25 March 2021

The necessity of letters and National Letter Writing Month

An open notebook with "National Letter Writing Month" written above two pages filled with hand drawn envelopes
My visual letter writing log for National Letter Writing Month 2020


It's been such a heavy week, heavy month, heavy season upon season. And yet we're not meant to carry it all alone. One tradition that has sustained me in this past year is letter writing, putting pen (or pencil) to paper and mailing a hello and a paper hug. The month of April, National Letter Writing Month, supercharged my letter writing habits last year, and I'm glad it's around the corner yet again. It's a time to celebrate the connections that a handwritten word can bring, to express some gratitude, to lament together and encourage one another. Plus, it's simply delightful! Who doesn't love getting mail?

I've been a habitual letter and card writer since I was a kid. I still have boxes of correspondence from classmates and penpals (aka notes passed in class or scribbled letters) stashed away somewhere, revealing my friends' shared obsessions with Sanrio, Lisa Frank, wide ruled paper torn out of spiral notebooks, and other popular stationaries of my youth. (They also featured LOTS of stickers and exclamation!!! points!!!)

But the start of the pandemic made me long even more for connection, when a unmasked greeting or a trip to see family and friends was logistically difficult or simply not possible. So last April, I joined the Write_On campaign and wrote a letter a day -- as short as a single quote on a postcard to multi-paged letters. That daily practice me feel a little lighter and hopefully gave some light to others.

This year I plan to celebrate by write cards and letters during the month of April, whether part of an official challenge or not. Will you join me? It's not necessary to send 30 pieces of mail. The idea is to simply write and spread some joy. Plus, if you are in the U.S., we have the added bonus of supporting the postal service!

Here's a little round up of my favorite letter writing supplies and inspirations:


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Writing surfaces (aka PAPER)

I'll use anything, although I prefer to use a mix of stationary. My usual approach is to pick a card or postcard and write a short note. If I have more to say, I'll proceed to another piece of paper to finish up. Writing on a series of postcards and mailing them in a single envelope is also a fun way to bring visual interest and variety to a traditional letter. But going minimal with printer paper or lined paper in no-fuss envelopes makes writing even easier and more accessible.

For envelopes, I used to get craft envelopes from Muji, which are a bit thin but sturdy enough to mail postcard letters, but they're often out of stock. These days, I like Cards & Pockets (South Easton, MA). They have envelopes in just about every size and color you could imagine (unless you're an extreme Pantone geek). I got paper and envelopes from them when designing the invitation for my sister-in-law's baby shower last year, and I couldn't help but purchase some envelopes in fun colors for personal letter writing.

If you're looking for high quality cards and love-filled service, here are some small businesses I support:

// Albertine Press (Cambridge, MA) // Albertine letterpresses simple yet beautiful cards for all occasions, but I most enjoy their location-specific collections (Boston all the way!) and discounted bundles. They also sell cards and gifts from other designers, so it's a bit of a dangerous playground.

// E. Frances (Newport, RI) // Such thick, luxe, smooth paper! Such whimsical watercolors! They also have a great line of designs geared towards pandemic life that could still relevant for the After Times, postcards celebrating healthcare workers or sending socially-distanced hugs. Plus, they are trying to minimize their use of plastic, a win for the Earth.

// Em & Friends (Los Angeles, CA) // Several years ago, a friend and fellow chronic illness persister showed me Emily McDowell's Empathy cards when I was at a particularly low point, and I laughed. They were the perfect blend of snark and sympathy for life situations that need some levity despite their seriousness. The business has since expanded to include collaborations with other designers.

// Paula & Waffle (Maplewood, NJ) // I'm a bit biased here because Paula is an old friend. She started out in a totally different industry, but her doodles in the margins became the delightful illustrations that grace her cards and other stationary. I can't help but smile back at the toast.

// Smudge Ink (Acton, MA) // Compared to some other small stationary designers, Smudge Ink is a bit more affordable while still delivering on quality. Their boxed blank card collections are the best and can serve for multiple occasions (a big win for me), often costing less than $2 per card (a great price for letterpress!).


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A view of my desk, focused on a blue Audrey Hepburn cup filled with pens and pencils
Bonjour Audrey!


Writing implements

The Muji 0.5 mm black gel-ink pen is my absolute go-to, but I'm also partial to the Pentel R.S.V.P  ballpoint black pen (brings me back to middle school) or the Blackwing Palomino 1 pencil. If you really love pencils and stickers -- or aspire to be a lover of pencils and stickers -- CW Pencil Enterprise is a WONDERLAND. Really, you won't escape. (Thanks a lot, Sherry.)

My writing implements live in a blue Audrey Hepburn cup (with matching saucer) on my desk, a gift from long ago that I've finally put to good use. I also have a Sendak mini artist roll from Peg & Awl (West Chester, PA), for writing anywhere in the house or in the great outdoors. 


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A stack of letters laid out on a laptop keyboard, with a variety of stamps and lettering styles


Writing embellishers

Grab a colored pen, pencil, or marker to address your envelope or highlight sections of your letter. If you use a marker, find one that preferably won't bleed through your paper, like a highlighter. I like the Zebra Mildliner for highlighting. The Muji hexagon twin tip pen markers (in multiple colors), any Tombow brush tip marker, or even the Pentel Sign pen (a staple in architecture firms) are great for addressing envelopes with a bit of flair.

Maybe because I am a "paper magnet" (as christened by the Tall Man in a non-scientific way), but I have a collection of paper detritus from favorite restaurants or places traveled. Maybe you're like me. Or maybe you have some stickers lying around, or found a cool image in a magazine (unless you're asking, "What is print media?"). Why not include a piece or two of ephemera in your envelope?

If I'm using an envelope, I like to use some washi tape or a sticker to seal the flap. If you're the fancy type, by all means do break out that sealing wax and pretend to be the countess of Grantham as you send your mail post-haste.

Stamps. Cannot forget the stamps! Some people hunt out vintage stamps, but I'm happy with ones from the USPS. During the pandemic, I started ordering stamps from the USPS postal store, which both supports the postal service and lets me pick out designs that might not be available at my local post office.


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Writing the extra mile

If you want to learn some proper calligraphy or more casual lettering to further embellish your letters and envelopes, The Postman's Knock is a great resource. Lindsey's site has so many tips for where to start, free printables to practice, and even courses and templates for purchase. I have yet to really get into dip pen calligraphy, but she keeps inspiring me to pick it up -- one of these days!

For ample inspiration through elegant fountain pen writing, photography, illustrations, and poignant words, I look to Catharine Mi-Sook. She was one of the first accounts I followed on Instagram, and every post is poetry. She, along with others, inspired me to restart my journaling and planner practices and to look at life with eyes open to wonder.

For additional mail art inspiration and other stationary joys, you might find delight in Stationary Squirrel and Devoted Diarist, some of my other favorite papery Instagram follows.


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A pile of postcards with a bird illustration and the text "Strike! Vote!" on it. A roll of stamps sits next to the postcards.
Get out the vote postcards, part of the Sunrise Movement's campaign for the 2020 presidential election.


Postscript

Although I've listed many letter writing accoutrements that lead to products and businesses (which then might lead to purchases, the expenditure of money), I don't think letter writing should be an expensive or complicated enterprise. I've at times regrettably spent too much money on cards and the like, but I strive to be simpler. It can be as simple as a "I'm thinking of you," on a piece of plain paper, folded into quarters like a card or into thirds like a letter, placed in a plain envelope, addressed in a regular way with a single stamp, straight into a mailbox and on its way to another's mailbox.

It might be tempting to write only to those in your inner circle, like family or close friends. But I want to challenge you to write to mere acquaintances, to someone you haven't talked to for a while, or even to someone in need within or without your community, for whom a piece of mail would be sheer gold. Or use your letter or postcard writing for advocacy. It might take a little more effort with these kinds of letters -- but then again, it might not.

Why do I write letters? I write to stay in touch. I write to thank someone. I write to tell someone that I'm thinking of them, that they are seen and not forgotten. I write to share something super exciting (much like this blog post)! I write to process my thoughts, for catharsis (also much like this blog post). I write to celebrate from afar. I write when I am well and when my joints hurt and my heart aches. I write in a timely manner, and I write embarrassingly late after the occasion. I mostly write in English. I write because I utterly love stationary and papery things. I write to make life more embodied, more lived.

Why might you write?

Go grab some coffee or cozy tea, and let's write!


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P.P.S. I haven't received commission for featuring any of these businesses. I just love them and hope you might, too!

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