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Dear Correspondent

January 25, 2012 – 2:37 pm

Late last year I got it into my head to send out holiday cards to everyone on my dad’s side of the family. I had never done this before and indeed it’s been a running gag that we have not been able to get everyone’s addresses into one address book document. I wasn’t even sure how many people were in the family. So I looked into it. I scoured emails, dug up an old family tree my grandfather had compiled, put together a spreadsheet and started a new email thread and with everyone’s help we had it completed by Christmas. I sent everyone a card and felt good about myself for a week or two. The New Year came and went and I was still riding the high of having just communicated with everyone, so I made it my resolution to write one letter every month in 2012.

Back in the days before email I was a letter writer. The surprise and the anticipation of receiving a letter by post has always appealed to me, because a letter is intimate. It arrives at your home and waits for you to read it in the comfort of your favorite chair. It is patient. Communication in letters is not immediate, it was sent some time ago and should you wish to reply then your letter will arrive some days hence. That sense of time adds value to your shared experience as if both of you are participating in something together.

Thank You cards are nice, so are little notes that say Thinking of You–they serve a purpose, they make a statement, they are one-way streets. A letter is a story, a narrative with an invitation to reciprocate.

Today I wrote my first letter of the year. All month I’ve been telling myself to get on it, but one thing or another had yet to be decided: who do I write to first? What do I say? How weird is it going to be if someone suddenly gets a letter from me out of the blue? And shouldn’t a letter be different somehow than an email? “Hey dude, how you doing? We should totally email sometime. Later!” What’s the point of that? So clearly I had some wrinkles to iron out.

There were about a dozen candidates for the first recipient. I ruled out the idea of writing to all of them, because I figured that would subvert my goal by threatening to make each letter too similar to the one before it. So I decided to let Math solve the problem for me. I used a handy-dandy random number generator to pick a number between 1 and n-1, and then I found the corresponding entry in my address book, and voila!

I opened the letter admitting that I wanted to revive the ancient art of letter writing before the U.S. Post Office went out of business, and then I jumped right in. This first letter was short, one side of a rather small page. Short and sweet. It was over too soon, so I wrote four thank-you notes and sent those out today as well. I’m looking forward to writing my next letter and I’m even considering writing a letter a day in February.

Check your mail box. You might be on my list.

The Letter and The Spirit

February 11, 2012 – 12:01 am

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, but this past December–a month that falls, coincidentally, right before New Year’s–I resolved to write more letters to family and friends. I figured I’d write a letter a week but the first three weeks of January passed by without any letters. I wrote a letter in the forth week, and then I happened to find out about Mary Robinette Kowal‘s mission to write a letter a day in February. I thought, How hard could it be? and I decided to give it a try. I wrote about getting started here.

Since then, I’ve found it no trouble to send out a correspondence every day. Technical preparations include a favorite pen, fancy paper and envelopes, a whole bunch of Forever Stamps from the USPS, an up-to-date address book, and a rubber stamp to personalize the envelope. I have included a comment in the letters regarding my resolve to write more letters, because I assume it would be kind of strange to receive a letter out of the blue. But that comment, or caveat, is the only bit of news the letters have had in common. I haven’t written more than two letters in a day, and I’m learning that one letter is best, because I want each letter to be unique.

It’s the little things that make a letter good. A few paragraphs that detail a recent event make a good letter. If no recent events have occurred, then you can write about that. But in the absence of personal details you end up with a note, not a letter. The Thank You note is an easy thing to send: “Hey, just wanted to say thanks for a lovely evening. It was so nice meeting your gold fish. Cheers!” This basic format can be expanded, but just because it’s longer doesn’t mean it’s a letter.

A good letter will share something with the correspondent, something more than accolades. The funny thing is, letters have become so special, so precious, that we feel a bit silly writing a letter for no particular reason. If you feel this way, don’t worry. Share details, the little things are exactly what makes a letter enjoyable.

My month of letters

March 2, 2012 – 11:29 pm

Last month was the unofficial month of letters. As I’ve mentioned before, one of my goals for this year is to write more letters, so hey, Letter Month (#letterMo) sounded like a great idea. And it was.

I wrote 19 letters last month plus about 22 cards of the thank-you variety. I am not including the bulk batch of 38 announcement cards I sent out to family and friends in the middle of the month, because they all basically said the same thing. If you didn’t get one of those and you’d like to know what they said, ask me.

The difference between a letter and a card probably has more to do with how nit-picky you are rather than any really helpful metric. But since I’m nit-picky about words, then let me reiterate what I’ve learned. A good letter can be any length. It’s not about the words in the content but the content in the words. Based on this, I can say that most of my letters (cards and letters) were light content and only a few of them were substantive stories.

That’s the thing I liked best about this exercise: I started sending out little stories. They were like journal entries written to a friend. They weren’t necessarily thrilling, but these letters captured the events of the day with a start-middle-end quality that makes for an entertaining read (one hopes.)

From all that I received a whopping 3 letters in return. Each one was a treasure and excited me to a prompt reply, but still. 3 letters? Ah well. I’m not sending these out with the intention of getting anything in return.

February was a good letter writing month. Let’s see how March stacks up.