All letters ... should be as free and easy as one's discourse, not studied like an oration, nor made up of harsh words like a charm. -- Dorothy Osborne (Lady Temple) in a letter to Sir William Temple, October 1653
Old-fashioned personal letters are an endangered species. And the art of composing such letters (it is unquestionably an art) seems close to being lost.
If things started falling apart with the telephone, I guess when PCs, faxes, overnight mail, cordless phones and phone-answering machines became the norm in the mid-'80s, putting pen to paper became an unnatural act.
Mind you, I'm not categorically knocking any of these innovations. I use them, I like them and I depend on them. But these quickie devices that deliver instant gratification have become such an intrinsic, ersatz way of communicating that very few of us today write letters or even consider letter-writing to be what it should be: a pleasure.
Machines are good -- for deadlines, goals and fulfilling tasks. They are about input/output, the impersonal, efficient transfer of information. They are about accomplishing stuff, getting things done in a hurry.
They are modern and mostly not for fun or introspection or secrets or confessions or stories or lust. (The single exception I would make is the typewriter, especially if your handwriting does not resemble that old-lady script you were supposed to emulate in grade school because "neatness counts.")
But the nearly obsolete handwritten letter has no substitute. It always has been and always will be la vrai chose -- the real thing. Writing a letter is a ritual of intimacy and sanctuary. It requires the gift of time. You linger over it, you savor it, you hold it in your hands. It satisfies, psychologically and tangibly.
Letters take solitude and quiet, a certain degree of concentration and feeling. To write a letter is a ceremony whose essential requisite is the writer's acceptance of some vulnerability, delayed gratification and indelibility.
Herewith, some thoughts about the art of writing a good personal letter. I'm not a PhD or anything on the subject. But I know what I like:
Don't use a pencil. Pencils are for weenies. Penciled letters are difficult to read and smack of insincerity. Personally, I love the look and feel of fountain pens; if you spill anything, the ink runs, and that's a retro-romantic bonus. It evokes the image of getting caught in the rain and all that. Very film noir and literary.
Felt-tip pens are fun since you can use a rainbow of colors to write with. They run a little, too. But for best legibility, use a simple ballpoint. And not the kind that leaves ink blobs on the paper. Please.
For the writing surface itself, I love using art cards, the kind from museum gift-shops. But heavy, plain, watermarked paper is truly classic. So is hotel stationery, which is always a neat geographic souvenir, so long as the city's postmark on the envelope corresponds, so to speak, with the hotel's address. Otherwise, it lacks credibility.
Tacky, campy motel stationery is always a welcome hoot, too. (And I love postcards, but those are just bite-sized wanderlust snacks.) Also, I don't much go in for writing on both sides of a page. If the stationery is thin, or if the writer is one to press down hard, it gets messy and hard to make out.
Avoid using recycled materials for stationery. For example, I have a correspondent who lives in Brooklyn. Whenever she writes, she likes to use the backs of things, such as insurance forms or supply requisitions from her office. You could celebrate her recycling esprit de corps, but I just don't find it particularly aesthetic. I find it cheap. Don't get me wrong. She does write well -- if infrequently -- but her presentation is a turnoff.
On the other hand, I once shared a three-year correspondence with Woody Allen. He used an antique, hand-tinted postcard from Yellowstone Park once. The rest of the time he scribbled on textured stationery that looked like grocery bag paper (with his name embossed in black at the top). It was smart and simple. Classy. Of course, at some point Mia Farrow must have out-written me somehow. And I resent that.
A few words on neatness. I have a cousin. Zev. He's one of my favorite relatives, in fact, and lives in Zurich. We've been corresponding for years. An international banker, he sends me letters usually written while on airline flights all around the world. I've often handwritten my letters to him, blithely assuming that my handwriting is generally reader-friendly.
Recently, he wrote me one of his typically wry letters on lovely, evocative European onionskin paper. His opening read: "Dearest Cousin: Took your last letter along with me to Greece, hoping that perhaps one of the locals there might translate it for me." All my letters to him now are typed. If you're not sure about the quality of your handwriting, it's completely kosher to use a typewriter.
I had a college professor, Lewis Lawson, who used to say that the worst typing is easier to read than the best handwriting. Diane Wakoski, in her poem, "What I Want in a Man Besides a Moustache," favorably mentions men who type their letters. Just be sure to use a fairly fresh ribbon. Anemic print drives orbs -- aging and straining or otherwise -- batty. And, don't be stingy with the Liquid Paper.
Give yourself enough time and do it in a quiet place. Cafes, bars and other noisy, crowded, smoky, distracting places are great -- for atmosphere, drinking, smoking and watching people. Or maybe for writing postcards in which you describe the above. But not for actual letters, which require your undivided attention.
A sturdy, spacious table or desk, where you can stretch out your mind and your body, is ideal. Sometimes it's enhancing to play soft music in the background (you can mention what you're listening to in your letter, and that helps to establish a given mood).
I once wrote a letter to my boyfriend in which I noted that I prefer all-white beds because they let my dreams be all-color. It's the same with writing. "White" noise (or silence) frees your imagination like a detached helium balloon.
Write the way you talk and don't bore yourself or your reader. "Dear (fill in the blank): I'm fine. The family's fine. How are you? It's been raining cats and dogs ... " These lines are not hopelessly bad, but most people I know don't talk like that.
Avoid cliches. Health, family and weather are not intrinsically dull. It is up to you to make them that way. Or not. Inject your pen with your personality and let it flow. Your reader wants details that are specific, suggestive, offbeat: "My lawyer uncle, Alfred, has been on a major losing streak. He's nursing a broken heart by going out drinking (etcetera) tonight at a bar called 'Shooters', can you imagine? With his luck, he'll get struck by a bolt of summer lightning before he ever sets a wingtip in the dive."
You see, writing a good letter is like making a really fine supper for yourself and someone you love. The main ingredient is time.
A truly personal letter is selfish in terms of the pleasure you get from expressing yourself openly to an uninterrupting recipient. It's unselfish because it keeps its audience in heart and mind. It is an act of love. It humanizes. There's nothing obsolete about that.