Saturday, August 10, 2013

Handout for DC Seminar August 10, 2013

The Art of Personal Letter Writing
 Keeping it Alive and well in the Digital Age
by Michael Kovacs
(This  seminar is dedicated to my dear friend and fellow letter writer Theresa Clark.)

(NOTE:Thank you very much for coming to this seminar. We will be exploring personal letter writing, NOT romantic letter writing. If you want to apply the techniques and suggestions here, that is great. I just want to state that here so as not to disappoint anyone.)

Poor tools require better skills” (Marcel Duchamp).

One could start by saying something like:

Since the start of the mechanical reproduction of written language and art, all communication has become more and more an indirect process. The culmination of this is the present digital  age where all forms of communication have been reduced to the absolute uniformity ( and by proxy, anonymity ) to all written (read “typed”) correspondence. When a  form of communication, once intimate and individual, becomes monochromatic, immediate, and without any value, what is left is a simulacrum of an experience which no longer contains the true essence of what it was created for and can offer. (i.e. The stunning reality of people playing sports using a video game console versus the act of actually playing the sport.)

Well, you COULD start it off like that.......

Hello and thank you for coming to the Seminar on the art of letter writing. In this brief session we shall go over the basic parts of letter writing and hopefully write a letter  during the session.  Please note that the handout you have covers more ground than will be discussed today simply due to time.

Why are you here? Why are you reading this? Why aren’t you texting? Calling? Putting a picture of this page on Tumblr? For the sake of all things mauve, COMMENT ON THIS CLASS ON TWITTER!!!!!!!!!!!! #ink_kills_machines or #nib_revolution_matrix

We are living in an age where almost everyone is communicating ALL of the time. It seems to me that every gas station attendant, mini mart employee, coffee shop patron  and every person from age 15 to 30 has their head buried in their smartphone at all times.

Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/and every other social media site has updates happen at the speed of light and everyone is sharing their thoughts with everyone else, much of the time with absolute strangers. Judging by this observation, it can be easily stated that what everyone seems to be craving is someone to listen to them and someone to reply to them. This need to communicate goes deep. How deep? Well...

I Describing the History of Water to a Fish

If you are reading this than you are in either one of two camps: You are already a letter writer and want to gain a new insight into the art form, or you have never written a letter and wish to know how to do so. Both approaches have the same question at their core: What exactly IS a personal letter?

The personal letter is a form of written communication between two (or perhaps, but rarely  more) parties where a non- verbal monologue (?) is transcribed into written form and entrusted to its recipient(s). But if communication is need or desire to express thought, then the beginnings of the letter predate language.,

The oldest known cave art comes from the Cave of El Castillo in northern Spain, and may be more than 40,000 years old. The drive to make what is internal external, therefore, is at least as old as the Neanderthal era.

Scientists too have shown that writing, not typing, uses a different part of our brain. 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. Also, in the field of psychology, therapeutic letter writing is used to help people deal with certain traumas. The voice within needs the letter to be heard and validated.

While it would be silly to say that texting, calling, emailing, posting on the many social network sites is NOT communication, it should then be said that the act of letter writing produces a UNIQUE form of communication. As stated before, linguistic digital communication is (at least at present) without any personal characteristics other than perhaps unique language manipulation. The personal letter (or note or postcard for that matter) all have the human touch involved, that unique expression of ourselves.

We communicate, we transcribe the inner monologue we have, because we cannot help ourselves. Without going into anything too deep, all of nature (birds, bees, plants, animals, and even a chosen few reality television show stars) communicate outside of themselves and to each other. Written language, that amazing attribute to humanity, is something we should never take for granted and use to its fullest potential.

II So, Mr. Lecture Guy, what makes a great letter?

When I was giving this seminar earlier this year, I asked the group to remember the most amazing letter they got, the one that just knocked their socks off. Much to my sorrow, the crew of people in their 20’s looked back at me blankly and said, “No. Sorry. I never received a letter like that/” AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
Okay, that is very bad, though in thinking about it, was not surprising, Those raised in the digital age are perhaps the only generation in hundreds of years to not receive physical mail. So, we must get down to the base line and ask: What does make a great letter?

A personal letter is NOT a monologue! If you are filling up two legal pads of single spaced writing and mailing it off to someone every few days, you are most likely NOT going to get a reply. We all have that one person we know where, when we get a call from them or meet up with them by accident say, at the taxidermy clearance sale,  they just talk and talk and talk a..... and within three minutes you have officially turned off all receptors of language and start envisioning them as a life size twinkie. You may really care about them, but you get really angry because you cannot get a word in edgewise. This is not to say we all don’t call on a friend when there is a crisis to listen to us or do that for those we care for. I am saying that the same rules that apply to letters applies to the art of conversation.

And what is one of the biggest rules of conversation: LISTENING. IF you receive a letter from a friend and they confide in you  about how they are in a financial crisis due to medical bills due to chemotherapy, it may be bad form to totally ignore that and say what a bad week you had because you could not get the new iPhone or could not sleep because the movie “Ernest Goes to Ancient Rome” was a let down. If they shared something with you, comment on it.

Then again, for those who do not have a major crisis every other nanosecond like I do, questions can be proposed on common interest, a common passion on life, hopes, dreams, etc.

I have been blessed to have been part of quite a few amazing conversations, both in voice and through letters. I thought I was all alone in this but was so relieved to read Christopher Hitchens say in his last book “Mortality”

“A conversation is the only human equivalent,  the realizing that decent points are being made and understood, that irony is in play as is elaboration,  That a dull or obvious remark would be almost physically harmful.”

Granted, these magical moments do not happen all the time, but one must feed the soil of friendship with consideration, acts of kindness and selflessness, and honesty. Therefore your letters in content will most likely vary with who you are writing. An obvious point to be sure, but one that should not be overlooked.

And finally, I am getting a bit cranky at those who say this to me all the time: “Oh I miss getting letters but nobody writes them anymore.” and two “There is just no time.” Both rest on the fact that somene needs to start writing letters for the conversation to begin.

If you miss getting letters, you must ask the next question, “When was the last time I wrote a letter?” You will not GET one unless you WRITE one. And before you start screaming about how you never get replies, I have news for you,  Hemingway used to complain about the same thing! H-E-M-I-N-G-W-A-Y!! So let’s just admit that we enter into letter writing with the reality that not everyone will write us back. Sad and disappointing, but true.

As for the “No TIME” issue, I will state the following: you cannot allow expectation and imagination get in the way of doing something. You may not have time to write an eight page letter as you so much desire. Fine. You have time to write a postcard, no? And, the answer is, “Yes, I do.”

I will be the first to admit that I have sacrificed many many many many hours to the god of Google. I will want to get something done, like this handout, and the next thing I know I am on the search engine trying to find a quote then to how soap is made then to how Katharine Hepburn died to whatever happened to that girl from “Different Strokes’? And then, looking at the clock in the lower right part of the screen as it mocks me for having wasted away yet another portion of my life that I will never get back with things that I will never remember.

I have written letters while waiting for takeout food, on trains, on busses, in hospitals, and pretty much any place that has a table or simply a chair.... or just some place to sit down. I do my best to write every week. Even when I was writing my book, “Not the Yearbook You Expected” and spent hours at the keyboard, I would find it refreshing to sit down and write a friend a letter. Perhaps I am lucky in that writing is something I love. The quality of it I cannot comment on, but it is something that has carried me through the darker climbs on my existence, and the letters I would receive from friends were nothing more than a lifeline out of the darkness.

IV Enough Talk, Let’s Do This!

Okay, let me begin by saying this about the form of letter writing: THERE ARE NO RULES!

The form the letter has taken is simply out of necessity and desire. You could make up your five page letter into a jigsaw puzzle and have the recipient put it together or write it on the soles of shoes (which you can legally mail) or in Pig Esperanto in microscopic font on a Valium. You can and good luck in what will be sent back to you. (I am assuming some sort of Morse code on acrylic French toast, which you can also mail. Please, don’t ask how I know this.)

Please note: The assumptions made for the following letter are this: you already know the person and are already in some sort dialogue with them. Introductory letters that are done for pen pals and the like must start off more expository than usual (many things about yourself and even more about the person you are writing) and of a very general emotional nature.

Step one: Where and when

Please, please please put the date and where you are somewhere on the top of the page. If for nothing else it gives an organizational tool for later on as well as the setting for the scene. Writing it from a library in Dusseldorf should paint a different picture than a motel in Detroit or Camden. Even just the town will do. (Milan or Trenton... the IS a difference).The date also helps the reader know right out of the gate of the possibility of letters have crossed.

Step Two: The Salutation

We always start off our letters with “Dear” and that is fine.Is in general and does not have any huge weight or direction. The wonderful author David Rakoff used to address his emails, “Dearest....” That has such a wonderful spin to it which is no wonder as he was a brilliant writer and by all accounts a sweetheart of a guy.

“My Dear” , “My Dearest”, can obviously be followed by the persons name or nickname. “DOOOOOOD!!!” “Baby!” and “To the person who refuses to apply to infested area,.” (to quote Steve Martin)  This is an intimate conversation between you and someone else. Inside jokes are a must!

But I cannot stress enough the importance of this part of the letter. As someone who has been writing and recording Music for the past forever, the opening notes of any piece are some of the most crucial. The opening chord to the Beatles, “Hard Day’s Night”, the opening notes to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, the opening of the song “So What” by Miles Davis, and so on. This rule also applies to film and fiction. The entrance sets the tone. Use this wisely.

Step Three: The Invocation....kind of

I always suggest that after the basic hellos, you tell the other person what was the last letter you received and/or refer to the last time you were in communication. Besides giving context, it also allows the reader to know of their last letter was received. If a letter was mailed to you about how they had a car accident and lost their job and are in an emotional crisis with their relationships and all you talk about is how much fun your new meerkat's laugh is, there is going to be some emotional dissonance. Mention where you are connecting from in terms of time and information. That will help.

Step Four: Off to the Races with a Camera

If you already know what to say, fantastic. However, it may be a good idea to take a step back and tell them what is around you.  Describe the table, the coffee, the person next to you or perhaps some guy in the room wearing a strange hat who is a carrying a guitar. Whatever. You are giving the other person a movie. Set the scene. “I am at a pen show and I just got this new Pen.....”


Before you go into your dissertation about how the boss at your new job has made you love the novels of Chuck Palahniuk in a deeper fashion, talk about what THEY wrote YOU. At least for a sentence or two. You can always come back to it later. If they confided in you something important, make sure you let them know that. Remember, they did not have to write you back...


If you have nothing to say, then give them the gift of a memory or a thought or a hope.

My friend Ilana (as well as my friends Alyssa and Michael) have said that, for the most part, my letters tend to be meditations. I suppose I just start writing and, because they are such close friends, I just keep writing. The process of writing a letter places the author in a meditative state, closing out the outside world to focus only on what is within. I also find that listening to Music helps get me in the right frame of mind to write. To me it is the soundtrack to the movie I am transcribing. That being said, one can also include a CD of Music with the letter, giving them the soundtrack you had when you were writing it. While I don’t do this as much as I used to, it was de rigeur for some time.


Discuss matters of the other person. Give them advice, a kind word, Again, this is conversation between friends and not a James Joyce postal therapy session only benefitting one party;

Step Five:Place All Seats and Thoughts in their Upright Position....

Make sure you take the time to wind things down. Saying what you will be doing after you complete the letter is often quite wonderful as it keeps the story going after the words have finished. It also makes the other party feel like they are being carried with you within the silence.

Last step: Conclusionary Rites

How you conclude the letter is just as important as how one begins it. And this can get a bit tricky as how one leaves in this conversation gives context and tone to everything that preceded it. “Sincerely” and “Yours” are good and nice standard closings. “Love, “ however, well, that can spin out of control faster than Courtney Love on ice skates after a three day bender. I am not saying to avoid it, but just be careful with it.

“Yours Always” “With Hopes to Hear from You Again”, “With Deepest Gratitude and Friendship” are all good closing lines, not to mention, “Your Friend”

Just pay attention to how you end your letter. Again, there are no rules, but you are writing the closing seconds to the movie you have written. It matters. (Just watch the ending of the movie “The Graduate” or  “The Usual Suspects” if you doubt me.)

V And So...................

And so, here we are, at the theoretical end of matters. You will most likely note that I did not include any tips on stationary making in the handout. While I make my own stationery via my own methods, the advent and popularity of scrap-booking has produced a plethora of books on the subject. I am always pleased when someone buys my stationary on Zazzle as it makes me think that someone will be writing another person on my stationary.

In the end, I care more about content than presentation. Please do not get me wrong. I LOVE getting letters on amazing stationery (thank you, Sabine), I cherish the words more than the paper. Some of the most amazing letters I have gotten have been on notebook paper.

And please, do not waste any time. When you write a letter....


This artform, the personal letter, has changed the course of human history and its need and presence within human interaction remains unchanged. Never forget its power to remind others that they matter, that they are remembered. We like email, but we LOVE the letter. The email and text feed only one of the senses: sight. The letter illuminates the trifecta: sight, touch, and (if you wish, by physical presence) smell. 

I owe a great deal to those who have written to me and allowed me the honor to write to them across the years. While I have done Music, prose, fiction, non-fiction, multimedia, canvas art, and poetry, I still find the Letter to be the easiest and most joyful expressions of creativity. But it is an art form made for an audience of one.

Just today I asked someone I have written to for over twenty years what should say about letter writing. She said that my letters were meditative and honest. Perhaps it falls back on what Christopher Hitchens said that there is no greater gift than when a reader feels you are talking just to THEM. And the letter does just that. We are addressing the reader, placing before them our offering of words.

So I hope you write letters and the unique Joy that it brings. Ironically, I have sent out postcards to every person who has ever come to my seminars and have never gotten a reply. (Okay, I sent things out to all the addresses I COULD READ!  PLEASE WRITE CLEARLY ON THE MAILING LIST!!!!!)

Letter writing has been a part of my life for most of my existence. I believe it was wonderful preparation for my life in the arts, as the meditative state I get in when I write music or prose or  do visual art is the same. All of those things require the same mental state, to be disengaged from the outside world and focused on crafting from the internal desire to say something. Letter writing is not a performance art. In the end all that matters is the honesty and clarity of the word and nothing else.

But to me, the personal letter deals with the conversation that binds friendships together, that slowly built cathedral of words sent by courier. But in the end there is nothing else like it. If you get the chance, please watch the play “The Best of Friends” with Sir John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, and Patrick McGoohan. It is an epistolary play based simply on the letters of the author George Bernard Shaw, museum curator Sir Sydney Cockerell  and abbess Dame Laurentia McLachlan. The play shows the weaving of the threads that become an unbreakable rope of friendship between them all, mostly through the written word. Friendship, true friendship, is a reflection of the Divine.

Now get out there and write more letters. You are at a PEN SHOW! Strike up a conversation and see if you would like to write each other. Or go through your address book and write five people you used to write to, Or, if you are so inclined, go online and find one of the many letter writings sites where you can be connected such as the Letter Writers Alliance. Just try. The opportunities, and desire to connect using this amazing art form, are out there.

My deepest thanks to everyone at the Pen Show for allowing me to give this seminar, Steve Hayes for amazing help and getting this thing in the best shape, Laura Chandler and everyone at Pen World.
Alyssa (Just Alyssa), Michael Eppel, Ilana Stern, Marta Quinones, EIleen Leary, and Chelsea Frost for keeping the letters alive in my life, and to my wife Christine for sewing it all together with words and actions of love and support.

And thank you all for coming and taking the time to listen and write.

With Deepest Gratitude,
Michael Kovacs

PS: If you wish to be in touch, my address is:Michael Kovacs PO Box 200 Old Bridge NJ 08857
       My book “Not the Yearbook You Expected” is available for download at Amazon.
       My writing blog is and my stationary is available for sale
       on at PostModernLetters
  All original content copyright 2013 by Michael Kovacs

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