2014 L A Pen Show Letter Writing Seminar
by Michael Kovacs
Thank you for coming to my seminar and for wanting to keep the art of letter writing alive. This seminar will be different from my past seminars over the past year and a half as I would like to examine the act of writing in general as well as approaching the form of the letter itself.
1) Begin at the non-ending
We are living in the age of digital communication and that is a fact. Embrace that. Years ago I had the honor to interview the filmmaker Godfrey Reggio who has tackled technology’s presence in the modern age for the past 40 years. He has stated that we live within technology like fish within water and there is no way around it. Even if one were to move off the grid but still wish to keep in touch with others via any means outside of smoke signals or carrier pigeons raised on home grown feed.... technology is going to be there, especially in the mail system.
The personal letter can and does survive within this digital sea. Just as all motion does not always yield progress, the new limitless communication does not lead to better personal communication. With Twitter’s short writing style on the seemingly infinite rise and Instagram getting ready to eclipse even that via non-verbal communication, there would seem to be a death knell towards the long form written word.
Well, the fact that you are reading this via attending a fountain pen gathering shows that letters are very much alive. Also, I would like to add, that the act of journal writing seems to be gathering steam. Take one step back and note that the availability of self publishing has made the publication of books hit unprecedented numbers. So, let us not take our eyes off the reality that PEOPLE ARE WRITING!
2) Writing What Exactly...?
I would like here to briefly differentiate between the diary and the journal. There seems to have been an explosion of personal journal writing. The amount of these books on Amazon is staggering. I have had people at shows tell me, “No, I don’t do letters. I do journals.” making it sound as though the two were kindred spirits or something.
A journal (and let’s throw the concept of “diary” in here as well) is a transcription of one’s thoughts into one collective space that is not intended for any immediate reception of any outside party. A journal is a closed system, but I state that with a serious caveat: Some people will write journals with the absolute intent or silent hope that, at some point it time, it will be read by others, somewhere between 1 and 4,000,000 and how the movie rights are optioned.
I will confess here that I have never been able to keep a diary or journal with the exception of doing such a thing as a long form letter to a few select friends at certain points in my life. While I will not say anything against diaries or journals, I will say that they do not resonate with me.
The letter is unique because it is an act that is meant to be shared, a piece of written work that is, by definition, to have an audience, albeit a private one. This seems to be where the intersection private conversation and art connect.
If someone writes a journal for the hope that, at some point in time, the world will be exposed to one’s writings, there lacks an immediacy and marriage to the words. The journal can be read and re-read and then edited or even discarded. With the letter, while the acts of editing and discarding are possible, it is unlikely that one would do such a thing on a regular basis. The personal letter has an immediacy to it: thought to pen to paper to post office.
There was an interview on a radio show about the therapeutic uses of journaling as well as the rise of it in modern culture. It seems that we have become a society where everyone is writing down their thoughts with the hopes of having the world see it and cashing in on our views, that our personal thoughts are so well written and unique that we will all get the elusive prize of fame and fortune. My proposition is this: can anyone write down ANYTHING intimate if it is meant for the world to see? Having written a memoir and self published a memoir myself, I can say that, yes, there is an intimacy but it is not like the personal letter. Names have to be changed, certain things cannot be said due to legal concerns, things must be deleted for space, etc. There is an editing process for the memoir if nothing than simply for time.
3) And what about the letter?
If the memoir is a broad based canvas which is painted over long stretches of time, the personal letter is a snapshot.
The closest approximation to a letter is a verbal conversation, the live act of communicating with another person. While one can take classes in becoming better at the art of conversation, it is an improvisational art form that is done in real time without any real ability to control what the other is saying, and thereby the absolute path of the ___________.
Change the word “listen” to “read”. and this is the same line as the act of personal correspondence. However, it is the non-immediacy of the interaction that, strangely enough, makes it more personal if not valuable. It is almost like the interactions between characters in a play by Samuel Beckett or the guitar notes of a solo by Jeff Beck or the notes of a piece of music by Erik Satie or Arvo Part. It is the distance between things that makes the weight of each greater.
Steven King (amongst many many many others) stated that one must lock oneself away when writing and have no distractions. This makes sense as it is a conversation with the elusive Muse. However, this is also true of the letter. You can text while driving. You cannot write a letter while driving. (Trust me on this one, okay?) The intimacy comes within the silence and the focus one gives within the communication.
Letters are also physical documentation of the invisible narrative of our consciousness. In this digital age, some things MUST STILL BE PRESENTED ON PAPER. It is these things that matter: the birth certificate, the marriage license, etc. Letters give a physical weight and presence to our communication with others.
On the darker side of original presence, I recently had a beloved friend pass away after a seven month scourge of cancer. We spent over half our lives as close friends, the beginnings of which were done via letter writing. While I would write her just about every week since her diagnosis, her chosen form of communication was texting due to the chemo causing havoc with her ability to write and focus. I still have all of her texts on my phone, but the one thing that struck me was that while I could spot her writing style via the messages, her messages physically looked like everyone elses. I missed those letters of hers, the way she would write and the small ornamentations she would do on the borders, her unique handwriting, etc. While I loved hearing from her in any way possible, her stretch of presence seemed so much wider and deeper when I could hold her words in my hands. Now that she is gone, that weight is even greater.
FInally, letter writing is more intimate because it engages more of the senses, more that makes us human.Receiving the personal letter is an act that engages three of the senses (touch, taste and smell) and perhaps four if you count licking the stamp and envelope or... eating the letter. Phone calls get one sense: hearing. Texting and emailing get one, but with a diluted presence. Emails and texts are uniform, their egalitarian essence making them without uniqueness. Hence why it has more weight.
In the same way that we do not talk the same way to everyone we know, we do not write everyone we know the same way. Like each conversation, it is a delicate dance of trust and exposition, of the exchange of emotional currency. Yet each of us seems to know when we are venturing into new territory or the other has crossed a line. All welcomed communication, in any form is welcomed and embraced, affirming our humanity and presence in the cosmos, regardless of the form. However, let us not underestimate the power of engaging as many senses as possible within the experience.
4) The Form: Freedom Because No One is Looking
This seminar will not discuss the art of formal letter writing as it is far too big a subject to cover here and, for the most part, is an act of communication that is meant to meet specific needs.
The death of the personal letter, has, quite literally, been announced for the past several hundred years. As with any form or act of creation that becomes part of a culture, rules begin to be created and the form solidified until someone chooses to break from it. My view of the contemporary personal letter is that so few people are doing it, that there is no longer any required form, or to be more precise, any real expectation on the recipient’s end as to what they will be receiving. Letters between friends, jjust like conversations, take on a life and structure all their own. Poets write sections in poetry form, artists include drawings within their letters, etc.
I started to make my own stationary because I was tired of writing out the redundant existential drama of my life on stationary with cows on motorcycles on it (see the stationery maker Paper Moon for that if they still exist). I wanted the visual to match the verbal. I have written letters as scripts, short stories, and long form poetry. So this reflects my creative bend, sometimes simply as a matter of being silly and and others trying to express the darker tones. I would strongly suggest that you experiment with different approaches at some point. If someone wishes to no longer write you back because you sent them a letter stuffed within a ballet shoe, well so be it. Their loss, no?
While one cannot critique a letter for formal content (since it is not a formal document), one can examine what makes a great written work and take it from there. All great written works engage the reader, transport them to be within the words, in the page. Describing where you are and what you are doing helps set the backdrop for your letter. “I am having an amazingly bad cup of coffee” means one thing if you are at a Starbucks in New York City, another if you are at a cafe in Ecuador, and even more if you are starting your stay in a minimum security prison. So take nothing for granted to the reader.
Also, make sure you tell them that you are replying to the last thing they sent. Letters get lost in the mail and re-affirming to them that it has been received helps. Linking up to your last bit of conversation also helps as you cannot be called out for news you did not yet receive.
5) Form Follows Function
Letters, like a music score, are organized delivery systems of information. Please feel free to write your long letter in a big circle or in the shape of a piano, but know that the less direct the delivery system, the less impact your message will have. (Example: Announcing the death of your beloved sister handwritten on white paper will have a different impact that written in red crayon in the middle of a drawing of a clown’s nose from a childrens book.)
The personal letter should contain the following:
The date (and perhaps place) when you are writing it. Normally in either the upper right or left hand corner of the page.
A salutation: This is the opening of the film, the first measure of the song, the tone setter. “Dear....” is the ultimate neutral opening, the khaki pants/saltine cracker/Lionel Richie of openings. You can go anywhere from here. “Dearest...” has weight. “My Pookie Headed Yum Yum” well, you can take it from there. Just make sure you do not take this first step for granted.
The Introduction: This is the jump out of the gate and where you lay down what is about to happen and link conversations. The same way you would ask a friend when meeting them how they are and ask a few questions about THEIR life, you may want to start this the same way. Please mention the last letter you received here. That way they know and and can relax.
The Body of the Letter:: If you have not done so already, please say where you are writing from here. Above all else, just let the words happen and do not try to think too much. I cannot stress this enough. You may sit down thinking you are going to write about something but go to something else entirely when you are in the act of writing. This is one of the greatest gifts I have found about writing letters. You just let go and see what happens. You may wind up writing it like a script, a recipe, a movie review, a poem, etc.
Summation/Stepping towards the door: Make sure you make a nice exit from your narrative. Like it or not, you ARE telling a story and, unless you want the letter to end like Magnolia or The Quest for the Holy Grail, take a few sentences to wrap things up. Wishing the other person well here, even if it is for the second time, is a nice touch here. Saying what you will be doing after you are immediately done writing helps give a sense that the narrative continues even within the silence of the end.
Endings: Keith Moon, the drummer from the Who, said that all anyone ever remembers is your entrance and your exit. So make you exit count. Why? It gives context to everything you wrote before it! “Sincerely” is the Tom Hanks of endings, perfect for all occasions. “Yours,....” is good, a tad more personal (like Ray Romano?) “Always....” is good.
Be careful of “Love...” as that can be perfect (like Anderson Cooper) or spin a million ways if you are unsure of anything you wish to express (like Kathy Griffin). So please pay attention to how you use this and, like your intro, do not take it for granted.
6) A Few Random Thoughts
I am, for the most part, a musician and composer. My approach to the letter is the same as to what musicians call “jamming” where you just get into a room and start playing and see what happens. Some bands jam live for forever on stage such as The Grateful Dead, Phish, Dave Matthews Band, and Charlie Sheen. I am not in the habit of re-writing letters as I like the fact that they are an instant art form, like a photograph. To me, the greatest moment is to write the perfect letter, to have it ride within a perfect arc of flow within the moment.
Also, the hardest part about writing a letter, if not for ANY writing, is to JUST SAY IT. So please try to do your best to just say what it is you want to. Be careful not to cross the line, but be sure to say what you need to. Hemingway used to write personal letters after he stopped writing for the day or when he got into a spot where he couldn’t write anymore. He also said that he wanted people to write him back more. People, if Hemingway did not have people writing him back all the time, I think we need to realize that we will not get as many letters back as we hope either.
F Scott Fitzgerald’s personal letters go for huge amounts of money these days. I am not sure that the same will be said of the emails of today’s authors. There is certain value to letters that we cannot really ever figure out. And that is a good thing.
Also, please note that you need to write letters in order to get letters. Patience is the name of the game when it comes to letter writing.
If someone told you twenty years ago you would be spending hours a day staring at a computer screen, you would have told them that they were insane as you do not have hours of free time to spare. If someone said twenty years ago you would be spending an extra $50 or more a month on a cell phone, you would have said not a chance, I do not have that kind of money to spare. We now know where the road has led, don’t we.
Letter writing is like going to the gym or eating better: you just have to do it. Always you will not get a personal letter if you do not write a letter first. Get out there and do it. Just do it. A stamp is only forty nine cents. So get out there and do it! Write!
Thank you for your time in coming to this. I hope you had a great time. If you wish to be in touch, please feel free to do so.
PO Box 200
Old Bridge, NJ 08857 or (gasp) email: firstname.lastname@example.org
PS: It is dedicated to my dear friend who I wrote to for over half my life, Theresa Clark, who passed away last year.
All original contents copyright Michael Kovacs 2014.