter is an intimate act: your hands, your action, immediate and tangible result that is not digital dust. One of my friends told me that when she went away to Oxford and took her exams there via those small exam booklets, that having to write down her answers in long hand hurt her brain for a bit as it felt like she had to think a whole different way.
And to those of us who take the obtuse technological third rail and use a manual typewriter to get our letters out, I will state that it is a personal experience in and of itself. Those hammers never hit the paper the same way twice...and good luck in making corrections.
Okay. Fine. We are all on, literally, the same page. When we write letters, we transcribe what it is we see, touch, taste, and or feel. But how to improve HOW we do it?
What class could you possibly take to improve your letter writing? Yes, creative writing, English composition, maybe even a poetry class would help matters. But I believe that there is a great difficulty in becoming a better letter writer as it is so personal. I used to hear people say all the time, “I am horrible at letters.” Okay, how? What are you comparing it to? If a letter is personal that means it is written of the moment, in the moment, about a moment. This is not stylized fiction. This is a transcription of the every day to be given to someone else. Also it is AMAZINGLY personal! Would you really want someone to write you back and go, “Hey there! I LOVED your letter! It was great! Thank you! For someone whom I thought was intelligent, you write like a ten year old on two Benedryl!” Or, “Thank you so much for your letter. It was so wonderful to hear from you again! How was Spain? Is Spanish your first language because your sentence structure and ability to describe things coherently in English is just NOT working. Talk to you soon!”
We accept the personal letter as it is for what it is because we accept it as we would a gift, which it is. So it up to us to try to become better at this artform. Here is a radical suggestion that just might work:
The composer Philip Glass stated in a documentary that he originally learned how to write for orchestra the way so many had done for years and years before. He would simply COPY the scores, by hand, to see how things were done. Yes, sit down and write out all those notes for hours and hours. The author Hunter S Thompson re-typed the great American novel “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald just to get the feeling of writing a great novel.
Sound insane? Think about it. You can read all day long but that does not make you a great writer. Writing requires doing it. But you need to inject new ways of writing into your own without the aid of being in a classroom or having a teacher. No problem. The next logical step is to do the same: find a letter from a collection that you really love, sit down and COPY IT THE WAY YOU WOULD WRITE A LETTER. The action within the habit of writing should have some effect over time. It is unlikely that there will be an overnight change in your style, but the simple act of repetition should push the gears forward.
That being said, READING the published letters of others can be a great help. BUT PLEASE TAKE NOTE: What you will normally read are the EDITED versions of the letters! The small talk, the everyday communication, all the small things that make friendships majestic and minutely woven tapestries of time together, are often edited out simply to keep things moving.
I believe that it is not wrong to state that the one quality that makes up a great letter is the same thing that makes up great literature: It takes us somewhere.
When I was younger, I remember being enchanted by the writings of Albert Camus and how he seemed to be able to take me to the Cafes of Algeria and Amsterdam simply from the words on the page. Around then I was lucky enough to have been writing someone who was in Europe. She had this amazing ability to do the same thing, to take me away from my insane and overworked life in New Jersey and into the nighttime fields of Spain for a midnight picnic. Those letters, as well as the writing of Camus, had a profound effect on me in many ways. They set the standard by which I still write my letters.
Two printed examples of letters that inspired me are:
~The letters of Van Gogh to his brother Theo have inspired generations of artists as they show the inner dialogue of a man struggling with the birth of his unique creative self, the challenges of the everyday life, and the effect repeated rejection has on the spirit.
~Letters to a Young Poet by Rene Rilke. A masterwork in so few pages, Rilke’s correspondence to a young poet in need of his help. Wynton Marsalis was so inspired by this collection that he wrote his own contemporary version, “Letters to a Young Jazz Musician”.
I cannot say what type of letter writer I am. I don’t mail them to myself. I mail them to others, and most of those others are now silent, dry streams from where words used to flow back and forth. In some letters, I was told I was a great letter writer, but I have no idea and I loathe the thought of re-reading my own letters. However, in preparing for this seminar, I did get the word out as best I could to those I used to write to and asked if there was anything they liked from when we would correspond. The response came back that my writing was “passionate, funny, painful, and, beautiful.” Okay, that was humbling.
In the end, one must ask only one question when writing a personal letter: Did I get across exactly what I wanted to state to that other person. Hey, sometimes it is a thank you note for some chocolate chip cookies and other times it is a transcription of a dark night of the soul.
I take letter writing very seriously. VERY seriously. I don’t mean that I make my own ink and write with a huge plume quill like that awesome parody in a recent episode of Family Guy. No. Also, it takes time which I do not have all that much of these days. My life in letter writing has always been about one thing: trying to transcribe exactly how I feel into something beautiful.
Within this research, a beautiful friend of mine told me about my letters. She that they were not the day to day narrative type things, though such news was mentioned. She said my letters were almost meditations, me hitting a topic and having it flow down stream of whatever I was thinking in the moment. But something else was said that surprised me. She stated that when I typed out a letter on my stationary (on a 1950’s manual typewriter), the tfeel was different than when I wrote them out by hand. I had no idea of this. I thought I simply wrote words on the page! So, I suppose that regardless of what you may think, the delivery system of the words DOES matter.
How does one get better at something that, for all intents and purposes, can be one of the most intimate moments of communication? It is a gift, absolutely unique to each person in each moment. The personal letter, thanks to the technological advances in affordable ink and paper AND a postal system with a solid transportation infrastructure, is able to exist on a large scale. If one were to calculate the cost of a few blank pages of a generic blank notebook that is on sale, the amount of ink from a disposable pen (that you can get for free in many places), and the cost of a stamped envelope from the post office, the entire cost is around 1/11 of an hour's minimum wage in 2012. This artform and communication, then, is almost free.
I am, by history and practice, primarily a musician. Therefore I believe I can only approach the process and structure of letter writing via a musical analogy. Follow me. I promise to not get technical.
The music that is defined and consumed as "Classical Music" is, 99.8 percent of the time, not improvised. That amazing Beethoven Symphony or Bartok String Quartet you love so much has a recipe of notes that are fixed on the page. While there are some variables, the notes on the page are the sonic dogma that cannot be deviated from in any way.
Most other musical forms have an amount of improvisation built into the form. When one walks into a jam session with other musicians, there is an amount of restriction. Everyone walks in playing something, say a guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, laptop, vocals, etc. Everyone (hopefully) does not start ripping the sink off the wall to use as a percussion instrument or decide to sing improvisational poetry in a language they made up on the ride over. Normally, the musicians call out tunes or they are playing within a certain common style. Maybe someone brings in an idea for a song and they build off of that. Or, they start off playing a song known to everyone and then improvise based on that structure. There is always a beginning and an end, and hopefully a middle.
The keys to any GOOD jam session are, to me, three things: Listening, speaking and supporting/following. These principles can also apply to the letter.
The personal letter is a medium of personal expression which, by its nature, has no real definition. Like those French Toast Braille Esperanto letters? Okay, rock on. However, it seems that one must ask the question: what the hell are we trying to do when we write a letter?
Personal letter writing is being able to transcribe the inner narrative and to give to the recipient as close to an exact document as possible. It may be silly, it may be joyous, it may be full of absolute sorrow. It may be Love. It may be rejection. And it will most likely be an amazing cocktail of all of them (shaken, not stirred). But we look to this medium to state and present what it is we feel as the Truth, a benchmark of what is considered "Art".
But there is a major difference between the architecture of a letter and that of the other art forms such as painting, fiction writing, poetry, dance, and acting. There seems to be an unspoken commandment by those who are NOT in the creative field to say, "Well, they just do whatever they do because they love it. So what if nobody buys/sees/notices/respects/reviews/helps with it. They will do it REGARDLESS! THEY H-A-V-E TO!!!!"
The major difference is that while the painting, the novel, the poems, the play, etc, may never see the light of day, but the personal letter is made for the sole purpose of being given to one other person, regardless if it ever makes it there.
If there is one thing that Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo show it is that the above concept is nothing more than an excuse by those who believe they are artists to feel better about themselves. Van Gogh's letters are reflections of his soul, one that was affected deeply by almost absolute failure and psychological illness. How amazing that he speaks with such lucidity and passion after having been institutionalized after an arrest.
The letter is not, N-O-T, a monologue! THAT is a diary or journal. The personal letter is a PRIVATE CONVERSATION WE ARE HAVING VIA THE WRITTEN WORD. We have all gone off and written some intense five page (legal pad or single spaced print) one paragraph screed about something to a deep friend or an ex-lover or someone we believe could withstand the weight of the what we were offering to them. This should be the exception, not the standard.
What is expressed in our letters is shot through the prism of how the ones we are writing reflect in our life. If you find this a bit hard to believe, I would ask that you simply remember any love letter you have ever written compared to any letter back home to a mother or father. Yeah, you are saying different things....or at least Freud hopes so
EIGHT Basic Suggestions for Writing a Very Good Personal Letter
1) Put the date somewhere on the top of the first page!
This may seem silly, but if you are in this thing for the long haul, it is PRICELESS! Plus, everytime you go back to it, when it was written is staring at you. No need to guess. Besides, all you have to do is look at your cell phone.
2) Your Entrance is Everything....Okay, almost Everything.
The opening salutation, those first few words, set the tone for everything that follows.
“To Whom It May Concern” kinda has a different ring to it than, “My Dearest Friend” or even, “ HEY DUDE!” not to mention, “My Beloved” or “HEY THERE SXY PANTS!!!!” These words set the tone of what follows. Sure, you can hopefully turn it around later, but take note: Every great movie or song sets you up from the first few seconds. Do the same when you write.
3) MENTION THE LETTER YOU ARE REPLYING TO UP FRONT!
As far as I can tell, letter writing in correspondence comes in two, and only two paradigms: Ping Pong and The Batting Cage.
A) Ping Pong: You get a letter, you reply to that letter. There is an unspoken agreement that it is a one to one letter giving situation.
B) The Batting Cage: One person writes more than the other (most likely on a regular basis like once or twice a week) with the expectation of a reply coming whenever the other person gets the chance. Again, neither party should feel pressure to be writing less or more. It just works out that one keeps throwing and the other connects whenever they can.
When involved in “A”, this suggestion may only hold moderate weight. When it comes to “B”, this has EXTREME weight! The postal system can be flakey. Knowing what got there and what didn’t means a great deal. It also sends a flag out immediately that you read what they sent you. This is good.
4) Be grateful that the other person wrote you and say so.
Okay, allow me to state a cruel and absolute reality here: Nobody HAS to write back. If the other person took the time to write you back, thank them. Remember, each letter, yours and theirs, is a gift. Respect it as such.
5) Bring Your World (Internal and External) to Them
You may want to be writing them from the tops of the Eiffel Tower or a Tibetan Monastery or from a tour bus on a highway in Detroit or from a 1920’s Speakeasy with F. Scott Fitzgerald, but, alas, you are not there. You are in your kitchen with a sink full of dishes. Hey! Do not negate your reality! Just tell where you are as it gives some context to what you are writing like the setting of a movie or the types of instruments that are in a band.
***POSSIBLE BONUS POINTS: Referencing the other person when observing the everyday. (I.E. “I am here at the kitchen table, an absolute three dimensional Jackson Pollock painting with gross wine glasses reminding me of last night. Remember the time we had too much wine and tried to sync up the movie “Animal House” to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”!?!???! I SO remember that!”)
6) Be silly at random (GUMMI BEARS!!!! GUMMI BEARS!!!!!!!) moments
If the tone of the letter is everyday and you enjoy being silly AND the person you are writing to gets your sense of humor, GO FOR IT! This is a one on one communication. Inside jokes that perhaps nobody else on the planet will understand are welcomed.
7) Talk about what they said in THEIR letter, not just your life.
Remember, even though you are able to go on for a legal pad about how great/lousy YOUR life is, you need to sincerely care about how they are doing via what they wrote you. This is not a letter for therapy. This is the root system of a friendship. Bring up what concerns your friend wrote to you. Unless you are a professional therapist, do not pretend to be one. If you think your friend needs help, figure out a way to say it. If they are just having a bad day due to the other people in their submarine during this tour of duty, show sincere concern by making note of it.
8) Make the landing a damn good one.
If you know you are running out of time, steam, and/or space, start to mention it and begin your goodbye. You want that great movie to end in the middle of a great scene? How about that great song to end in the middle of a chorus? Nope. Figure out a way to walk to the exit of the letter in a few sentences. It helps, trust me. (“ACK! What time is it! Jeez, I gotta get to sleep or I am not going to be able to do that experimental neurosurgery tomorrow on the President of the World Bank! Time flies when I am writing you. Thank you so much for being that kind of friend.”)
9) The Ending Makes the Movie
I think it was the drummer Keith Moon who said something like, “Look, all that matters is your entrance and your exit. Everything else is up for grabs.” Every great movie or song has a great ending or fade out. Figure out something that sums it all up.It may be,”With Deepst Friendship” or “Within a Vat of Emotional Velveeta and Sinking Rapidly” .
But try to keep the flow going.With passion or silliness or whatever. Just remember that the ending matters as much as the rest of it.
Also, it must be noted that while grammar and punctuation are to be on point so that you can be understood well, all bets are off in every other regard. You can try to write a letter like one of Samuel Beckett’s short stories, or write one as a Buddy Wakefield poem, whatever. This is the communication between two friends. If you try a new format and you don’t like it or feel it doesn’t work, well, what have you lost? If anything it will push out your style.
OKEE DOKEE POKEE!!
Below is what I consider to be an amazing letter. It is a song I put together that was included on my first CD called “sacred” and is one of the first things I wrote. The narrator is NOT me.
My dearest friend,
I just received your two letters and tape in the mail. They were awaiting me at my old address in the northern part of town. As I read your words, the sun is just beginning to set upon the hills that border the village and the sky beams with yellow and violet.
Thank you for writing me as you do, as we have shared so much during our time apart, it seems as though our trust is genuine and special. It always makes me feel good to know that there is someone out there who cares about my life.
I've just awoken from a nap because I spent the whole night on a hoot doing the rhumba. I showered and came down to the tiny terrace bar, one of two which flank my building door. The one I've always frequented is filled with families, tiny four year old girls in pink and purple print cloth and exquisite 1920's hair bobs, scrounging about in the dirt together while their grandparents expertly let the world go by as their beers glow topaz. Moms with leather jackets, plucked eyebrows, smoking. Older women with sweaters on their shoulders soothing the inevitably ruffled feathers of the pink printed dolls. Slick black haired men in jeans, sunglasses and white espadrilles giggle laughing babies. Inside the two bars from my outside vantage point, I hear the stereo roar as the Madrid soccer team makes a goal.
The other bar is the scary one filled with the young harder people who are known as "the heavies." Both men and women have long feathered hair, tight pants, black skirts, and interesting necklaces in their open buttoned chests, leather jackets and fringed boots. Then, on the other side are the night brood, the wild ones. Every night they gather and listen to tapes and drink liters of beer with a dog or two, leaning on a fence that faces the garden. Of course the bar group is more splendid and scruffy in their low class finery. But the wild children were the first I saw months ago from my fourth floor window. They gathered like dried leaves in the windy late winter nights, and disappeared before dawn.
Their circle kept its back towards me the nights I waited outside for Herman. I watched them, envious, dreaming of the Lost Boys, wanting to pass the beer bottle around and be accepted into their ring of arrogance and ease with each other. The long hair, the occasional horseplay, the generosity... I guess we'd have little in common. It was more glamorous from four flights up.
My favorite character has just appeared: a baby about ten months old, Deborah. Her mother is the only local I've talked to who doesn't own a bar or a shop. She is often in the hands of Christina and Carlos, the bar owner's kids. They are delightfully bright and extroverted. The baby laughs and laughs when I play with her. As she sits on someone's lap, she chews on a pack of fortunas. You know she is going to be wonderful when she is older.
I love you. Your subtlety and irony, even when you are down is dear to me. I'm sorry you've been in so much pain lately. I'm helpless except to reach across the Atlantic with an embrace. And remember, you make me laugh like no one else can.
Well, I must leave you now. The sun has almost completely set and places the cafe under the gentle blessing of the night sky. The bartender has just lit the candle on the table, reminding me that I do not know when I shall return to your shores. My life here is full, but I cannot call it home. I miss you every day but I know that I must be here for now and look for your words to travel across the oceans and rest in my hands. I shall never abandon you in my friendship and your heart shall for ever remain in mine. I'm not one to make promises, but I know this is one I'll keep.
The night has fallen and I shall walk to my lover's house with memories of us on my every breath. We may drift in time and in space, but I never want to imagine us being without each other.
May the universe cradle you in her arms, and may the wisteria of dreams hang over your head.
Blessings, health, and sweet laughter.
I love you always......
Yep, that’s the good stuff.
PART FIVE: Really Fast Stationery Ideas That Will NOT turn you into Nick Bantock But Will Have Be YOURS
The following are some ways that I make my own stationary. But I am not a trained artist or craft person. There are about a billion books on paper crafts, collage, paper making,, and the like out there. So hopefully these rather simple ideas will get your creativity going via my really limited technique.
Because I cannot draw and was tired of having flowers on letters where I was pouring out my existential anguish, I developed a few ways of making stationary on my own. But please, one quick aside:
Stationary can be “art” but it must be, above all, functional. There must be an easily readable space on the page where the text can be found and written. This is why stationery tends to have pictures in the edges. If you put something in the center, you CAN write around it, but it can be a bit distracting. Try it and see if you like it. I tend to prefer things in corners or outlining the sides in the margins
Since it seems everybody has access to a computer, I see little reason why one cannot experiment with making a picture in any free photo software and shrink it to fit in one of the the corners of the page.
Glue stick is your non-toxic best friend! So is the ever wonderful copy machine!
If you hate the idea of having stuff pasted to the paper you are writing on, get a glue stick and attach it to a piece of paper. Then photocopy it. You can do this at home with a scanner that copies or at any copy place.
1) Take a Chinese food menu. Tear it up into small pieces. Glue it to a page. Now go copy.
2) Get an old photo or two or three from the internet and print it out. It does not have to be amazing quality. Arrange one the page. Glue. Copy.
Not fond of pictures or menus? No problem.
3) Go to a craft store and find the origami section. There are the most beautiful papers there, AND they sell them in small quantities. Cut, tear, arrange, and glue onto the page.
Okay, not a fan of that? Fear the copy machine? No problem.
4) Write your letter on quality plain white paper. When writing, leave large spaces between some paragraphs and/or in the margins. Get a small watercolor kit and watercolor in AFTER you have finished the letter.
Like geometry, not color?
5) Get a piece of 11X17 inch paper. Fold it into whatever fraction you like (half, quarters, eighths, not too strange, as someone is going to have to read it.) Take a writing instrument (or something like it) and go along all the fold lines. You now have a mosaic where you can write your words. (Watercolor the sections in with light colors for bonus points.)
I will not get into the idea of envelope making because the templates are easily accessible for free to be downloaded from the internet. However, please take note: when you download the template, trace it out on a piece of sturdy clear plastic so that you can see what it is you are cutting out when making the envelope..
I hope you have found this seminar helpful in some way. In my view, it is the contents of the letter that matter more than the outside, but that can help and be a great deal of fun in making.
If you do not feel you cannot write a full letter, do a post card. Want a bit more, make or buy a blank card and fill it in. Dip your toes in the water with a 8.5 x 11 single page. Whatever.
Just start. Try. If you believe that none of your friends will appreciate it or write you back, there are places to find pen pals on the internet (i-r-o-n-y). I assure you that if you want to write something, and in some places be very very creative, you will find a place.
Letter writing in the US is at an all time low and sinking faster by the time I write this sentence. Ask any mailman. However, this is then the time for a re-invention. The rules restrictions that come with something creative being part of a culture are gone. It is up to us, the letter writers, to keep it alive. Those who are willing to part of the slow word dance of a correspondence will most likely be open to anything sincere that is sent.
However, because this is an intimate form of communication, the emotional stakes in writing can get very very high. We can get broken when someone stops writing us and horribly disappointed when someone does not notice of the effort we have put in. The currency here is emotion and expectation. This is an art of extreme patience (waiting for the letter to arrive) and of stillness (you can’t write a letter on a treadmill at the gym). One must sit and focus and translate the world around and within onto the page.
It is simply a matter of being honest all around. If you want to write like a 16th century nobleman from France or a Klingon during the empire of Kahless the Unforgettable or like Charles Bukowski as a type of Smurf...whatever! However, if history tells us anything, then it is that the letters of those before us, the famous and forgotten, are written in the time and of the time of the author. It is almost as if writing letters is the water of personal communication. Nothing needed but the simplest presentation.
And even if you think they are simple, they will reflect you. If you are into calligraphy, into different inks, Japanese Stationery, etc. you put it in there. This is, after all, a conversation between friends.
In letters, we entrust our personal history, not to mention our time, and send it off to someone else. They are photographs made with words that expose us within a certain moment in time. We sit and read and reread letters, pulling them out from time to time as the seasons pass and we see ourselves in what others gave us.
In the movie, “The Help” one of the characters, Aibileen Clark, had to quit school in 6th grade to help get money for her family. Her teacher, worried that her brightest pupil would never reach her potential, tells her to write something every day. She did and it worked, her inner life and perspective on matters of life growing richer and deeper with the years. The connection of mind to pen to paper always flowing.
The early part of 20th century gave birth to the amazing correspondence of three people: the Abbess Dame Laurentia McLaughlan, the museum curator Sir Sydney Cockerell, and the famous author George Bernard Shaw. From 1924 onward, the three of them wrote letters to each other and became the closest of friends. Dame McLaughlan was a cloistered nun and was often visited by Shaw and Cockerell, as it was Cockerell’s need of information from Maclaughlan about manuscripts that began their friendship.
Their writings, spanning over 25 years, only stopping upon the death of each, were so amazing that a play was written about them called by Hugh Whitemore, “The Best of Friends” and was broadcast on Masterpiece Theater after debuting in England. The entire dialogue of the play is done in excerpts from their letters to each other.
While I do not wish to say too much about it, I will say this: at one point in the play, Dame Maclaughlan is able to visit Sir Cockerell in London for an afternoon. Within that entire scene, they do not say a word. To me this whoes a point upon which this entire seminar hinges: that which we write is not which we speak. Biology shows it. History proves it.
One must not reject what technology brings, but look at what is left behind after the change. Handwritten communication is part of the legacy of humanity and we should not forget that. The letters between people have changed the course of nations. Let us keep our goals the same as those who came before us who wrote to people they cared about: to be honest, passionate, engaged, attentive, and kind.
I wish you luck in finding a great correspondence and the friendship that goes along with it. Such things are gifts, flowers in the garden of life. Some grow fast and furious, dying within the season. Others are slow and grow deep roots. So go and try. When it does not go as hoped know that nobody likes when Hope dies. Do your best to find some joy in the journey and destination of figuring out how to express yourself as best you can in the written word.
I bid you much peace, hope, and joy on your written journey.
I’ll see you in the mail....
PO Box 200
Old Bridge, NJ, 08857
(Today’s presentation was dedicated to the art critic Robert Hughes who passed away this past week.)
All original contents Copyright Michael Kovacs 2012
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