I hope all of you had as much fun as I did running around the class, talking about Rodeo Clowns getting into car accidents, and helping you make your envelopes!
Click here for my stationary.
and here for many more amazing vintage-inspired products by my wife, Christine
And, following is the handout I gave to everyone who came to the seminar. Enjoy....
Next month THE LOS ANGELES PEN SHOW!!!!!!!!!
The Art of Personal Letter Writing
Keeping it alive and well in the Digital Age
by Michael Kovacs
(Today’s lecture is dedicated to Barbara Menzel who was the first to show me the value of the handwritten word.)
Thanks to Steve Hayes for getting the ball rolling on this one.....
I The Ink Stained Circle of Desire
Over and over and over and OVER again when I did this seminar at the DC pen Show in August, all I seemed to hear from every carbon based life form with a pen was, “Oh I miss getting letters!” which was always followed by the following, “Nobody writes letters anymore.” I found this baffling as the four huge rooms were literally packed with like minds, others who found the romantic and (let’s face it) sensual joys of a beautiful writing instrument to be part of their personal cache of desires.
This desire seemed so passionate, I was wondering why there was not a booth set up where you could get a pen pal by receiving the name of another attendee of the show via a big lottery of some basic computer math system after filling out a ten question survey? Everybody wanted letters but nobody was writing letters. The equation seemed broken from both ends.
It seems that it is not simply the act of letter writing that people were longing for because, if that were the case, there would be dozens of ads for such services in pen magazines and sites dealing with those who still have a deep interest in the handwritten word. And, believe me, someone would be making an extreme dollar on it once they found the hook.
If nobody gives, nobody can receive. But it is MORE than just the receiving of some handwritten linguistic parcel. One must be introduced to the personal letter. Obviously, most of us, if not all, have been.
In today’s world, we tend to believe that the internet has killed off the letter. We pine for the letters of our youth.... where we had the telephone. But there were people who felt that the telephone (and even television) destroyed the letter. In Mary Owens Crowther’s 1922 book, “How to Write Letters” she states that: “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.....” ) It seems we are all about three hundred years too late. A trade off, I guess, for antibiotics and cable TV.
Face it, there is more to this letter writing thing than just corresponding with a random stranger who we hope is not Travis Bickle or Hannibal Lecter just to have us eagerly await their reply of a few paragraphs in Spencerian script on Swedish stationary with white lines instead of black while using the Loiminchay $250,000 Jade Fountain Pen. It is, and I hate to say this at a pen convention, only partly about the mechanics. If one were to decide to correspond with a visual artist and exchange art as a medium of communication instead of language, then that would be a different animal than I am able to discuss here.
Those of us who know the connection that can (but alas, not always) be made with the written word KNOW what it means and this is something that cannot be translated to the uninitiated. In this digital age, the last thing one has is patience in the exchange of ideas. I find it somewhat Quixotic to try to convince someone that it is better to wait up to three weeks to hear back from someone within the age of text.
Why should they wait? Why should ANY of us wait? Which one of us, and please be honest here, has gone to our mailbox or PO box, looked inside, found it totally void of any personal communication and went, “YES! THIS DISAPPOINTMENT IS SO MUCH BETTER THAN E-MAIL!!! I love having my hopes crushed for the next 24 to 48 hours!! Texting is for LOSERS!”
No. Just plain and simple, no.
We wish we could hear back from the person, oh, say, what? six minutes after we drop the letter off in the mailbox like some Hallmark movie of the week? This is why the other forms of communication were invented, to have the desire (and need) come true. personally, I am very glad that my doctor can get my x-rays e-mailed to him from a state away.
But we must admit that we are both living within the need of instant technology but also within the desire of what it simply cannot bring: absolute analogue linguistic intimacy.
That is not to say that the digital medium cannot transport the soul to other souls and minds to other minds. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, the entire Tolkien Canon, 50 Shades of Grey, and the Bible, but to name a few, are all selling quite well on the new digital platforms. We must then face the facts: our language and imagination are deeper than our transportation system.
II Digital Dust and the Human Fingerprint
For the record, I have received amazing emails. I courted my wife with the help of emails. The digital medium can be used with glorious results. However, the basic egalitarian nature of digital communication means that everyone becomes anonymous through the delivery system. If five people texted you the greeting, “Hello my Friend.” and you did not see the caller ID, they would all look the same. If this same batch were to have written the same message, you would see radical traits of individuality between them.
The personal letter is the unique emotional communicative fingerprint for each of us. In letter writing , we expose a deep part of ourselves that we cannot do in any other way. However, we only know this because we have done it.
The celebrated poet Charles Bukowski said, “As the spirit wanes, the form appears.” It is for this reason that I refuse to ascribe to any absolute form or construction of letter writing. I never write out of necessity, but only out of desire. I put boxes of perfume in shipping boxes while working an assembly line out of necessity. If one has nothing interesting or intimate to say, one could allow some form to take over and give them a direction that they do not have. While Bukowski meant this for artistic expression, it follows through for the intimate artistic communication of the personal letter.
A great personal letter is like a great piece of Music, Visual Art, cinema, dance, fiction, etc. For a moment, it transports us to another place, to be more specific, it gives us both the eyes and thoughts of the one writing us. Period. We are no longer in our roach infested apartment or the emergency room waiting for the test results of people we love or on a train (or plane) heading somewhere we dread going to. No, within the words of the other’s letter we are with the author at a cafe in Algiers, the bars of Spain, the beaches of Israel, in the battleship or on the battlefield, or simply in a quiet room in a small apartment in Paris. Their words take us there for that short time.
We must always remember that we should share our world, both inner and outer, with those we write letters to so that we become engaged. Those who say, “There is nothing to write about.” are the same people who would say, “There’s nothing to eat.” while standing in the middle of a supermarket. Granted, this is not to say that each letter should an Aristotelian outpouring of observation like Marcel Proust and James Joyce on a cocaine binge.
We must do a dance, respecting the space and direction that the other is allowing to give and be careful to not cross those boundaries. This is, after all, a conversation in slow motion. Just because someone starts talking to you at a coffee shop does not mean that, five minutes later, you are either asking them the most intimate details of their love life OR telling them all of your childhood and adolescent traumas in the most graphic details. Communication is a dance not chainsaw juggling Sumo Wrestlers.
III So a few Suggestions...BECAUSE THERE ARE NO RULES!
The form of the personal letter is basically composed of the answer to any questions posed in the letter received, and any news you desire to share that may or may not pertain to what has been previously said. How you do this is , to me, entirely up to you. Want to send your letter in ancient Icelandic via a collage of Engelbert Humperdinck lyrics? Go ahead. Want to write a letter in poetry form where every lines start with one letter of every member of the metal band Metallica? Impressive.
According to my memory and the memory of my friends, I have written letters in the form of: sitcom scripts, 15 page travel journals, three words typed on an Autumn leaf, free verse poems, and movie reviews (of the absurd comedy of my life).
About 16 years ago, tired of relying on Hallmark and others for stationary makers, I started making my own using a photocopier and old pictures found at my late grandmother’s house. I simply wanted to have some visual that corresponded to the words I was putting on the page. Oh sure, sometimes cows on motorcycles CAN reflect the existential angst of a struggling musician, but not always. If you feel the need to make the visual of what you are writing on reflect your words, search the web for more interesting stationery or collage ideas. You have nothing to lose.
Well, here are a few suggestions for writing a personal letter:
1) PLEASE PUT THE DATE SOMEWHERE IN THE BEGINNING! (upper right or left corner)
2) PLEASE PUT PAGE NUMBERS!! THIS REALLY HELPS!!!!!!! Your letter will be put into pockets, into bags and carried around like a talisman and pages will get out of order or misplaced. Numbers please.
3) Your intro is key. “Dear” “Dearest” “My Dear......” are good. The “Dear” nuances the next word. But, again, there are no rules. “Hey, Kind Friend....” is something I have used. “To the last Sane Person I have Left in My Life” has also been up there in use. If you wish to be formal, please feel free to do so.
4) Okay, this next part is interesting, In Japanese business letters, after the salutation (Dear Mr./Ms./Your Highness Blah Bloo Blah) they present a comment about the season that the recipient of the letter is experiencing, such as “It is Spring and I hope that the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.” or something like that. THEN, they proceed with the content. In today’s class, I am presenting the idea of placing a quote of your picking to put in that spot. Song lyrics are also pretty amazing to put here. Like the first 15 seconds of a stand-up comedians act, you are setting the stage for whatever may come next, and that is crucial. You can use this as a jumping off part for a later part of the letter.
So I’m hanging out in a coffee shop in Minneapolis one December night with a little person ( a man who had the condition known as dwarfism) and a friend who was in Timothy Leary’s Harvard LSD experiments (as well as being in Ornette Coleman’s band), when a woman in her 20’s next to me goes, ‘I know this place with the strangest open mic night I have ever seen.’ I am officially at full attention with eyes wide open.” - Michael Kovacs “Not the Yearbook You Expected”
5) Next, please be sure to say hello and mention the last letter you received from them right up front. This may not seem like a big deal, but if they gave you some critical information in the last letter they sent, it may make them wonder what is going on. (“Gee, I wonder why they didn’t say anything about the whole poodle/Iguana/Homeless person incident?” or “Well, I THINK I mentioned something about me having coffee with that guy who was in Timothy Leary’s acid experiments?”) They will know right out of the gate what information you have. You don’t need to mention anything specific, JUST ASSURE THEM THAT THE VORTEX OF THE POSTAL SYSTEM DID NOT EAT THEIR PRECIOUS WORDS!
6) While you’re at it, thank them for the letter, postcard, gift, whatever. In this world, you should never ever take anything for granted.
Thank you so much for your letter (2/29). It arrived like a flower on the desert. I plucked it out of the mailbox, put it in my pocket, and read it several times while waiting to get on the plane.
7) It is probably a good idea to just get the ball rolling (no pun intended) by just saying where you are and what is going on. Again, you do not need to go into Proustian detail about everything, but just say where you are what is going on, what time it is, etc. This leads into your day so far, what you are eating, and so on. Anything that catches your fancy from the last time they wrote you is fair game.
So I am writing you this from the Motel 777 outside Minneapolis. How cold is it? I think my face literally froze solid and fell off my skull when I was walking to the rental car. Seriously.
8) Okay, now may be a good idea to talk about something they wrote to you about. You may want to move this up to #7 if there is tragic or life altering news going on. (It would be in very bad form to end the letter by going, “PS:Oh, yes, sorry to hear that you are in the hospital after that clown car accident. Maybe the arm will grow back! Feel Better!!!” ) If you think they want to talk about it a good deal, write a lot. If not, approach with caution, but DO approach.
Thank you for giving your new pet my middle name, but is having a pet armadillo legal? I think they have been known to carry plague.
9) And here is the new thing to try: Talk about the quote you put in the beginning of the letter. Like Chekhov’s Gun, one should not introduce a seemingly random quote at the beginning of a letter and not have it woven into the fabric of the conversation. It can be something you have been meditating on, something you just heard that has tripped a memory between the both of you, or maybe is something you always wanted to say to the other person never could the right way.
So why the quote at the beginning of the letter? Well,.... it made me think of you. No, seriously. The situations I get myself into, that fall into my lap when I least expect it.
Remember the time we went to South Street and went into that New Age store, what was that, twenty years ago?! But that quote reminded me of that store and that TRIPPY GUY who used to be the cashier there! Do you remember that? AND ZIPPERHEADS!! Z-I-P-P-E-R-H-E-A-D-S!!!!!!! MANIC PANIC!!!!!!!!
How long has it been? Do you realize we have been friends for most of our lives. That’s amazing, isn’t it? So, if I never did so before, thanks for inviting me that time to be with you. I have never forgotten that day or how hard you laughed when I spilled my entire chocolate shake on my pants and shoes just before we got on the train to come home.....
And there you go. Let the quote unlock or uncover something. You could go on a deep meditation about the quote (as my wonderful friend Ilana can tell you.)
10) Bringing the plane in for a smooth landing. Give yourself at least a paragraph to bring the letter to a close. Writing endings are tough, but it makes sense to throw in a few things that you will be doing in the future after the letter is concluded.
I am so sorry, but I am so exhausted right now that I cannot even hold my pen. (My epic Jade Loiminchay Nine Dragons dip pen! I showed it off to the guy at the desk downstairs with a bunch of guys checking it out as well. COOL! Maybe they’ll come by later and check it out! Unlikely, they sound like they are doing an aerobics class next door. Kinda late for Zoomba, but whatever.)
11) Thank them again for taking the time to write and what you mean to them.
Thank you again for the letter. Your words always make me feel better. Thou art priceless.
12) The closure: this one is up to you. “Sincerely” is pretty stiff sounding while “Love” can spin more ways than Gary Busey trying to step off a bar stool. This one line is the big closure to the letter and gives context to it. Unless you want you letter to end up like the ending of the movie The Usual Suspects”, keep the Emotional groove you have flowing.
“With All Within”
“Upon All You Have Given Me”
“Within the Shade of Your Friendship”
and the like also work.
Even more random Example:
Thank you for simply being someone I can really talk to.
May your day be full of the joy you brought into my life with your words.
I am yours always,
You don’t have PROVE anything in a letter. This is not emotional and verbal squat thrusting. Just be honest.
V Concluding Rite
There is not enough time or space to even begin to cover in decent detail the art of stationery and envelope making. A basic internet search brings up many resources. Personally, I would suggest that if you do decide to take a basic collage or art course, only take enough to be able to figure out how to use the materials well. Unless you wish to become a graphic designer or professional visual artist, there is most likely no need. Your words and sincerity will carry you. While people have sent me some beautiful envelopes and stationary over the years, it is the content I remember the most.
Also, as far as improvement in writing skills for letter writing, perhaps a creative writing course can be of help. If you do not have the time and/or money for that, there is another option that may help. The author Hunter S. Thompson copied the entire novel “The Great Gatsby” because he “wanted to know what it felt like to write a great novel”. That may sound strange, but this practice has been around for hundreds of years (if not more). The composer Philip Glass said that he first began to learn orchestration from copying music scores note for note. Don’t laugh, there is something to it.
Also, don’t discount sending a soundtrack for your letter. My great friend Mark used to send me letters with mix tapes that I STILL listen to. I think my friend Ilana has 90% of my music collection via all the CDs I have sent her. With iTunes it is almost effortless to put a few songs onto a disc and mail it off with the letter. Or, if you don’t have a CD burner, you could make the compilation and send it off to the person online (via drop box or playlist) and ask them to open it when they get the letter. Where there is a will, there is a way.
Letter writing is a lost art, but I do not believe that it will ever totally die. As technology gets easier and easier to use and adapt to every moment of our lives, the personal letter will become less used the primary form of communication. But it may even survive the Singularity. The human desire to make the invisible within into a tangible, external reality dates back to the first cave paintings about 40,000 years ago. It seems this is a part of us.
All over the internet there are people that ask for others to write letters, sometimes strangers. The rise of the digital communication tide has washed up non-negotiable needs onto the shores. The need for deep and passionate communication within a concrete form has a weight that we, the writer, may never know because we give them to another person. It is when the importance of what we have given comes to light that can be a moment of humbling revelation.
Many years ago, I wrote many letters to my friend Chris. While we would talk on the phone a great deal, we would always write letters. Years later after Chris was off at college, I was in town and stopped by the house and spoke to her mother. I was floored when I was told the following: when Chris was about to leave to move up to college, she bolted out of the car ran upstairs, and came down with a box. Chris’ mom asked, “Why did you forget that was so important?”
“Mike’s letters.” she replied and walked calmly back to the car.
From that moment on I never looked at letters the same. We can only see the value of the words that we receive and not what we give. So keep giving, keep writing, keep pushing yourself to keep the connection between yourself and the page. Always remember that nobody HAS to write you back. It is a gift and respect it as such.
Alas, you will write and not get replies, you will spill your soul and get back questions about the weather. In the end, this is, like any friendship, a two way street. But any gardener can tell you that things can bloom without notice and wilt without any fault of hand. Such it is with letter writing.
Dame Laurentia McLachlan corresponded with the author George Bernard Shaw and the museum curator Sir Sidney Cockrell for over 25 years, only stopping upon their deaths. In the epistolary play about this friendship by Hugh Whitemore, she says, “Friendship, true friendship, is a true gift from God.”
Thanks for taking the time to come to this seminar and read this thing. Be good to each other and God bless.
Michael Kovacs 1/7/2013
PO Box 200
Old Bridge, NJ 08857