Tag Archives: musings

On letters

My current book is a real treat, containing as it does almost a whole (fictional) 19th century correspondence between two poets and dynamic thinkers—hidden, of course, under the dolls’ bed in a dusty abandoned room in a musty grand old house where one of the two lived out her days in seclusion and was laid in the ground.

The scholars who study the lives and works of these two poets, a worldly married man and a reclusive single women, at one point secure permission to read the letters in the bitterly cold library of the dilapidated house. I particularly enjoyed this passage, from the point of view of the scholar on the worldly married man:

Letters, Roland discovered, are a form of narrative that envisages no outcome, no closure. His was a time of the dominance of narrative theories. Letters tell no story, because they do not know, from line to line, where they are going. If Maud had been less coldly hostile he would have pointed this out to her—as a matter of general interest—but she did not look up to meet his eye.

Letters, finally, exclude not only the reader as co-writer, or predictor, or guesser, but they exclude the reader as reader; they are written, if they are true letters, for a reader.

Isn’t that an interesting perspective? The letters included in this story—and such beautiful letters they are!—certainly fit this idea of letter writing. They are expressive, they are intensely personal and thoughtful…they begin with vague purpose and let the pen shape ideas and feelings.

I would eventually like to write like this.

Often I make drafts of letters, especially my most important or longest ones. They are sometimes written on scrap paper, but most are typed in Gmail and then changed a bit more when I commit them to paper. My mindset when I type is as though I do indeed have a pen in hand, but I must admit that the ability to easily revise and reestablish tone does steal some of the spiritedness of my letters even as it polishes them. I always like the finished products of these drafts because they say what I mean in my truest voice, I believe in them, and they carry a disproportionate investment of my time and care with them to someone else. They really are a gift.

Many other times I write quickly and disjointedly, with much redundancy and at the expense of eloquence and sophistication. The letters I begin without pausing to sketch a mental outline are the ones I like least upon rereading. Sometimes they are produced through lack of time on a busy day, or lack of inspiration when the world seems colorless, or perhaps because I need to finish my letter for the day so I can close my eyes before the sky begins to lighten. Yes, the days that this project is a chore are sad days for my recipients—luckily they are fewer and farther between!

The letters I like best are the ones that are written by someone else. I have a sense of what I want to share with someone and an excitement to get to it. And, strangely, as I begin to write I slip into another voice—slightly old-fashioned, with a whimsical lilt. I feel my most creative when I’m this girl, and I have the most fun! I don’t have to search for phrases or polish ideas because they blossom in my mind and flow to my hand with nary a prompt.

Does anyone else find this happen when they write letters? Is there a difference between your letter writing voice and how you speak or write emails? What is it? Why do you think it happens?

Possession, by A.S. Byatt

104. David D. -Cork City, Ireland

105. Jenny S. -Blacksburg AND PostMuse (Orphaned Postcard Project) – Pittsburgh

106. Jessica K. -Park Ridge

107. Misty D. (The Pen Thief) -Ravenna

108. Sr. Christian M. -Chicago

109. Sharon D. -Bellevue

110. my soldier in Iraq

111. Alex C. -Chicago



46. Maggie O. -Denver

47. Alex C. -Chicago

48. Marissa M. -Boston




…………………..Clearly, I’m speechless. I have so much to babble on about, but I don’t know where to begin!

Today was the most wonderful day, courtesy of two very fabulous letters that had me twitching with excitement, jumping up and down, repeatedly rereading, and so psyched to uncap my fountain pen and craft a reply. Seriously, I was quite literally squealing at certain parts of my sister’s letter and¬†laughing aloud in my empty room at the one from her awesome roommate. After hemming and hawing over today’s letter earlier this afternoon, I put that stubborn letter on hold and broke out my favorite stationery to respond to Marissa because this was a letter demanding to be written. My sister’s letter, also clamoring to be put to paper, will be done tomorrow. ¬†The only question remaining is whether I slow down to decorate the envelopes this weekend, or rush these responses to the post office so that I know they will be read sooner….

This is just what I needed. I’m going through a bit of a dry spell these days. The project, still important to me (indeed, it’s the only thing giving meaning and structure to my days these last couple of months), is beginning to seem a chore. I’m young—I don’t have a lifetime of friends, colleagues, and accumulated family to fall back on when my inspiration fails. And some days it’s just difficult to produce a letter I’m proud of even though my address book in not completely exhausted. I do write a letter, or a very crowded postcard as the case may be, but each time it happens I am reminded that I promised myself I would stop the moment the Year of Correspondence became a lasting burden.

I’m no where near there yet, thankfully, but I rely on responses to rejuvenate me after several days of struggling to do more than write variations on the same, “Hey, remember me? This is a brief overview of my life since graduation…” type of letters that are the easy norm when correspondence mostly goes one way. I need things, specific things, to latch onto and write about to keep me engaged. Sometimes those things come from the news (the Tuscan shooting or the current regime-toppling unrest in the Middle East/Africa) or a particularly interesting event (such as the first, terrifying, time I ever drove cross-county), but since the world only moves so fast and I personally don’t lead an especially interesting life, I really need a bone every now and then from my gentle recipients.

This is a project about several things, the least of which is to talk about the superficial goings-on of my life. Rather, my focus is on (in no particular order):

  • training myself to observe and evaluate the world around me
  • bringing creativity and art back into my life
  • creating history by forging a physical link to the past
  • becoming a more articulate writer and an engaging storyteller,
  • catharsis, achieved by organizing a tempest of emotion into a coherent, recognizable form, and setting it free
  • CONNECTING with people; building relationships based on thoughtful gestures, reflection, and clear, meaningful communication

By far the most important of these for me is the last one—building relationships. Receiving those amazing letters from Boston not only put me in mind to write with passion and speed, but prompted me to revisit the plethora of letter-related blogs that I have been too overwhelmed to properly sift through. There are a few I have read in full by now, including the popular 365Letters, written by Carla in TX, USA, and The Letter Writing Revolution, by Julie in Ontario, Canada.

I am going to make a greater effort to read through more blogs and take advantage of these dedicated writers (who respond!) and online mail swap communities. Perhaps, if I’m feeling ambitious, I might even do a few profile posts…

Hey there, Cupid!

43. Tiff L. -Chicago

44. Nick G. -Ann Arbor

45. the love of my life (no, really.)

A note on Valentine’s Day:

Valentine’s Day is one of those silly holidays that I used to have a much stronger opinion about when I had fewer emotions to puzzle me and a much more definitive view of the world and my place in it. These days, it doesn’t bother me so much—not like, say, Thanksgiving. (There’s a holiday I don’t get along with!) But Valentine’s Day? I think we’ve probably made our peace.

Part of the reconciliation process probably owes to the fact that I think I celebrated V-Day much differently than many people do growing up. It’s a romantic holiday, for sure, but going to a very small grammar school, where everyone one knew each other too well (and were too well supervised) to date, and then to a small girls high school, where boys were elusive and flirting with each other was the biggest source of laughter and bonding, meant that among my peers Valentine’s Day was always first about our friends. We made cards for each other. We put chocolate kisses and those terrible little hearts in each other’s lockers. “Happy Valentine’s Day!” and “Happy Single’s Awareness Day!” rang through the red-decked halls as cupids shot arrows of platonic affection into the barely-covered rears of our Catholic schoolgirl skirts…

Too much? Okay, so it probably wasn’t as idyllic as I remember, but it is mostly true—scout’s honor. Valentine’s Day has always been about friends for me and my social set. Boys weren’t a part of our lives—or anyone else’s—for the most part, and my schools promoted the holiday as one for exchanging small gifts and cards between friends. And that’s what I remember instead of any bitterness at being unattached, or resentment of other couples, or disgust at the saccharine sweetness and idiocy of couples who treat it like a precursor, or pre-requisite, for a wedding day. Valentine’s was fun!

If I’m completely honest though, I will admit that when I did consider the “true” meaning of Valentine’s Day as a kid I was very disparaging, in part because, really guys, people act incredibly stupid in service of the fat little angel boy with a boy and arrow. It’s an artificially created day: in the end, it’s not more or less significant to a relationship than the 13th or 15th. People should keep that in mind more.

And in part, I’m a very cynical person about romantic love, and lasting love in particular. Almost always have been (I remember the exact moment of clarity in in pre-k actually), and probably always will be. That said, the nature of my cynicism has undergone a radical change in the last several years as my understanding of the complexity of love has developed past the very black and white–but mostly black–outlook of my rather judgmental youth.

So in honor of growing up and realizing that I am, very occasionally, wrong about the world, my letter for today is a love letter to my likely fictional soul-mate. On the incredibly off-chance I am proven mistaken and he actually shows up, at least I’ll be prepared.