A Museum of Letters

May 28, 2014

“As long as there are postmen, life will have zest.”
— William James

Letters of Note

Letters of Note

We have lost William James’ fondness for mail deliveries, in large part because the post very rarely surprises us with a handwritten letter.  We have other ways of communicating now.   Letters are old-fashioned when telephoning, emailing, texting, and other social media tools make connecting and exchanging personal news so much quicker and efficient.

So what are those of us who love writing and receiving heartfelt communications, penned on paper, addressed on an envelope, stamped and sent off in the mail to do?  I recommend reading compilations of letters like this recent release — Letters of Note:  An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience edited by Shaun Usher.  Included are some familiar letters such as the editor of the Sun reassuring Virginia that there is indeed a Santa Claus, Rainer Maria Rilke advising a young poet, and Grace Bedell suggesting to Abraham Lincoln that he grow a beard because “all ladies like whiskers.”  But there are 122 other letters as well — heart rending, wise, funny, and truly noteworthy.

Consider this quirky letter by Robert Pirosh to various Hollywood studios asking for a screenwriting job:

“I like words.  I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady.  I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory.  I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde.  I like suave ‘V’ words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve.  I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl.  I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid.  I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon, sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words.

May I have a few with you?”

The talent exhibited in this letter is just irresistible, don’t you agree?  A good letter is like that — impossible to resist.  Holding the power to change minds and soften hearts.  I admit, after reading Ronald Reagan’s letter to his son Michael with advice on being a good husband — “You have entered into the most meaningful relationship there is in all human life.  It can be whatever you decide to make it.” — I decided that maybe there are parts of Reagan I could like after all.

How can you not admire the steadfast integrity of the singer Nick Cave, who wrote this letter to MTV declining his nomination for Best Male Artist of 1996:

“To all those at MTV,

I would like to start by thanking you for all the support you have given me over recent years and I am both grateful and flattered by the nominations that I have received for Best Male Artist.  The air play given to both the Kylie Minogue and P.J. Harvey duets from my latest album Murder Ballads has not gone unnoticed and has been greatly appreciated.  So again my sincere thanks.

Having said that, I feel that it’s necessary for me to request that my nomination for Best Male Artist be withdrawn and furthermore any awards or nominations for such awards that may arise in later years be presented to those who feel more comfortable with the competitive nature of these award ceremonies.  I myself, do not.  I have always been of the opinion that my music is unique and individual and exists beyond the realms inhabited by those who would reduce things to mere measuring.  I am in competition with no-one.

My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature.

She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves — in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition.  My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel — this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes.  My muse may spook!  May bolt!  May abandon me completely!

So once again, to the people at MTV, I appreciate the zeal and energy that was put behind my last record, I truly do and say thank you and again I say thank you but no . . . no thank you.”

Wow.  That’s a powerful letter.  I am not familiar with Nick Cave’s music, but this letter makes me want to check it out to see if it reflects the strength of its creator.

I hope these two letters from among the 125 included in Letters of Note are enough to inspire you to run to your local library to check the book out yourself.  Or, since the seeds for this book originated in a blog, you can find more inspiring letters in the Letters of Note blog archive at this link.  Usher calls his work a “book-shaped museum of letters.”  As editor, he curated a masterpiece.




There’s no excuse not to write a letter simply because you lack envelopes.  Here’s a short tutorial on how to fold a letter into a self-mailing envelope.  The end result reminds me of those overseas aerograms we used to send back in the days.

First find the exact center of the long side of your stationery and make a small crimp to mark the spot.

First find the exact center of the long side of your stationery and make a small crimp to mark the spot.

Now fold up a bottom corner so that the straight side follows an imaginary center line.  Fold down the opposite upper corner in the same manner.

Now fold up a bottom corner so that the straight side follows an imaginary center line.  (This is where the crimp marks come in handy.)   Fold down the opposite upper corner in the same manner.

Those exposed rectangular shapes are next.  Fold each in half lengthwise, in toward the straight end of the triangular shape.

Those exposed rectangular shapes are next. Fold each in half lengthwise, in toward the straight end of the triangular shape.

Fold up and fold down.

Fold up.

Fold down

Fold down

The ends fit nicely into the little triangular shapes.

The ends tuck nicely into the little triangular shapes.

I like to use stickers to keep the letter private.

I like to use stickers to keep the letter private.

Turn the letter over, address, and add stamp.  Voila!

Turn the letter over, address, and add stamp. Voila!


Today is the launch of Universal Letter Writing Week for 2014, an event sponsored by the International Society of Friendship and Goodwill.  I will make it a point to send a letter or two this week — I still correspond by snail mail with one sister and my dad — but I imagine that there will be no perceptible bump in the volume of mailed letters even with this week’s special emphasis and sponsorship.

Is the art of letter writing dead?  We hear about the perhaps insurmountable struggles of the U. S. Postal Service.  A recent article questioned its survivability due to the severe declines in letter writing and sending greeting cards and the increases in electronic bill paying, among other trends.  Will the pleasure of receiving a hand-written letter pass the way of the dodo?

I love writing and receiving letters in the mail, but even I have scaled back drastically.  So let me share with you the next best thing — a website called Letters of Note, which is devoted to celebrating “correspondence deserving of a wider audience.”  If you don’t have letters of your own to read, then read somebody else’s.

I urge you to sample Letters of Note’s best posts of 2013 at the link above.  The letters are a real treat.  My favorite is letter # 2, Kurt Vonnegut’s letter of advice to some high school students who wrote to him for a class assignment.  Here is his advice:  “Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

Will we have to look to history for the pleasures of correspondence?  How can we keep the art of letter writing alive?

“Our correspondences show us where our intimacies lie.  There is something very sensual about a letter.  The physical contact of pen to paper, the time set aside to focus thoughts, the folding of the paper into the envelope, licking it closed, addressing it, a chosen stamp, and then the release of the letter to the mailbox – are all acts of tenderness.”
— Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

Old-fashioned snail mail.  This precious letter is saved in my commonplace book.

Old-fashioned snail mail. This precious letter is saved in my commonplace book.

“More than kisses, letters mingle souls.”
— John Donne

Old-fashioned snail mail. . . these quotes remind me how soulful hand-written letters can be.  I mourn their near extinction.

Hand writing a letter means carving out a quiet space in my day; assembling the paper, envelope, stamp; choosing a favorite pen; and thinking about the recipient and how I can reach across the miles in friendship.  Letter writing is about connection and sharing an intimate piece of myself.

“For letter writing I need more than the most necessary tools: some silence and solitude.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke

Emails are okay for perfunctory communications, business, and scheduling arrangements, but something is lost when we use emails and texting for more personal communications.  As a society, we seem to accept this loss in quality and have adapted to the new normal where hand-written letters are a rarity.  It is such a shame, because writing a letter takes little in terms of money and supplies.  It’s the time that’s valuable.  And why do we so readily spend our time in frivolous ways, like watching T.V., rather than making time to write a letter to someone we love?

Snail mail is so rare that the few hand-written letters I receive are precious.  Some are definitely worth saving, like this letter from a new friend, Anne, that I pasted into my commonplace book.  I loved everything about this letter.  The first words Anne wrote were “Tuesday morning, raindrops on metal roof.”  Already she has transported me into her world.  I love her penciled printing, so clear and evenly spaced.  I love that she shared a story about a book she had read while traveling, one that she thought I would enjoy, too.  She doesn’t know me well, but she knows I like to read, and I felt like she really sees who I am.  What a gift!

And how wonderful that my moon snail shell holds these pleasant associations with snail mail.

Moon Snail Shell # 55, watercolor sketch of "snail mail"

Moon Snail Shell # 55, watercolor sketch of “snail mail”


A handwritten letter is one of life’s simple pleasures.

One hand a fist in the shape of an eye

Consider the Hands that Write this Letter
by Aracelis Girmay

Consider the hands
that write this letter.
The left palm pressed flat against the paper,
as it has done before, over my heart,
in peace or reverence
to the sea or some beautiful thing
I saw once, felt once: snow falling
like rice flung from the giants’ wedding,
or the strangest birds. & consider, then,
the right hand, & how it is a fist,
within which a sharpened utensil,
similar to the way I’ve held a spade,
match to the wick, the horse’s reins,
loping, the very fists
I’ve seen from the roads to Limay & Estelí.
For years, I have come to sit this way:
one hand open, one hand closed,
like a farmer who puts down seeds & gathers up
the food that comes from that farming.
Or, yes, it is like the way I’ve danced
with my left hand opened around a shoulder
& my right hand closed inside
of another hand. & how
I pray, I pray for this
to be my way: sweet
work alluded to in the body’s position
to its paper:
left hand, right hand
like an open eye, an eye closed:
one hand flat against the trapdoor,
the other hand knocking, knocking.


“A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues.”
     — Cicero

Thank you letter from my niece's son, age 8

I hope the art of writing thank you notes is not dead.  We live with so much abundance, I wonder if we are taking gifts too much for granted.  I grew up in a large family where money was tight.  Gifts were rare and cherished.  A hand-written thank you note is the least we can do to express our appreciation for gifts, small and large.  A note of thanks  honors both the giver and the gift.

“Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude and good company.”
     — Lord Byron

Writing to my sister at the coffee shop

The coffee shop is a perfect place for letter writing.  You share in the companionable hum of the neighborhood, but are alone enough to concentrate on writing your private thoughts onto the page.  Solitude and companionship packaged into one present.

A winter afternoon at Zoka's, my neighborhood coffee shop

A grace note -- a beautifully presented cup of coffee

Letter writing at the local coffee shop

And someone else cleans up!

“Letter writing is generally a thoughtful art.”
      — Dorie McCullough Lawson, from the preface to Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children

Stack of old letters to my sister


Family treasures, old letters


Among my personal treasures is a file of correspondence between a younger sister and me.  We are both middle children in a family of nine kids.  She was the tomboy, communing with animals and leading the younger siblings on imaginative adventures.  It wasn’t until we both finished high school that I began to see her as a kindred spirit.  I’ve always admired her fiercely independent character.

It was this independence, perhaps, that led my sister to Israel where she fell in love, married, and has lived all these years.  Our letters span October 1978 to January 1996, a period that covers my first years of marriage, my sister’s last years as a single woman, and our first years starting our own families.  We’ve communicated since then, but too rarely, and largely by e-mail or holiday cards, so there are no archives of letters for the past fifteen years.

 I’ve held on to the old letters, but I have not spent any time re-reading them.  I fear I’ll be embarrassed by my naiveté and youthful inexperience.  They may be a Pandora’s box of sorts, documenting my weaknesses and failures.  They may be boring.

Unread, they hold the potential of being treasures, glimpses of the person I used to be.  They may hold snippets of the person I continue to be.  One day I may be brave enough to reread and share them.

If this book won't inspire you to write a letter, nothing will.

The second week of January each year is National Letter Writing Week.  In honor of this occasion, I’d like to recommend that you write a letter to someone close to your heart.  If you need inspiration, check out this lovely anthology —  Posterity:  Letters of Great American to Their Children, edited by Dorie McCullough Lawson.  She says that letters “are the color, heart, and personality of history,” and this book proves her point in a delightful, highly readable way.

Dorie McCullough Lawson’s father is the noted historian and biographer, David McCullough, and in the foreword to the book he states very clearly why letters are an important part of history:

“That so few of us write to our children any longer, that we so rarely write personal letters of any sort, is a shame.  I think often of how little we will leave about ourselves and our time in our own words.  Maybe some of the e-mail will survive, but I doubt it.  How will future generations ever come to know us?  Historians and biographers a hundred or three hundred years hence will have almost nothing of a personal kind to work with.  Our story, consequently, will be a lot less interesting, less human, perhaps even impossible to write.
     Beyond that we’re denying ourselves the pleasures and benefits of putting out thoughts and feelings down in words of our own.  Nothing focuses the mind as writing.”

Even a short letter will do.  Get to it!

Addressing an envelope to my sister

Postcards purchased at Glacier National Park

Given the number of postcards for sale in gift shops, even people who do not normally write letters must still write and send postcards on their vacations.  Perhaps postcards are the Twitter of snail mail. Both accommodate only the shortest messages.

I still enjoy sending and receiving postcards.  I often buy one or two for myself as souvenirs of my trips.  I like the vintage-like art on these postcards from Glacier National Park, which was celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.