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Writing Letters

December 30, 2008

This summer, inspired by a couple of friends, and in the spirit of making things with my own hands, I started writing letters.  When was the last time you wrote one of those?  I hadn’t done it for as long as I could remember — maybe since summer camp — but the process immediately clicked with me.  An expression of love, a mode of communication, artistic playtime, and an excuse to buy stamps.  There’s a sense of accomplishment, intrigue and nostalgia when you slip an envelope into the mailbox.

From the beginning I was very ambitious.  I had read somewhere that Einstein wrote an average of one letter per day.  I aimed to write one per week.  I wanted to decorate them with stamps and stickers, illustrate them with pencil drawings — the whole works. I dutifully studied the advice (sage and often uproarious, if a bit anachronistic) of Lewis Carroll, who, for instance, offers guidance on how to begin a letter:

If the Letter is to be in answer to another, begin by getting out that other letter and reading it through, in order to refresh your memory, as to what it is you have to answer, and as to your correspondent’s present address (otherwise you will be sending your letter to his regular address in London, though he has been careful in writing to give you his Torquay address in full).

Next, Address and Stamp the Envelope. “What! Before writing the Letter?” Most certainly. And I’ll tell you what will happen if you don’t. You will go on writing till the last moment, and, just in the middle of the last sentence, you will become aware that “time’s up!” Then comes the hurried wind-up–the wildly-scrawled signature–the hastily-fastened envelope, which comes open in the post–the address, a mere hieroglyphic–the horrible discovery that you’ve forgotten to replenish your Stamp-Case–the frantic appeal, to every one in the house, to lend you a Stamp–the headlong rush to the Post Office, arriving, hot and gasping, just after the box has closed–and finally, a week afterwards, the return of the Letter, from the Dead-Letter Office, marked “address illegible”!

Next, put your own address, in full, at the top of the note-sheet. It is an aggravating thing–I speak from bitter experience–when a friend, staying at some new address, heads his letter “Dover”, simply, assuming that you can get the rest of the address from his previous letter, which perhaps you have destroyed.

Next, put the date in full. It is another aggravating thing, when you wish, years afterwards, to arrange a series of letters, to find them dated “Feb. 17”, “Aug. 2”, without any year to guide you as to which comes first. And never, never, dear Madam (N.B. this remark is addressed to ladies only: no man would ever do such a thing), put “Wednesday”, simply, as the date!

“That way madness lies.”

To my credit, I did manage to avoid insanity.  Still, after three or four fancy eight-pagers (and a care package, once, when I was really inspired), I decided it was time to explore the world of notecards.  No less personal, just as charming, and easier on the wrist.

Every now and then, though, I break out the stationery and inkpen.  I have even graduated to composing right on the page, rather than typing it out and then copying by hand.  (Cue laugh from Emily B.)  The process, for me, is like cooking for friends: calming, creative, enormously gratifying.  Not a big deal if you screw up, either — they will love it, and you, anyway.  And you can always make more.

Yesterday I went to one of my favorite cafes and replied to a splendid letter from my Aunt Linda in Maryland, which described in hilarious detail how she and Uncle John were jokingly considering bypassing subway and surface-street traffic by biking to the inauguration.  (My aunt and uncle are amazing, but cyclists they are not.)  Writing back to her felt strangely self-conscious or performative, but in a good way — like, “Now I am strengthening family ties.”  Groovy.

So if you’re looking for a new hobby, or missing faraway friends, or, like me, greedy for any opportunity to use block-letter stamps, you might try penning a letter or two.  Go crazy; make it an adventure.  My one piece of advice: don’t worry about whether folks write you back, just enjoy the doing.

Cafe Andala, a treasure down the block

Cafe Andala, a treasure down the block from our apartment

Bittersweet to be so cozy, writing a letter to an aunt, in a Palestinian cafe.  My best wishes to Sammy, the other workers at Andala, and their families.

Bittersweet to be so cozy, writing a letter to an aunt, in a Palestinian cafe. My best wishes to Sammy, the other workers at Andala, and their families.

Cardamom tea.  Go 'head, set the mood.

Cardamom tea. Go 'head, set the mood.

Why do it for the paper, when you can do it on the paper?

Why do it for the paper when you can do it ON the paper?

I like stamping the date so it's the first thing they see when they open the envelope.

I like stamping the date so it's the first thing they see when they open the envelope. Hee.

Got myself a handsome address book.

Got myself a handsome address book.

Found some fine Black Cinema postage stamps

Found some fine Black Cinema postage stamps

All done.
6 Comments leave one →
  1. bohemiankitsch permalink
    December 30, 2008 12:58 pm

    you have a way of writing that’s soft and beautiful. no wounds in your words. and your skill with the camera is a little intimidating. but inspiring!

  2. ei powell permalink
    December 30, 2008 1:04 pm

    ei powell
    784 greene ave
    brooklyn, ny 11221

    i’ll expect a letter soon
    (very soon, because i’m moving out of that address by jan 15)
    ;)

  3. December 30, 2008 11:33 pm

    haha, bk, i have a feeling that your eye + a camera would = unparalleled magic.

    ei, you’re on! :D

    anyone else wants a letter, let me know — it’ll make my day to write you one.

  4. vanessa permalink
    January 19, 2009 2:30 pm

    i want one!! and this is so crazy bc i’m into writing letters right now too! and have been looking for pen pals! and am moving to europe too! so basically we’re like the same people.

    (and i can’t believe that you never told me about this blog! you know how much i like to be that sketchball and read every post within four hours of publication and never comment, hahah).

  5. February 1, 2009 10:01 am

    ‘Nester! You got it. Do I have your current address?

    You’re right — you should’ve been the first person I told. I am a shy thing, I’m sorry. :->)

    Loving you and channeling your traveling greatness on my way to españa,
    k8e

  6. Ryan "The Fish" Sturges permalink
    August 21, 2009 12:56 pm

    Best letters I’ve ever received, bar none. Key: stamps.

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