The Lost Practice of Writing Letters

envelope
Image by LwcyD from Pixabay

I wrote last weekend about writing a letter to your future self. I didn’t mention then that the inspiration for that was my seventh-grade English teacher who had us write letters to ourselves. She told us that she would send them to us when we were seniors in high school. So, the idea was to write to the person you thought you would be in five years.

She never sent the letters when we were seniors. She left our junior high and probably tossed our letters. I seemed to be the only one who even remembered that we had written the letters. I can’t recall now anything I put in my letter. I wish I could. I wish I had gotten my letter back. My 17-year-old self would have liked to have seen what my 13-year-old self was thinking about the future that had become the present.

Writing letters seems so old-fashioned today. I had students that were amazed that there were entire books of letters that authors, artists, statesmen, or historical figures had written.

vincent's signatureI showed my students a book of Vincent van Gogh’s letters. He wrote often to his brothers, especially Theo, and his sisters, other artists and friends from home. It is estimated he wrote more than 2000 letters and about half survive. Theo kept Vincent’s letters carefully stored. Vincent often discarded letters.

It is estimated that Thomas Jefferson had written 18,624 letters in his lifetime.

I also had my students write letters to famous people and I amassed a pile of celebrity addresses and copies of the responses they received which I displayed in my classroom. This was in the days before email was common and mostly in the pre-Internet days, so finding addresses and information required more difficult research than it would now.

When my students received glossy 8×10 photos with actual autographs and real letters from the people they wrote to, it was exciting. Some of my students got unusual responses because they wrote clever letters or wrote to people who probably didn’t get tons of mail. There was an autographed tennis ball, an Olympic swimmer’s cap, a few DVDs, signed copies of books, several hand-drawn cartoons and comic book panels, and an animation cel. One student asked Donald Trump to autograph a crisp dollar bill so that it would be worth “more than a dollar.” He did in that odd bold scrawl that became familiar to us during his Presidency and included a copy of his Art of the Deal book.  One student asked an author to record answers to her questions on the cassette tape she sent with the questions. She did. One boy asked a TV weatherman some questions about getting into the business and got a call from him at home.

I encouraged students to write to the contemporary authors that we read in class. We even wrote letters to Juliet after we read Shakespeare’s play about her star-crossed love – and we got answers from her. (Read my post about that to learn how)

They learned a lot about how to write letters. And by that, I don’t mean just the format of a business and friendly letter. For example, they learned that writing to the biggest star of the top-rated TV show probably would only get you a small photo with a printed “autograph.” But a clever letter to a minor character or the writer or director of that same show might get you a personal response or more. The student who got tickets and an invitation to visit the Saturday Night Live show backstage didn’t ask for that – which is probably why he got it.

We learn how to communicate in many ways – both about the mediums to communicate and the forms those communications can take. The email, the Facebook message, the tweet, tagging someone in a photograph, the text message, the phone call, the note slipped into your locker or left on your desk in school or at the office, the card from the store and the handmade card, the poem, the mix CD or playlist of songs, the note with the flowers, the Post-It note left by the little gift on the kitchen table, the message put in your lunch bag and a letter sent from many miles – or many years – away.

After my mother died, I found a box of letters written to her. Some were from my father who had died many years earlier. Some were from me, written when I was away from home as a child on vacation with relatives, and from me at college. They are priceless pieces of the past. I have a postcard reply from author John Updike. I have a letter from astronaut John Glenn I wrote in fifth grade when I thought I might become an astronaut too. I have all the letters to authors and actors and celebrities that I wrote each year when my students were doing that assignment. One from Mr. Fred Rogers is something I treasure.

I find it sad that letter writing seems to be a lost form of communication. When was the last time you received or wrote an actual letter to someone by hand, on paper, that was mailed? Probably, too long ago.

Journaling By Hand

“To me, typing is like work. Writing with a pen is like playing.
And you can write on planes when they’re taking off and landing.”
– Neil Gaiman

journals
Journals over the years in various forms of degrading handwriting.

Though I spend a lot of time on a computer writing in places like this site, my journaling has never moved away from a bound blank book and a pen.

There have always been writers who opposed new technologies. I know pretty big-time writers today who avoid email, computers, social media and having their own website. But all of those things are essential somewhere down the line even if you start with a pencil and a legal pad.

One of my favorite writers,  John Updike, said word processing made producing text “almost too easy.” In a letter to his editor at The New Yorker, Updike wrote, “I’ve bought a word processor and we’re slowly coming to an understanding. It’s quick as the devil, but has very little imagination, and no small talk.”

I’ve been down some parallel paths in past posts: writing by hand in general, my lousy typing, and the reported death of handwriting, but here I’m focusing on journaling.

I came across this book online –  The Yellow Wall-Paper Sanity Journal: What to Do In Your Own Four Walls
by Sara Barkat. It’s an illustrated journal (based on the earlier The Yellow Wall-Paper: A Graphic Novel.

All I need to journal is a blank book (sometimes lined, some years not) but if you need some inspiration and prompts, including some poetry prompts and instructions for several form poems like the villanelle, pantoum, catalog, and limerick.

I also read an article about the benefits of writing by hand. The benefits might be greatest for those of us who spend most days in front of a screen reading and writing.

Some of the benefits are surely for your brain and creativity, but your eyes will benefit from the rest.

Regions of the brain associated with learning were more active when subjects completed a task by hand instead of on a keyboard. As Updike noted, there are benefits to slowing down when you are writing and allowing some thinking along the way.

Writing by hand could promote “deep encoding” in a way that typing does not. I’ve read that before including a study that compared students who took notes by hand with those who took notes on laptops. Researchers found that the students using laptops tended to write down what the professor said word for word, while those who took notes by hand were more likely to listen to what was being said, analyzing it for important content and “processing information and reframing it in their own words.” When asked conceptual questions about the lecture, students who had taken notes by hand were better able to answer than those who had typed their notes.

So fast typing is a blessing and a curse. Maybe I’m prejudiced because I never learned to type. I am still a two-finger typist and although I am pretty fast, it’s pretty slow.

I moved about 25 years ago from writing my poetry on paper to composing directly to the computer. I changed my writing. The older poems always ended up being typed anyway and seeing them in a printed fashion helped me.  I also began to revise more because it was easier and neater to do. For a time, I saved multiple versions and drafts,. I don’t do that anymore. Too many pieces of paper and second thoughts about what I wrote.

While there will always be things you want to write quickly, there are others that can benefit from the time it takes to write them out by hand.

It would be daunting to try to type up my twelve volumes of journals. (I’ll leave that to some graduate students working for my biographer.) But I actually enjoy looking at my old journals – the changing handwriting, marginalia, occasional illustrations, bad teen years spelling and grammar, and the predictions that 99 out of 100 times turned out to be wrong. Ah, youthful optimism…

Okay, this post is finished. I ran Grammarly on it, revised and now I’ll click the schedule button and send it on its way. Then, I’ll make a cup of tea and take out my current journal and write about mid-December 2020.

Prose and Poetry

If I could have made a comfortable living doing something that I really enjoy, it would be as a poet. I don’t regret having spent a lifetime teaching. I think it was why I was put on the planet. And poets can’t really make a living at just that. Most of them teach or do some other job along with the writing. I suppose there are exceptions, like Billy Collins.

In thinking about this essay, Collins’ poem, “The Revenant,” came to mind. It is in the voice of a dog that was put to sleep addressing an owner that he really did not like. The poem concludes with:

dog typing…and that is all you need to know about this place
except what you already supposed
and are glad it did not happen sooner –
that everyone here can read and write,
the dogs in poetry, the cats and all the others in prose.

As much as I enjoy writing poetry, I write more prose. My wife and I are finishing writing an article for an academic journal this weekend. I regret having taken on the assignment. It does feel like an “assignment” from my student days as it involved a lot of research, notes, citation, and all of that.  It’s not enjoyable.

While writing the article, I came across mention of a book by John McPhee that I haven’t read. I am an admirer of McPhee’s writing. I read his The Pine Barrens when it was published and I was a new English teacher. I know that very unique part of New Jersey well and I learned a lot from the book. I used passages as examples of good creative non-fiction.

McPhee is prolific. He has spent nearly six decades as a staff writer at The New Yorker and published many books and I haven’t kept up with his output of prose.

The book I saw that caught my attention as I was writing this week is part memoir, part instruction manual.  Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process is about his creative process.

The process was part of my difficulty writing the academic article in collaboration with my wife. Our writing processes are very different. She is a thorough researcher. She had pages and pages of notecards and handwritten drafts and printouts of online articles spread across the dining room table, chairs and floor. I would be crippled when faced with all that.

When I research a topic, I immediately start typing a rough draft and noting my references. I rarely make notes on paper anymore.

Academic prose is usually not what you would call “creative non-fiction” that has McPhee’s kind of narrative structure, but that structure, as he has written, is “meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.” I consider much of what I write online to be closer to the creative side of prose though it almost always involves research and even references.

We sent off the article to the editor this weekend. We don’t know what her response will be. Our first full draft was 24,000 words and our maximum needed to be 14,000. For me, revision is mostly paring down. That’s mostly because my process is to put things on the page without editing along the way.

The other book I stumbled on this past week that seemed relevant to my writing was Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction which is by Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor, Richard Todd.

I haven’t read this book either but both of these books are on the list for after that article goes to print. I’m curious to read about their thoughts on being edited and editing. “You have to learn how to be edited,” Kidder writes. Todd kindly concedes that, for an editor, the “surest way to harm a piece of writing is to impose one’s own style on it.”

With prose, I am pretty obliging to being edited (by my wife or a journal editor). If they think a section needs to be pared down or deleted, I usually don’t put up a fight.  That is not the case with poetry.  I appreciate an editor catching a mistake or suggesting a better word, but I don’t take kindly to deletions or major changes.

T.S. Eliot’s publisher, Robert Giroux, asked the poet “if he agreed with the definition that most editors are failed writers.” Eliot replied, “Perhaps, but so are most writers.” I had that Eliot exchange in a little frame above my desk for a few years.  I took it down. I don’t need to be reminded.

 

Journaling

I’m hearing a good number of people upon reflecting on all the extra free time they have while staying home during the pandemic. A few seem to be accomplishing a lot, but at least as many of them are a bit ashamedly saying that they are accomplishing less.

I’m still writing but I have come to realize that as the weeks crawl by that I am writing less. Let me amend that: I am writing less for the world.

I write on 9 different sites and I keep a calendar of those posts so that I remember to keep them updated and so that I don’t post too much on any one day. For most of 2019, I averaged 12 posts per week. At a glance, I can see that I have been decreasing that number for the past two months. But the writing that has increased is my personal writing in my journals.

 

“In the journal, I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.” —Susan Sontag

I wrote here recently about things being solved by walking (solvitur ambulando)   and I guess I think of those journals as a way that things might be solved by writing (solvitur scriptures?).

I’m not alone in my journaling. I saw an article about people doing gratitude exercises in order to avoid negative thought spirals, anxiety and depression.

Gratitude journaling is one of those practices. Journals can be daily but just have to be regular enough to keep your focus. A gratitude journal focuses on the good in your life and is a record of the things you appreciate which is most difficult to write and most important to write on days when you can’t find the light.

I haven’t gone fully gratitude in my journaling. In fact, I started a new journal in January and by March I was using a section of it as a timeline of the pandemic.  My journals have always been a record to aid my memory. I record the joy and the pain, the big events and the small moments I’m afraid I will forget.

I’m rarely at a loss for something to write, but if you need inspiration there are people who offer that too.

I discovered that Suleika Jaouad had started a 100-day project called The Isolation Journals. She emails a daily prompt at 5 a.m. I always read them though I don’t always write based on them.

In the updates, Suleika lists some quotes about journaling and diaries.

“It is an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I—nor for that matter anyone else—will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old school girl.” —Anne Frank

“The diary is an art form just as much as the novel or the play. The diary simply requires a greater canvas; it is a chronological tapestry which, in its ensemble, or at whatever point it is abandoned, reveals a form and language as exacting as other literary forms.” —Henry Miller

“The diary taught me that it is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately. I learned to choose the heightened moments because they are the moments of revelation.” —Anaïs Nin

I have decades of journals, but I have never kept a diary. I don’t record every day and a diary always seemed to me to be about more emotional things than what I write in my journals.

“If you read someone else’s diary, you get what you deserve.”  ― David Sedaris

The day 55 prompt was meta: “Write a journal entry about why you journal. Are there certain stories or forms you gravitate toward? People or places you prefer to leave out? Do you imagine anyone reading your entries? Do you notice a difference between journaling with prompts and without? As a private practice or one you share with others?”

My answers are complicated.

My regular journaling habit has not changed much in isolation, other than recording the news of the pandemic changes.

 

I have a garden journal to record my plantings, blooms, harvests, the seasons, first buds, frosts, pests, diseases, care, and cultivation tips. That journal is pandemic-free.

I have a travel journal with my trips and family vacations with dates, places, hotel rooms, restaurants, weather, attractions, and fellow travelers. This journal is sheltering at home. I had put post-it notes in it with some notes on two vacations we had booked for 2020 (France and St. John) that have been postponed until 2021.

I have kept several dream journals to record dreams that I actually remember upon waking. Reading that journal is very strange. I rarely recall even writing about the dream weeks later. It’s almost like someone else wrote down those dreams. I haven’t had any isolation or virus dreams that I have recalled, but I have heard that others (particularly children) have been having odd dreams.

I have a ledger book where I keep many lists: the best films I saw each year, book read, records of my sleep patterns, medications, herbs and vitamins I have tried, medical records, poetry submissions, and many other smaller pieces of my life. I have always been a listmaker.

“For any writer who wants to keep a journal, be alive to everything, not just to what you’re feeling, but also to your pets, to flowers, to what you’re reading.”  ― May Sarton

I have image journals that began as collages made of things that interested me. They covered periods of my life – college, work, marriage, parenthood – and in the past decade they have been recorded month to month. Pages contain photos, advertising, ticket stubs, newspaper headlines, patterns, scenes, maps and anything that reflects on the month.

I know that I record all of this to aid my own memory, but I have always known that part of me believes I am recording all of it for others. I don’t know who they will be or when they will read those words but I know they are listening when I write.

film collage
One of my collages of film stills from my undergraduate days shows what I was watching – including a French cinema course.

Brain Dump

Crowded mind – image by John Hain from Pixabay

I gave the National Day of Unplugging from screens a try these past 24 hours. I was fairly successful. My phone and laptop charged. I made my Fitbit happy with my steps for the day. I took a walk with my wife to a coffeehouse and we talked about some of the good things we have planned in the spring. I cheated a bit in that I used a phone, but it was our old landline which has no screen. But those two calls were pretty important. I had also queued up some social media posts for the time offline, so I still appeared to be online to most people. I checked my email and messages once at noon today just in case there was something critical. That’s not so much FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) as it is the reality of how we communicate now. I have a family member who is having serious medical issues, so I really can’t be completely unplugged. When the sun went down, my laptop went on and I went back to this post which I had drafted a few weeks ago and revised it for this weekend.

One thing I did away from screens was read some on paper, and one book I picked up again from the shelf is somewhat connected to the unplugging. It was David Allen‘s book that posited, amongst other ideas, that multitasking is a myth. The book is Getting Things Done with the inviting subtitle of “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.” Wouldn’t that be nice?

There are several things I took from the book. One is that my poor old brain is not meant to hold all of the things I put into it or all the things I want to do (or feel I have to do). Believing that I can hold on to all this information and finish all those things will mean disappointment.

That doesn’t let you off the hook for being productive though. There are people who are pretty good at using tools to help. That can range from a notepad and lists and journals to apps on your phone. Though I feel a bit guilty when someone asks me what my wife’s phone number is and I have to look at my phone, I am relieved that the phone remembers all the numbers I need. I shouldn’t feel that guilty because it’s just an electronic address book like we had next to our old rotary phone when I was a kid back in the last century.

But the idea I remember best from the book is about doing a “brain dump.”

Even if you are someone who lives in the digital world, you still need to sometimes write stuff down using simple analog tools.

To do this brain dump you don’t need a special pad (though they do sell them and that might help some people) to get started. A pen and a notebook are fine.

I’ve seen research that seems to indicate that when we write something down by hand it somehow sticks in our memory better.

You’re going to create 3 lists to get started. I’ve seen them labeled in different ways but in the book they are 1) Must (things you’ve committed to doing)  2) Wants (things you would like to do but haven’t committed to yet) and 3) Perhaps (things you may want to do in the future).

Do the three lists in that order and focus on one type of thing at a time until there are no more items for that list to dump from your brain.

Next, you evaluate each list trying to eliminate items that don’t belong. You can move between lists here. The objective is to get the least amount of things on your Must list, because you really want to get to doing the things on the Want list.

Since the ultimate goal here is to complete the things on the lists, you might ask – as I did when I had first read the book – Isn’t this just another To-Do list? Where’s the brain dump?

It is getting all of your thoughts down on paper so that they are “dumped” from your brain to give you some freed up memory space. It’s more of a rapid freewriting exercise than a slow, methodical, overthought process.

Organizing these things on paper can help clarify, prioritize and lead to taking action.  You may be tempted to get out your phone or laptop to make the lists neat and clean but it is really recommended to do the pen and paper method.

You can later use colored pens, pencils, or highlighters to color-code your thoughts and that can help you see connections and patterns in what you dumped.

This post is just a primer on the technique. Besides the book, there are a good number of online articles on approaches to the brain dump and there are variations on the lists and their labels.

Of course, the only way this works and makes you less stressed and productive is that you actually start on the Must list. If that list has 55 items, I don’t think this technique will work.

Your motivation to clear that Must list is your desire to get to the Want list and completing items there allows you to make those Perhaps items to become Wants.

Full disclosure. My Must list has gotten smaller since I first did this exercise almost two years ago. I wrote about it here but took my own approach to it. The lists have been many times revised and have never been empty. That’s partly because I moved some Wants up to Musts as slots opened. I limited my Must list to a maximum of 10 things which meant some evaluation of “must” meaning “required” and by whom these things are required.

I don’t have any work/job/career items on my lists. I suppose I could do a separate set of lists for that but I never have done it.

You might have had some lesson in a psychology course about wants and needs which is what this reminded me of when I first read about the lists. A need is something that is essential to your survival. Some are emotional needs. Some are about goals and dreams. Wants, on the other hand, are things that we would like to have, but that are not essential to our survival.

As much as I want to have my poetry manuscript published, I know I don’t need to have it published.  I know I must find long-term care for my aging and ill sister, and until I do, I will feel stressed and never get to things like that manuscript.

You may say that a vacation is a must to your survival, but honestly, two weeks in the Maldives isn’t a must.

Do I cheat on the lists sometimes and focus on a want while ignoring some must items? Absolutely. I need some of those items to keep moving forward and maintain my sanity. Spending more and better time with my wife and family is an emotional need.

Still, I recognize that the Must list is essential. And if I ever do clear all the items on it then, quite happily, the manuscript, the vacation and other things I want to do will become must-do items. That’s a very pleasant thought.

 

How to Untangle Your Mind with a Brain Dump

lifehack.org/articles/productivity/how-to-do-the-ultimate-brain-dump.html

 

 

Antisocial Media

When I write a post here, I expect that some people will read it. I add an image or two to engage readers, and I will later check to see if there are any comments, shares and how many clicks the post gets over time.

Does any of the post-posting activity really affect people reading what I wrote? I think it does, to a degree. People click on posts that people share and ones that appear on my “Top Posts Today” list in the blog’s sidebar. Social sharing is real.

But some people like to experiment with it. One experiment is at txt.fyi. Even its creator calls it “the dumbest publishing platform on the web.”  You write something, hit publish, and it’s live, but there is no tracking, no ads, fonts, analytics, cookies, user accounts, logins, passwords, comments, friending, likes, follows or sharing or any of the other social media capital so valued elsewhere on the web.

This morning I posted about the Moon moving away from Earth.  But that was something I wrote on txt.fyi last week. The only way anyone will find the original posting is if I put a link to it elsewhere.

This antisocial publishing platform is simple static hypertext. (You can use Markdown language to add some basic formatting.)  If you write there, it is online for as long as the site remains online – though perhaps no one else will ever read what you wrote.

The site is set up so that search engines are “told” not to index the posts, so Google won’t be spreading the word about my post either.

Where will this text.fyi experiment go? I have no idea.

Why was it created? I suspect that its creator Rob Beschizza – a writer, artist and editor at Boing Boing  – also was curious to see what would come of it. Perhaps something good and new. Perhaps it will all go wrong and it will need to be shut down.

To complete this little meta-circle, I also posted at https://txt.fyi/+/9304a536/ about what I wrote here. And the writing goes round and round…