The Letter as Genre: Course Offered at MU

marty townsend

Photo courtesy Loren Elliott.

If you’ve been paying much attention to the “slow writing” community, you’ll remember a few uproars within the last year after various prominent journals published columns on the death of writing as our grandparents knew it. (Who can forget Nick Bilton’s melodratic opener to his eulogy to the pen?) These articles which fret over waning interest in writing forecast a return to darker times when we used our fingers as stylii, our mobile screens providing the proverbial dust in which we scratch out our barbarian acronyms. We know, of course, that the world isn’t abandoning slow writing just yet, and we know that slow writing can coexist with digital media because it provides a unique experience that the instant gratification of a text message can’t replicate.

But these articles are good for something other than exciting intergenerational tension. Last week, traditional letter-writing made front page news in my little Midwestern town in a report about a course at the university on the fine art of the letter. Marty Townsend, an English professor at the University of Missouri, received a grant from our Campus Writing Program to teach a course she designed — inspired by one of the aforementioned articles — called The Letter As Genre. My initial reaction on seeing the headline was pure frustration — frustration that I’d missed out on the class!

In addition to writing letters of their own, students “studied different kinds of letters, including correspondence written in the Middle Ages and letters from Martin Luther King Jr […,] pored over letters from politicians and soldiers, friends and lovers [, and] read the love letters from John and Abigail Adams, Warren G. Harding, Virginia Woolf and others.” Some students reported taking up letter writing on their own time because of the class.

You can read the article in full here. I’m including the full text beneath the cut here so it’s still accessible after the article locks to subscribers only.

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Linkage: Snail Mail Data Design


Image from

From a report at Wired:

Information designers Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec have been engaged in a  curious kind of correspondence for the past 28 weeks: postcards featuring meticulously hand-drawn compilations of “small data” generated in their daily lives.

Each postcard features a kind of graph on one side: from a collection of colorful circles, composed of hash marks and resembling Old Gallifreyan script, that report phone usage to a series of what appear at first glance to be very odd musical phrases and turn out to be a graph of “musical complaints.” The other side of each postcard offers a legend to reading the graph.

They plan to spend a year on the project, which they are calling Dear Data. You can see the whole thing here at their website. Definitely take some time to browse through the images collected there. It’s a fascinating approach to correspondence, art, information and graphic design, and journaling, one that could prove inspirational for many of us humble pen bloggers/correspondees/diarists/note-takers/marginalia artists/what-have-you. After all, many of us could consider ourselves “information designers” of a sort!

Modern Desk Essentials: Make a Correspondence Kit

Recently I found myself writing a letter to a friend who resolved to be a better letter-writer this year. It’s been almost a year since I myself started my letter-writing project (the first anniversary is in March), and while I’ve written more letters over these past eleven months than I have in the rest of my years combined, I know I too have room for improvement. However, I’ve also developed a system that helps hugely in the turnover rate of my correspondence. This how-to post serves not only as advice for pen-friends looking to streamline their postal process, but as a reminder to myself of the reasons why this blog even exists!

1. Find a Container

Get yourself a box or a special, durable folder in which to stash your correspondence gear. Portability is a top priority here, but if your container is also attractive and unique you’ll use it more often. I have an A4-sized cardboard document folio for this purpose, emblazoned with a map of Germany, which not only serves as a quick reference tool but is also a good conversation starter! My friend Maria gave it to me and I think they are fairly common in Germany, sold as Sammelboxen or Heftboxen. These cardboard boxes also work well as a lap-desk if you take your kit to go.

Here is a German-language site where you can order all different kinds of cool Heftboxen, including the one pictured above!  I like this one with black and white flowers, this map of Europe, and the map of the world. But I’d add the Rolling Stones one to my collection in a heartbeat.

Assemble the Essentials


Then assemble a collection of everything you need to write AND SEND a letter:

  • Beautiful stationery.
    • It doesn’t have to be the high-quality stuff you keep in your top desk drawer, and in fact I’d recommend keeping your boxed set of Crane’s paper in the desk, especially if you plan on making this a portable correspondence kit! Your correspondence kit should contain, rather, all-purpose stationery that can hold up to a little shuffling around in your Heftbox. Notecards, postcards, or a colorful stationery set from Papyrus or — better yet — an independent seller on Etsy will do very well.
  • A favorite pen.
    • If you’re not the type to carry around a fountain pen wherever you go, at least put one in your correspondence kit. A Kaweco Classic Sport with a fine nib is inexpensive, small, takes international cartridges, and makes writing a fine and special experience that will inspire you to write more.
  • A pretty address book.
    • I use a Roterfaden address book: it’s size A6 so it has plenty of room for collecting all the addresses I will ever need to use.
  • A book of cool stamps.
    • Your local post office should have some variety. I like ordering online because there are so many more to choose from! American customers, go to the USPS website. A word of caution: Buying stamps can become a bad habit.

An anecdote: just as I was writing this, my supervisor sighed and muttered to herself, “No stamp.
“Do you need a stamp?” I asked her across our desks, trying to conceal my eagerness and failing pretty badly.
She said yes, starting to laugh at herself. She told me she’d gotten this important letter all ready to send off but had completely forgotten a stamp at home.
“I have stamps!” I offered. “What kind would you like?”
“Oh, just a plain first-class forever stamp.”
“Yes, but what kind?” I prompted. “I have Year of the Ram, Batman, Jimi Hendrix, famous choreographers, Harry Potter, Civil War battles, birds, flowers, 2013 and 2014 Christmas, and Hudson River School stamps….” I didn’t even mention the international and alternate denominations. “Plain” is not a word that exists in my stationery vocabulary.

I keep extra fun things in my letter kit, especially stickers — check out those Karas Kustoms decals and the puffy fox stickers! I have a transparent file to hold my stamps and stickers, and an accordion file (not pictured) for note- and post-cards, plus any interesting flyers or paper ephemera my penpals might like. Also: nifty canceled stamps from far-off friends. These are fun to decorate envelopes with.

How To Use

When you get a letter, if you can’t answer it immediately, put it somewhere you can’t forget about it. I’ll often put mine on my laptop or at my place at the breakfast table, where I take care of most of my correspondence.

As soon as you get a chance, sit down at a table or a desk with the letter and your kit and answer it. Try to do it all in one go. Don’t worry about your letter not being long enough; sometimes you just have time for a couple of pages. Anyway, when was the last time you got a letter and were disappointed because it wasn’t eight pages long?

Seal, address, and stamp it immediately and go stick it in the mail. If you’re like me, the process gets hung up at this stage, so be extra vigilant here.

Et voila! You’ve become a prompt penpal!


The advanced letter writing kit also contains:

Handmade envelopes
A writing mat
Washi tape
Rubber stamps and multicolored stamp pads
Small scissors
Crayons, colored pencils, or markers
Custom address labels and/or address stamp
Letter Writers Alliance membership card ($5 for lifetime membership!)
Guide to postage prices (ask or leave a note for your post person)
A guide to correspondence etiquette (take it with a grain of salt or leave it)
Familiarity with a few topical/epistolary novels, e.g. The Sorrows of Young Werther, Love in the Time of Cholera, or Ella Minnow Pea (just kidding — but it’s good to have a couple of relevant passages memorized that you can whip out and impress your penpals with!)

I also keep a record of incoming and outgoing mail. To get the Penventory look: order one $10 set of Field Notes’ “Ambition” edition. Use the olive-green ledger to record each piece of mail that passes through your fingers. Like so:

At a single glance I can see if there are any letters that need replying to and I also have a physical record of my productivity! And the subject helps me keep track of dozens of conversations (because who can remember what they cooked for dinner last night, let alone whether they’ve told a penpal XYZ?).

The most important element of your correspondence kit: creativity! Feel free to “think outside the envelope” when it comes to writing letters. Avoid the dreaded “How are you? I’m fine” opener. Wax lyrical on your favorite breakfast item. Write an ode to your cat. Compose an entire letter without once using the letter “E.” Make up fanfiction about your grade school music teacher who was, you were pretty sure, an undercover international spy.

And get personal. Handwritten letters are intimate. They’re a little piece of your soul, gift-wrapped for another human being. Think deep thoughts and ask hard questions. Let your letters expand you and your correspondee to encompass worlds of words.

Letter-Writing Advice From the 18th Century

Shannon Chamberlain published an interesting article yesterday at The Atlantic about business correspondence manuals in the 18th century and how they helped people to improve and refine their communication. It’s an interesting article, especially some of her thoughts toward the end about how the correspondence manual might be a helpful tool even today:

Even as we learn that young people do more writing these days than ever, we bemoan their lack of basic communication skills, the influence of texting on their orthography, and the fact that they talk like Internet cats to their potential employers.

The banal familiarity of the handwringing about the younger generation’s foibles doesn’t quite dull the shock of getting an email addressed “heyyyyy profesor” or punctuated with “dude” in lieu of commas or periods (I am not a dude). But there are other, subtler ways in which the world of the 18th-century correspondence manual resonates with our current context, ones that suggest that a revival of the letter-writing manual might be in order.

She also writes that in 1751, the Earl of Chesterfield offered some advice to his son Philip on the topic of his business correspondence: “In business, an elegant simplicity, the result of care, not of labor, is required.” Good advice even today for those of us whose occupation involves correspondence, whether it’s email or even text message. At its heart, this is why I prefer the carefully-written text message to emails or telephone calls when coordinating or exchanging quick bits of information: the nature of the text message is brevity above all, inclining one to dispense with the very American tendency to pad communication with small-talk and other filler.

Check out the article, and let me know your thoughts. Do you think there’s a use for correspondence manuals in today’s realm of business communication? Do you bemoan the influence of text messaging, or do you think there’s something redeemable there?

Love At First Write: Tomoe River Correspondence Paper

IMG_2664Although I’ve already written quite a bit about Tomoe River paper (or its various forms) before — both in my post on the Seven Seas Writer journal and my Tomoe River master post — I really haven’t gone into the format that I use on an almost daily basis: the humble correspondence pad from Paper For Fountain Pens.

IMG_2662This pad contains 100 sheets of A5-size paper. PFFP sells them in bundles of three for about $20, and is it ever worth it. I have the white version. The sheets are sandwiched between a stiff cardboard back (stamped with the PFFP URL) and a sheet of heavier forest-green paper front. The whole bundle is bound with glue at the top.The sheets are very easy to tear out; I’ve only ever had one corner rip. Once you get toward the bottom of the pad, the cover is likely to fall off. You won’t be toting this pad around with you, unless you don’t mind getting the edges banged up, scuffed, or crumpled.

The paper itself: This is, hands down, the best paper I’ve ever used in my life. It’s extremely thin, translucent even, clocking in at only 52gsm. I’ve described it as feather-light and thin as onion-skin. But despite its apparent fragility, it handles every ink I’ve thrown at it with boundless grace and fortitude.

IMG_2663You can see the delicate golden sheen in the example of the Iroshizuku Momiji ink above. I like Clairefontaine well enough for ink reviews and note-taking, but while its plush surface increases dry time, Tomoe River paper does not. And the only way I’ve ever gotten it to bleed is by pressing too hard with a flex pen.

IMG_2667There is quite a lot of ghosting with TR paper. However, if you’re using letter sheets, it shouldn’t be a problem at all (as one is supposed to write on only one side of a letter sheet). If you’re journaling on it, see my post about ghosting. (Tl;dr: I think that ghosting becomes a non-issue once you write over it.)

Over the past few months, Tomoe River paper has become the ONLY stationery I use for my correspondence. I even carved my own letterhead stamp for it. Because it’s so lightweight, it allows you to write lengthy letters without having to worry about extra postage. It ENCOURAGES you to write lengthy letters, because it’s such a pleasure to write on.

IMG_2665Bottom line: if you use fountain pens, grab yourself some Tomoe River paper. You won’t regret it.