Letters Home

By

Writing by hand does remind you, primally, of what this crazy thing we do is made of. The careful spilling of ink on paper, the joints and girders of letters. Paragraphs as immovable as cornerstones and the proud stab of a punctuation mark. The occupational hazards of a rip in the paper’s membrane or a smear on your shirt sleeve. Cluttered, imperfect business. Like life.

The other day my hand cramped up while signing a check. I don’t have a long name, four syllables, two-and-two, an even split of Gaelic and Yiddish. I wasn’t wearing boxing gloves or hanging suspended from my ankles. But the tight pirouettes of Standard English cursive had become foreign, a culture removed from the up-down riverdance of typing I perform each day.

I write all day long: articles and book passages in the morning, blog posts and tweets in the afternoon. Email in ubiquity. Yet two words with a pen had sent me to spasm. It had been too long since I’d written a letter.

I like to write letters, 10-15 in a good year. I’ve got a lower desk drawer filled with stationary and sometime need to run an errand for a “cartridge refill.” I used to own an inkbottle and glass fountain pen that broke after three uses. But what did I expect? A glass fountain is like adopting a baby chicken. It needs nine square feet of clear cut real estate to avoid being stepped on. Where in a San Francisco apartment does one find room for that?

All of which makes my letter writing habit sound very retro and cute, like an Etsy thread called, “Why making it yourself is SOOOOO MUCCHHHH BETTTER.” I do not think it is so much better. I am no Luddite and dismiss the self-importance of artists who brag about what better human beings they are for not using email. As for the rest of “making it yourself,” I don’t design my own table linens or hand-deckle my fiancée’s bathroom for her birthday. I don’t hand-make much of anything really because my hands have all the grace of woolen mittens: sweet, stubby and mostly thumbs. If my hands were an old television character, they would be ALF.

But writing letters? Different. We handwrite to others so rarely these days—an “I took the last taco” note to a roommate, a “please leave package at florist next door” to UPS—that the five minutes it takes can pay out karma for days afterward. A handwritten note on decent paper makes someone’s day and can be complete in about the same time it takes to reheat soup. How many things in life can you say that about?

Selfishly though, letters are the basecamps of my writing adventures, the old friend I call when my next step is unsteady and the map is torn at the folds. Letters remind me of the inalienable values I try to bring to my work and the life it represents: Of commitment and community, how to be good, and how to be grateful.

It started about seven years ago when I read Carolyn See’s book “Making a Literary Life.” Ms. See remembered receiving a handwritten note of praise—royal blue stationery, silver monogram—from Joan Didion and recommend all writers get stationery as an old-fashioned insignia of the trade. Now getting a note from Joan Didion—Carolyn See’s hero and mine—is one thing. But oh that stationery! Dignified, adult stationery, unconnected to one’s bar mitzvah and without kittens or begonia nestled in the corners? Rapturous! And a humble perk of this “literary life” I hoped to find myself in someday.

In 2005, I did. That spring, a few months before the publication of my first book, I mortgaged about three years worth of Chanukah and birthday presents to get my own stationery set—off-white paper, name mastheaded in navy blue, envelopes that snapped to attention when opened. An elevator-sized papery in midtown Manhattan had outfitted me on a halcyon Sunday afternoon. I used the first sheet to thank Carolyn See for the idea.

Empty affectation? Maybe. Filmmakers, musicians, and visual artists have an endless variety of gewgaws to acquire in the name of enhancing their craft. Writers got nothing. Paper, ink and pen are the only tools that directly flatter our own creativity and even that is a level removed. These days, no one commits a literary masterpiece to creamy stationery with their name on top.

The letter is instead the writers’ form in reserve. John Barth writes them on weekends when taking a break from novels and published then in a collection called The Friday Book. Elizabeth Bishop was mad for the acts, writing up to forty letters a day in her prime, and still managed time to be U.S. Poet Laureate. For those whose creativity is writing, a letter gives them breathing room, an invitation to fling words at a page in haste, to cross out, ramble, and not make sense. A letter is an intimate conversation. And in an intimate conversation, ideally, we should not have to be careful about what we say.

Writing by hand does remind you, primally, of what this crazy thing we do is made of. The careful spilling of ink on paper, the joints and girders of letters. Paragraphs as immovable as cornerstones and the proud stab of a punctuation mark. The occupational hazards of a rip in the paper’s membrane or a smear on your shirt sleeve. Cluttered, imperfect business. Like life.

In her peerless book, The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp said, “The best always return to the basics.” Beethoven practiced scales. Michael Jordan shot hundreds of unguarded layups on his day off. Winston Churchill would say every word of a speech forty to fifty times because he thought he was a lousy public speaker. Great practitioners understand both the humility and empowerment to return to the DNA of your craft. It reminds of you of the love you had for it in the first place. And how you know you can do it again.

Fundamentally, that is all there is, letters lined up into words and sentences, notes shuffled and arranged into songs. We all start with the same elements, the same primary colors that form the dull dumb truth of creation. Your muse is an occasional visitor. The rest is sitting your ass down, everyday and working at it, trying to sand geodes from rocks.

We live, we work. Writing is a job you often drag yourself to and chip away at the hours. In her memoir, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard said “The line of words is a miner’s pick, a surgeon’s probe, a hammer.” It is that primitive. Our shoulders and palm ache afterward.

Now, I have no illusions that writing is less plush a life than laying sewer pipe or getting yelled at by your boss for losing your time card. But the more it feels like work, the less precious I am about actually doing it. And I need that. I’m better when I’m humble. A worker ant rather than a self-anointed queen.

I’m getting married in a few weeks. The next letters I write will be several dozen thank you notes to friends and family. Our first gifts are coming in and we’ve already started, her laying out the first half in her own hand, I filling in the final sentiment in mine. We both then sign our names. Our first major purchase as a married couple will be our own stationery, more thank you notes, more, “Feel better. We’re thinking of you,” and more reaching out for two creative people will see building—-art, community, each other—-as the packed earth of our relationship. My hands will be limber by then, as they will know who they are and remember what they are here for. As much as I know my name. I will feel as I do whenever I write a letter. I will be home.

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Rumpus original art by Declan Greicius, age 6.


Kevin Smokler is the CEO of BookTour.com and a writer living in San Francisco. More from this author →