Tag Archives: letters

Month of Letters: Wrapping Up

The month is over, and I accomplished my task: one letter every day.  It was sometimes a struggle; I would realize it was 1 AM and I didn’t have anything, so I’d grumpily sit down and bang out an ugly postcard or something.  But often it was a pleasure to write, and to fashion an envelope–I think, though I can’t remember exactly, that I never used an actual pre-made envelope, only ones I made myself.  The two most beautiful ones, in my opinion–one which I sewed, and fastened with a button, and one which was made of black and white card-stock sort of origamied together–got returned to me, and uglified by the post office, the former with printed postage stuck on in the worst possible way, the latter covered with a bunch of unncessary tape.  In most of the letters I included a few doodles or illustrations; one of them was written on the backs of a series of watercolors of imaginary moths.

The interesting thing about writing every day, by hand, so that no record exists, is that I barely remember what I wrote in any of them; they blend together.  Normally I have a sort of spatial sense of memory, but I’m basically unable to be voluntarily creative or productive before sundown, so almost all of my letters were written in the same situation: the letter written sitting up in bed, the envelope made at my desk.  There are a couple of examples that I remember a bit better than the others: to my minister friend, I wrote about the early Christian church; to my dancer friend, about the Ballets Russes; to my historian friend, I wrote in a pastiche of Gibbon.  But what about the others?  I think I wrote about La Jetée to someone: who?  What did I write to my friend Erin, who lives in St. Petersburg, or my friend Lis, who lives in Palau?  No idea.

I’m not sure if practice made my letters more perfect, although I certainly could cut an envelope in short order by the end.  One great benefit was that over the course of the month I accumulated more of the, I guess you could say, “incidental” art materials which I had abandoned in my last move: Crayola crayons, colored pens, glue stick, that sort of thing.  There’s also nothing like a deadline for getting you past certain silly roadblocks: every night I had to push aside the stuff on my desk to make the envelope, which sounds like nothing, but it’s the kind of minor inconvenience which can stop me dead before I even start to draw or sew something.  And so today, for example, with the precedent established, I shoved everything aside to make an attempt at a hat for a doll–the idea of which I had while writing one of my letters and staring at my box of incidental art materials.  So, even if I hadn’t, by writing all these, communicated with over 20 friends I’ve been in more or less bad touch with, I would feel the exercise was very rewarding.  And the fact is that there is nothing quite like recieving some love and regard in a paper letter.  I will definitely do it all again next year, and I encourage you to try it too.

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Month of Letters: Halfway Point

Whenever I want to feel old, I tell the college kids I know about what it was like when I was at Bard.  Nothing gets a bigger reaction than saying nobody had a celphone (the first ones appeared my Senior year and we were all amazed, saying to each other “what would anyone want a celphone for in college?”), but it’s at least as amazing that you still had to plug your computer in to a phone line and dial up for internet.  Facebook was not yet a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye: Friendster came out the year after I graduated.

One thing we did have was e-mail.  In the ugly student center they built in the middle of a previously nice field my sophomore year, there was a little area off to the side of the central atrium with a sort of e-mail bar: two long tables with tall stools and eight or ten computer terminals.  They were monochromatic, displaying only grey and black text, and all they did was access your student e-mail account.  So you could sit down, on your way from the art studio to your dorm room in Tewksbury, for example, and read and write an e-mail or two, undistracted by any other Internet time-wasters.  (There really weren’t any Internet time-wasters yet, that I can remember, except of course for AIM.)  I generally wrote at least two looong e-mails a day this way, to my friends Michele, or Emily, or Tim, or whoever else might have written.  Of course, these days, nobody writes even e-mail anymore.  We have this vague, impersonal, easy non-connection: Facebook, which sucks up all the energy we used to put into e-mail.  Am I “in touch” with Emily now?  Of course, we’re Facebook friends!  But when’s the last time we poured our hearts out to each other, like we did when we were in college and both miserably in love?  Facebook is not the place for expressing real emotions; everyone rolls their eyes at such melodramatic behavior, and it makes sense: it’s the difference between crying on a friend’s shoulder and shouting in a crowded room.  Instead everyone trades one-liners and looks wistfully (or is that just me) at pictures of their absent friends having fun.

So it’s been very interesting to write these letters.  I haven’t gotten anything back yet, so I have no idea how I’m coming across.  It’s very different even from the e-mails I used to write, and of course I’m out of practice even with those.  It’s not a conversation yet; every letter is an opening statement.  At first I was trying to update people on my life and news, but that soon got boring and a bit depressing, so I’ve been writing more about things I’ve been thinking about, reading, and so on.  But of course I’m writing every day, so I still end up writing the same things, sometimes, over and over.  It’s a kind of iterative process, as we used to say in art school; and it’s an interesting way to work through ideas.  I’ve come up with things on the third, fourth time writing about an idea that I wish I could have said the first time around, and I’ve written things the first time that it feels like I can never correctly recapture again.  Really, I haven’t been writing the same things that often, I don’t think, but it feels like it.  It almost feels like writing a blog post, without mass production.  I suppose this is why they wrote circular letters in the past.

My fond hope is that, at least to some degree, these letters start a real conversation or two again, like I used to have with so many people.  It’s actually been astonishing to realize how little I know about my friends’ lives now.  When writing to each person I want to ask questions about them, and I find I know so little, embarassingly little.  I’m only vaguely aware whether people are married or have kids, and beyond these huge life changes, generally, I know nothing.  Maybe that says more about my poor attention span and my relatively sparse use of it, but it seems to me that Facebook is the problem, giving the illusion of connection.  I’m sure for some people it’s an important and valuable connection to the people in their lives.  I know (because they say so on the Internet, in protest against people like me) that many people find that Facebook breathed new life into their relationships; but for me it has rather choked them within an inch of their lives.  I hope these letters can resucitate them.

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Month of Letters: Week 2

It’s another Sunday.  The first full week of “LetterMo” is over.  I’m feeling pretty good.  I had a bit of a setback–not concretely, but mentally–last Monday when I tried to send a letter in an elaborate envelope, which I will probably post a picture of soon, as I assume it’s arrived by now.  Anyway, I put it in the mailbox, but when the mailman came the doorbell rang.  “I love this, but it will never go through,” he said.  “It’s unmachineable.  You’ve got to take it to the post office and mail it as a package.  I saw that one you made with the map the other day, really cool!  But this, I know they’ll send it back.”  It was really great to hear his enthusiasm, but I was surprised, because it was really not that weird.  It was the size and shape of a regular envelope.  Back in college, I sent (and, especially, recieved) much more strange items, for standard postage, as far as I remember.

The worst part was that at the post office the ugly postage printout thing wouldn’t stick where it was supposed to, so they had to stick it on in such a way as to completely uglify my beautiful envelope :( Hopefully it just peels right off and the recipient can see what it was meant to look like.  Anyway, the whole thing was a bit of a momentum-breaker, right at the beginning of the week.  I also had very little resources in terms of art supplies–I’ve just moved, and all the various papery bits, half-exhausted markers, stickers, worn-down crayons, and so on, got left behind.  So my intention to make the letters, and particularly the envelopes, beautiful was really putting me to the test.  I cannibalized everything I could find, and hopefully the results were OK, but I was really getting worried that I would have to recycle envelope ideas, whcih I didn’t want to do.  Especially since the mailman was noticing!

Luckily this weekend I got to go to the craft store and I got some stuff, and in writing my first letter to a relative stranger I came up with a ‘format’ which will hopefully get me through all of those while still being entertaining.  It’s a little weird, but that’s fine.  I didn’t expect to write anyone I didn’t know this month, so I had to wing it!

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Month of Letters: Virginia Woolf to Gwen Raverat

For inspiration’s sake, I have been reading books of letters; and I thought I might post a couple of favorites here.  I’ll start with the letter I mentioned in my review below, Virginia Woolf’s letter to Gwen Raverat after her husband Jacques, who had been dying slowly from multiple sclerosis, finally succumbed.  The news had come to her with his final letter to her, praising Mrs. Dalloway, which she had sent him before its publication.

11th March 1925

Dearest Gwen,

Your and Jacques’ letter came yesterday, and I go about thinking of you both in starts, and almost constantly underneath everything, and I don’t know what to say.  The thing that comes over and over is the strange wish to go on telling Jacques things.  This is for Jacques, I say to myself; I want to write to him about happiness, about Rupert, and love.  It had become to me a sort of private life, and I believe I told him more than anyone, except Leonard; I become mystical as I grow older and feel an alliance with you and Jacques which is eternal, not interrupted, or hurt by never meeting.  Then of course, I have now for you–how can I put it?–I mean the feeling that one must reverence?–is that the word–feel shy of, so tremendous an experience; for I cannot conceive what you have suffered.  It seems to me that if we met, one would have to chatter about every sort of little trifle, because there is nothing to be said.

And then, being, as you know, so fundamentally an optimist, I want to make you enjoy life.  Forgive me, for writing what comes into my head.  I think I feel that I would give a great deal to share with you the daily happiness.  But you know that if there is anything I could ever give you, I would give it, but perhaps the only thing to give is to be oneself with people.  One could say anything to Jacques.  And that will always be the same with you and me.  But oh, dearest Gwen, to think of you is making me cry–why should you and Jacques have had to go through this?  As I told him, it is your love that has forever been love to me–all those years ago, when you used to come to Fitzroy Square, I was so angry and you were so furious, and Jacques wrote me a sensible manly letter, which I answered, sitting at my table in the window.  Perhaps I was frightfully jealous of you both, being at war with the whole world at the moment.  Still, the vision has become to me a source of wonder–the vision of your face; which if I were painting I should cover with flames, and put you on a hill top.  Then, I don’t think you would believe how it moves me that you and Jacques should have been reading Mrs. Dalloway, and liking it.  I’m awfully vain I know; and I was on pins and needles about sending it to Jacques; and now I feel exquisitely relieved; not flattered: but one does want that side of one to be acceptable–I was going to have written to Jacques about his children, and about my having none–I mean, these efforts of mine to communicate with people are partly childlessness, and the horror that sometimes overcomes me.

There is very little use in writing this.  One feels so ignorant, so trivial, and like a child, just teasing you.  But it is only that one keeps thinking of you, with a sort of reverence, and of that adorable man, whom I loved.

Yours,

V.W.

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Month of Letters: Week 1

Three days in and feeling fine.  Something makes this so much easier than the “30 Days of Creativity” challenge.  I can identify some of it: the privacy, the fact that there is a recipient depending on me.  But there seems to be some other mysterious reasons why to be amorphously “creative” every day was such torture and these letters have been pleasant.  Really, writing them has not gone that well: they feel a bit stilted and uncomfortable, where I’d like them to float and soar.  But the physical process makes up for it: I love decorating and embellishing the letters and the envelopes, and pushing the possibilities of mail.

I’ve been reading some of Virginia Woolf’s letters, so perhaps I have set too high a standard for myself for the writing.  She never seems to have written a clumsy word in her life.  The funny thing about books of letters (I have several) is that the longer, more personal, more composed letters are rarely the ones that interest me the most.  Often the most fascinating are letters asking for money, or making appointments, that sort of thing.  I have a book of Delacroix’s letters, with one or two examples of his letters requesting certain colors from Mrs. Haro’s; though he was one of the few artists who could write compellingly about art, these businesslike paint orders are at least as interesting.

Another thing that’s interesting in books of letters is that, even in those epistolary ages, one of the most frequent themes is “write me back!”  I’m always self-conscious, even in e-mail, of asking for a reply, and of writing again to someone who hasn’t written me back yet.  But people were quite shameless about this in the old days, it seems, heaping comic abuse on their lazy friends for not writing, begging and pleading for mail, writing several times without a word in reply.  So perhaps I shouldn’t be so worried about it?  I don’t know.  In any case, I take comfort in Samuel Johnson’s saying, in a letter apologizing for not writing to Boswell, “Do not fancy that an intermission of writing is a decay of kindness.”

Really, the same sort of worries that make my writing on this wretched blog so bland have been getting in the way of these letters, and I hope I will shed them soon.  The only thing I have discovered about art in my life is that fear kills it: fear of incomprehensibility, fear of sentimentality, fear of bad taste, fear of pretentiousness, fear of anything.  I hope these letters to be something of a training regimen, for throwing away that fear.

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A letter a day keeps Alzheimer’s at bay

Today I happened to hear about lettermo.com, which is a NaNoWriMo-style challenge: to write and send a letter a day for the month of February.  Now, as everyone who knows me is well aware, and as I have blogged about before, I actually took on a similar challenge back in college, but for a whole year.  The challenge then was a haiku a day, but of course just a bare haiku in an envelope rarely satisfied either the sender or the recipient, so my friend Tim and I ended up sending each other all kinds of things, sometimes incredibly elaborate pieces of mail art.  So I know what it’s like: I know both the pleasure and the frustrations of having to set aside a space of time to sit down and write/make something, every single day.

My last attempt at something like this didn’t turn out so well–in fact, I’ve tried various challenges and it’s never really come together since that one year.  The fact that I was getting mail every day as well as sending it was an important positive feedback loop; and the fact that Tim and I have always had a bit of a competitive streak that made me want to one-up his amazing letters helped to make things awesomer than they might have been.  So: I am asking you for an address to send mail; I would also like to remind you that one of the rules of this challenge is that I must reply to everything I recieve.  In other words, you don’t have to do anything, you certainly don’t have to take the challenge yourself; if you tell me your address I will probably send you something.  BUT the likelihood of my achieving the goal, and the quality of the things I send, will be much increased if you send me something yourself.  Just send me an e-mail or leave a comment with yours, and we can exchange addresses.  (I don’t quite trust the Internet enough to put my address out here for everyone to see.)

Looking forward to corresponding with you!  Let’s do it!

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