Sunday, February 13, 2011

Letters, Part II: Inspiration for Writing Letters

“We know that all things of concern to us are of equal concern to Mary [the author of the letter], and though there will be nothing of it in actual words, we are made to feel that we are just as secure in our corner of Mary's heart as ever we were.” –Emily Post, Etiquette, from the section The Letter Everyone Loves to Receive

This past December, through a stroke of good luck, I found a copy of a wonderful little book called Frost’s Original Letter Writer. Published in 1867, the archaic volume was tucked sideways into a random bookshelf in one of the many generously merchandised booths of Black Diamond Antiques in Frackville, Pennsylvania. The slim and fragile book was held closed by a faded pink and lace ribbon and with one glance at the title, I knew that I had found a “diamond in the rough” for my small collection of books that inspire me towards letter writing.

There are many things that I find charming about my copy of Frost’s Original Letter Writer. At one time the book was the property of a “Master Boyd Cherry presented to him by his Uncle Alfred,” as indicated by the penciled inscription on the title page. The back cover reveals a long list of other publications which are advertised under the heading: “Good Books Sent Free of Postage at the Prices Marked” with titles such as: How to Shine in Society; Dick’s Quadrille Call-Book and Ball-Room Prompter; and Boxing Made Easy.

But what I like most about Frost’s Original Letter Writer (full title: Frost’s Original Letter Writer a complete collection of Original Letters and Notes Upon Every Imaginable Subject of Everyday Life, with Plain Directions about Everything Connected with Writing a Letter) is that it indicates that even in a time when letter writing was the accepted and popular (read: only) means of communication, that people still sought out inspiration and instructions on how to write a letter and/or respond to one.

In my last post, I wrote about the legacy that letter writing creates, and the fact that through emails, text messages, and many other forms of modern technology-driven communication, we have an everyday familiarity with the written word that can easily be translated to paper to build better relationships and make lasting impressions. Unlike the interruption of a phone call, letters and notes have the advantage of being a way to connect with people on their own time, creating space for communication within a busy schedule.

But what do you do if the idea of writing a letter is still intimidating?

The good news is that the antiquated volume of Frost’s Original Letter Writer is just one of many books on letter writing with advice, and sometimes the complete text, to help inspire your correspondence. Since my time at Crane & Co., I have collected books on letter writing and etiquette, both for inspiration as well as to satisfy my historical curiosity. Each of them has a special place in my heart, but all of them offer, in their own unique way, a perspective and advice on letter writing that encourages me to pick up my pen.

While also from an earlier era, one of my favorite inspirations for good form in my letter writing is the original 1922 version of Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage, by Emily Post. In this classic text, which is delightful to read due to Ms. Post’s straightforward advice and perspective, the author separates the basics of correspondence and “bread and butter letters” from “long letters,” giving each a unique chapter in the book.

It is in the chapter “Longer Letters” that she addresses the challenges of beginning a letter, and (one of my guilty correspondence sins) the fact that your response is usually is so long in being formulated that it must begin with an apology. Also in this chapter, the criminal classes of long letters are identified: Letters No One Cares to Read; Letters of Gloomy Apprehension; Letters of Petty Misfortunes; The Blank; The Meandering Letter; The Letter of Chronic Apology; The Dangerous Letter; The Letter that No Woman Should Ever Write, etc. Through these Emily Post illustrates not only ways to be aware of and avoid these letters, but on a deeper level identifies communication habits to steer clear of, whether it’s in a letter or verbal exchange.

Her best advice though comes in the section, The Letter Everyone Loves to Receive: “The letter we all love to receive is one that carries so much of the writer’s personality that she seems to be sitting beside us, looking at us directly and talking just as she really would, ….There is a great deal in the letter about [the author], not only about what she has been doing, but what she has been thinking, or perhaps feeling. And there is a lot about us in the letter—nice things that make us feel rather pleased about something that we have done, or are likely to do, or that some one has said about us.”

While I have a strong affection for the advice of the past, I am also a modern girl with a blog, a huge stash of stationery, and a busy schedule. The book that I turn to the most to inspire sitting down to my correspondence is The Pleasures of Staying in Touch: Writing Memorable Letters by Jennifer Williams. The book meditates on the joys of receiving a letter through quotes and stories as well as provides inspiration on social correspondence.

My favorite chapter is Staying in Touch with the World: Letters of Admiration, Letters of Complaint, Letters to Magazines, Alumnae Newsletters and More. In this chapter, the notion of writing letters is moved beyond the social bread-and-butter correspondence or the romantic long letter, to focus on letters that are often over looked when we think of letter writing: Public Letters. These are letters to public figures, editors, or authors, that allow you to give voice to an opinion, participate in a dialogue, and “stake your claim” in the world. “The expression of a personal opinion is just as important an act of connection as it is to vote…No matter how elusive or complex a public concern or debate may be, it always helps to ‘put a human face’ on it,” Williams writes.

Writing a letter has many benefits, from expressing your feelings to capturing a moment in time. Whether you want to turn to the pages of a book to jump start your prose, or you feel compelled to check your form, I hope that you will feel inspired to sit down to a blank stationery sheet and let someone know you are thinking of them.

A Little Extra:
• Pleasurable letter writing begins with stationery that makes you feel good: Pick a box of stationery based on your writing style. Sheets for longer letters and cards and notes for thank you’s and shorter correspondence.
• Penmanship is often in the pen: Writing is easy when you have a pen that suites your style. Fountain pens with gold nibs offer the smoothest writing experience by gently shaping themselves to your grip and pressure on the paper. Rollerballs are a good choice for travel and smooth writing. Ball points and pencils should be avoided for letter writing, as they can cause hand fatigue and not look as polished.
• Personal correspondence is personal: Don’t feel that your letter needs to be stuffy in tone or look. Choose from many colors of stationery, inks, and other accessories that reflect your style.
• Practice: For important letters, write out a draft of what you are going to say before putting pen to paper.
• Converse: As Emily Posts says, the best letters are like a conversation. Always keep your recipient in mind.
• Resources: In addition to the very small (and dated) assortment of books mentioned above, there are some great current resources such as the new version of Emily Post's Etiquette; Crane's Blue Book of Stationery; The Art of the Personal Letter and many more.

1 comment:

  1. Brenna,

    You may not remember me specifically, but I'm a student in David Emblidge's editing class -- just wanted to thank you again for visiting and sharing the book proposal with us. As we all agreed, you two have put together some excellent ideas and I have no doubt they will find a publisher.

    Also, I checked out Paper Compass as soon as I saw it mentioned in your bio on the proposal. Really delightful stuff, and I look forward to following it! :)

    Keep us posted on the book's journey, please.