Keeping It Alive and well in the Digital Age
by Michael Kovacs 2/15/2013
The most useful and interesting letters we get here from home are from children seven or eight years old...They write simply and naturally and without strain for effect. They tell all they know, and stop.
-Mark Twain article in Grass Valley, Ca. Daily National, 12/6/1869
Allow me to address the elephant in the room. The digital revolution has made letter writing a lost art form. Such is the price one must pay for progress. And if we read the news at all, we know that the post office, the mechanism that allows this art form to exist, is in financial quicksand.
It is entirely wrong to think that, because so few people seem to write letters these days, that people are not communicating. Most likely, while reading the entire contents of this handout, someone will be e-mailing, calling, texting, updating their facebook status, or even tweeting you. The digital revolution has seemed to unlock the human desire within to communicate with one another and give it freedoms that nobody but the most creative science fiction writer could have dreamed of under a hundred years ago. In Stanley Kubrick’s movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” one of the characters pays for a video call. We now do that for free on Skype. (Okay, so we are not colonizing the moon, but we don't have to worry about that monolythe either. Give and take, I guess.)
The Hollywood paradigm I have heard is: Better, Faster, Cheaper: you can only pick two. This, to me, also applies to communication. We can now communicate practically for free to almost anywhere on the planet. With Cheaper and Faster having arisen as victors, alas, Better must be put down. And this is so obvious when one sees the rapid change in language that has developed over the past several years since texting became prevalent. The limiting of characters has made truncations of words commonplace. However, so too has the use of exchanging information that is more than just the bare bone facts and skeletal feelings of the writer.
This exchange has had another casualty as well: individuality. All texts look the same. All e-mails, with the exception of the brave few who dare to use a non-basic font, are also indistinguishable from a visual perspective. There is no human stamp. If someone steals a friend’s email account and were to write you an e-mail, there would be no way of knowing whether or not it truly WAS your friend. The same cannot be said, except by an skilled forger, of the written note or letter.
But we cannot, nor should we, desire the end of the digital revolution. It has not caused the end of the written letter, but made another option available. As far as I can tell, nobody at the Apple Store makes you check your pens at the door. Also, I am writing and editing this on a laptop using the internet. One should not bite the hand that feeds.
Perhaps it is time that we take a step back and state that the the loss of the personal letter has changed due to the fact that its FUNCTION is now believed to be diminished and perhaps not even needed. For the most part, when a commodity becomes cheaper in value, the desire to make it of better quality diminishes. One example would be that we all know fast food is not as good as home cooked healthy food, but we consume it out of function (hunger) and need (stuck within the bowels of an airport) rather than what is a better and more quality option. Since written language, once relegated to a small fraction of the population until movable type became cheaper and more effective, is omnipresent, it has little to no value (i.e. sand on the beaches, music via people making homemade recordings and giving them away, etc.).
The digital realm has made us use words as a functional, rather than expressive, tool. And this habit of communication is being dug deeper into the culture by the children learning to text pretty much as soon as they can read. They do not call each other on the phone. They text.
This would not present a problem except that they do not seem to be being instructed in the alternative of the written letter. This is not to say that the young are not diary keeping, journal writing and poetry and lyric creating, because they most always will. But all of those activities are not the essence of what a personal correspondence is...
II What is it?
The exchange of personal letters is, at its core, one thing: a conversation. It is the dialogue between two people and not a monologue. If this may seem a stretch, think about the best letter you received. Most likely it included things about yourself AND the writer, not to mention that was probably part of a dialogue that was either written or verbal (i.e. something said in a conversation and then picked up in the letter.)
When we enter into a conversation with a friend, we (hopefully) let our guard down and enter into the conversation ready to exchange freely, without judgement of what or how we speak. Does anybody enter a conversation with the internal prelude, “Yeah. I am going to talk to this person and be like Samuel Beckett or, maybe, just MAYBE, like David Foster Wallace! YEAH!” I hope not. You just enter into a conversation.
The key attribute to any great conversationalist is simple: Listen. When one simply waits and intakes what the other person is saying or trying to say, the engagement of idea can begin. If this does not happen, one gets a monologue that normally will make the most patient listener not be able to maintain focus after a certain point in time.
This is not to say that one cannot cry on the shoulder of a friend at a critical moment or tragedy or moment of need, but that should be the exception, not the rule. One must find a balance as writing to someone is a communication much like dance. Be careful how much you try to lead the other person as they can walk off the dance floor if they feel as though they are being pulled upon or used.
III How About Some Examples!
Following are some examples from my upcoming work, “A Box of Sundays” which is the correspondence between two people that know each other, but are getting in touch after a silence.
The first letter:
June 2, 1996
My deepest apologies, but....
Do you remember me?
And the reply:
June 11, 1996
DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD!!! Yes! How could I forget you?!
How did you ever get my address? Did I give it to you? Oh my (lack of) god! (Monty Python, no?)
Yes, of COURSE I remember you! How are you doing?
I’m here at college trying like mad to finish up my degree in architecture in Italy at Sapienza University. Things are hectic but the life here is so different from Minneapolis. There these things called “warmth” and “sunshine” that are as abundant here as snow and winter are in Garrison Keillor land. I love it here.
I have to run. Write me back and let me know how you are... and how you found me?
And the volley::
June 23, 1996
My Dear Rena,
Hello and thank you so much for remembering me AND for writing back so fast. I got your letter on the 19th and am finally able to write you back on the only free day I have anymore: Sunday. I had to pick up a small part time job (along with my ever secure regular one) and never seem to stop being in motion.
Italy..... could you have picked a worse place to go to college, like, say Hawaii? I have never been out of the country and can only imagine what it must be like. I should go to the library after work one morning and see what books they have of your area. Is it anything like the Fellini films? The place would seem perfect for you, full of life, love, and the realm of the senses. Are you having a good time? (Knowing you, the answer would be, “Duh, yes.”) How much longer do you have to be there? When do you graduate? Alas, I know very little about architecture other than the basics. Tell me more, if you would be so kind...
As for my life, since you asked, I will tell you. My grandmother died in May. She was ailing from cancer and, believe it or not, SHE called me and told me to come out as soon as possible. Strength was that woman’s middle name. So I told my boss that I would need some time off for a family matter and flew out. I made it in time and the funeral was held soon after. I stayed with my mother for as long as I felt she needed me and flew back. The stream of habits that are my life here were awaiting me and I stepped back into the waters to be carried along.
On the flight back, I thought of you and remembered that you gave me your address the last time we saw each other, at the party. That was a strange night, no? I am glad nobody got seriously hurt.
Just so you don’t feel like you have all the fun, it has been god forsakenly hot here the past few weeks. So WE have have the sun and warmth too! Okay, granted, you have about two millennia or so of architecture, culture, and a deep Catholic culture with even deeper lustful pagan roots. We have..... Prairie Home Companion and First Ave. Face it, you may have everything else, but here we have Husker Du, the Replacements, and Prince! Give me some more details of your life and I will write you back as soon as I can. In fact, I will drop this off at the post office at the end of Marquette Ave. tomorrow after work so that it gets to you as soon as possible.
Thank you again for writing back and remembering me.
With Hopes to hear from you soon.
Okay, so what do you notice?
The first letter was a simple request of memory and acknowledgement. There was no plea, just a simple hello.
The reply was personal and inviting, thanking the writer for taking the time to send the note and desiring more communication.
His reply was a slow exposition and a play upon their mutual knowledge of each other. It sounds like a verbal conversation between friends opening up in slow motion.
Much later on in the correspondence, things grow deeper and this letter is written:
<i>My dearest friend,
I just received your two letters and CDs 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 going to clubs. 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 Rome 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, Maria. 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 Lucia and Paolo, 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 Dianas. 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......
You can see here that the language and intensity has changed.
IV 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.
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) Bring 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 motional 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 Conclusionary 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