Monday, July 11, 2011

Monday Letter Lore: "I Dont Know What Art is All About"

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1918
There are careers, and there are passions, and then there are the friends who help you sort them out.

I've been told I'm very good, and I'm fairly compensated, in my career in non-profit member communications. And while I do like my job, I can't say I love it.

What I love is handwriting letters to friends and family and endeavoring to inspire others to do the same. These activities are my passion, but I often do wonder, am I really any good at them? (The inspiration part, I guess. I'm willing to believe that I'm pretty good at writing letters.)

I felt a little bit better about my self-doubt when I read the subject of this week's Monday Letter Lore, a letter from legendary artist Georgia O'Keeffe to a friend in New York. (This letter is yet another from the simply extraordinary America 1900-1999: Letters of the Century.)

At the time O'Keeffe had spent several week in her beloved New Mexico, the new home that inspired some of her most amazing work. In the letter she recounts reading an art book--one that features a profile of her and is the lone piece of printed material she has brought along:

July 31, 1931

I dont know what it is all about. I look through the rest of the book and decide that frankly--I dont know what Art is all about--

Georgia O'Keeffe didn't think she knew what art was all about. Georgia O'Keeffe--one of America's most important modern artists and a celebrated cultural icon--doubted she knew what ART was all about.

Reading her words, I realized two things:

  1. I ought not let my worries about whether I excel at my passion keep me from pursuing it.

  2. How precious is the person or people in our lives to whom we can admit anything, even the seemingly self-incriminating.
 For me, one of those precious people is a bestselling author friend. As I have struggled to establish my own writing career, she has encouraged me, serendipitously put me in touch with people who could help, and most of all served as a role model for never losing sight of your true passion, no matter what other accomplishments you accumulate along the way. (She was a successful interior designer before becoming a multimillion-dollar selling author.)

My friend once said to me that I have this dream--to write with the intent of helping save the art of handwritten correspondence--because it is attainable. I'm not dreaming about being an astronaut, or a supermodel, or a Supreme Court justice. I'm dreaming about something that is within my abilities to achieve. I took the opportunity of a letter to thank her for those special words, which have pulled me through many of my own "I don't know Art is all about" moments:

You're right--I had the dream because I'm supposed to fulfill it. So, so amazing ... thanks for being a reason to believe that dreams can come true, that dignity, class, dedication and faith will prevail and the universe is listening more closely and actively than we know.

When I've pondered my life's work--What it should be? How can I do it? Do I really know how to do it?--there have been seemingly endless resources to help me sort it out. Life coaches, websites, seminars and books have all helped, but nothing can replace the words of a friend who knows me and knows what I'm trying to achieve, and has spotted at the end of the tunnel the light I thought had long since been extinguished.

I'm reminded, too, that inasmuch as my friend was my cheerleader, I may wittingly, or unwittingly, play the same role for someone else in my life. It is a privilege and an honor I can't take lightly.

Write on.

DID YOU KNOW LETTERS & JOURNALS MAGAZINE HAS A FACEBOOK PAGE? If you're like me and can't get enough of lovely stationery and journals, you'll want to become a fan and watch for the regular, lust-inducing giveaways offered along with news and curiosities from the world of handwritten correspondence.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Precious Time

Lately, far more often than I'd like to admit, I've found myself thinking, "I don't have time to write a letter today," or "I'll write tomorrow" or "Maybe I'll find time this weekend."

It's not that life hasn't indeed been busy. A family member was recently hospitalized. My toddler--despite being on the run and up the walls and down the stairs all day long--never seems to get tired. Expanded responsibilities and new technologies challenge me at my job.

No, it's not that extra time and energy aren't scarce. Rather, it's the conclusions I draw about that reality--that somehow, using some of my precious minutes to write a letter is either too relaxing (shouldn't I be cleaning the refrigerator instead?) or not relaxing enough (why not just unwind with some channel surfing and chardonnay?)

But when I do compose a note, as I did recently to my friend L from college, I am reminded that letter writing offers both discipline and release. Sure, putting pen to paper is a mental exercise requiring a bit more time and physical labor than texting, but, done right, it's a spiritual practice too. I suppose some letters for some people are a blood pressure-raising experience, but I have chosen to devote none of mine to settling scores with adversaries or hashing out bygone dramas with estranged relatives. Instead, my letters to friends and family reminisce on shared good times, recall old jokes and recognize how enriched I am by the blessings my relationships have bestowed. Like I told L:

I am so glad we have kept in touch through our Christmas cards. I look forward every year to your letter--I so enjoy hearing about your travels and your charity work, and I am so inspired by your sense of adventure and optimism.

It's when I'm most busy, my days filled with opportunities and obligations, that I most need a practice that encourages me to slow down, be thankful and think abundantly. While letter writing can seemingly threaten to leave me with less precious time, in the end it helps to make more of my time precious.

Write on.

MUCH MORE THAN COOKIES: More than a dozen women who were Girl Scouts together almost 40 years ago have kept their friendships strong. I am inspired, and a little nostalgic for our my own fond memories of Camp Wood E Lo Hi.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

No Two Alike

In the past month I've been to two communications conferences where the focus has been, not surprisingly, on all things digital. So much content for us to consume--websites, wikis, blogs and social networks. A next big thing called content curation.

And so many ways to consume --smartphones, tablets, Internet TV, to say nothing of those antiques, the laptop and desktop PC.

It's all so simple. And so fast. Talking to so many people, in so little time.

It was enough to make a girl say, "Tell me again why I'm handwriting letters?"

Fair question. But here's the thing: for all the things electronic communication can do, there are some things it can't:

Create a tangible connection. When I receive a handwritten letter in the mail, I know that the sender touched that same piece of paper. No matter how many thousands of miles I erase when Facebooking with my friend in Japan, I still can't create that same intimacy.

Leave something valuable behind. Yes, emails can be printed and saved. But how many are? And when an email is printed, in that Times New Roman or Courier font, on that run-of-the-mill (literally) white printer paper, how personal does it seem? At a glance, does that letter look any different than the water bill? A stack of letters saved in a box looks like a piece of history. A stack of emails printed out looks like, well, a stack of printouts.

A handwritten letter is a representation of the sender, with all of his or her idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. The paper. The handwriting. The color of the pen. The straight, or decidedly not straight, lines. Drawings in the margin. The postscript(s).

Case in point: I recently received a letter from T, a public defender. When I was learning the ropes as a newspaper reporter he was my nemesis; when I earned his trust he was a valued source; now I'm proud to call him a friend. I wrote to thank him for all he taught me. His response noted, in part, that he'd shown my letter (which he described as "a pretty large rock thrown into the tranquil pond of my cognition") to another reporter "I done went and scared/offended/pissed off at the courthouse."

T could have typed all that in an email, and I would have still smiled at the sentiment. But somehow the words weighed more written on the nice stationery, in that same tall, skinny scrawl I remember from all those court filings. I knew T didn't start and stop and delete and spellcheck--it was one time through, no rehearsals, from the heart.

And that's the thing about handwritten letters--and the snowflakes that illustrate this post--no two are alike. Because no two of us are alike. A letter is uniquely personal, someone's blood, sweat and ink. The product of his or her hand, to be held in yours.

Write on.

HANDWRITING IS GOOD FOR YOU? Believe it. A recent Los Angeles Times article notes that "Emerging research shows that handwriting increases brain activity, hones fine motor skills, and can predict a child's academic success in ways that keyboarding can't."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Monday Letter Lore: "Unpack"

Today's letter, a reminder that not all letters need be lengthy, comes courtesy of one of my favorite new books: America 1900-1999: Letters of the Century. Hundreds of the letters by the famous, the infamous and the unknown. When a letter writer stops to read, and her mailbox is empty, this is what she picks up.

After disproving the predictions to win the White House -- and holding high the erroneous Chicago Tribune proclaiming Dewey's victory for the now iconic photo -- President Harry S. Truman received this short and sweet letter from his friend, comedian Bob Hope:

November 3, 1948

President Harry Truman
The White House
Washington, D.C.


Bob Hope

Some of my letters have been brief (though Mr. Hope, naturally, was far more successful at finding the wit that Shakespeare so lovingly associated with brevity) but others seemed to march toward some mysterious word limit that must be reached in order for a letter to have meaning. I can definitely think of times when I've rambled on needlessly, times when shorter indeed would have been sweeter.

So while I've certainly had opportunities to write one -- or two or three or seventy-seven -- word fewer, could I ever express myself with just one word? An interesting proposition indeed; what might it be? "Thanks"? "Sorry"? "Help"?

Write on.

ONE-WORD WISDOM: To discover what can really be done with one word, check out my friend's blog, Jen has cleverly surmounted writer's block by sending cards to friends, asking them for words to use as writing prompts. Just as fun as reading what's she produced so far is perusing the "word list" and seeing what's to come!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Monday Letter Lore: "A Quarter Century's Worth of Thanks"

If The Letter Jar project has had one consistent theme, it's gratitude. At times it has seemed there are as many reasons to be grateful as there are names in the jar (a wonderful situation indeed). I've thanked:

*A former employee for his dedication and creativity

*A one-time presidential candidate for treating me with respect when I interviewed him as a cub reporter

*My son's daycare teacher for her extraordinary support and skill

*The public defender who made me a better reporter

I've thanked an airline customer service agent who made a difference for me at a crucial moment, favorite musicians for sharing their gifts. Old flames for teaching me how to have fun. My parents for raising me well.

The dozens of thank yous I've penned have humbled me -- I've wondered at times how an average gal like me gets so lucky and deserves such riches. However the letter below, discovered through the truly amazing Letters of Note website, shows that not even the most "un-average" among us are above acknowledging help. Here, on the 25th anniversary of the lunar landing, the first man on the moon thanks the makers of his "EMU," or Extravehicular Mobility Unit:

To the EMU gang:

I remember noting a quarter century or so ago that an emu was a 6 foot Australian flightless bird. I thought that got most of it right.

It turned out to be one of the most widely photographed spacecraft in history. That was no doubt due to the fact that it was so photogenic. Equally responsible for its success was its characteristic of hiding from view its ugly occupant.

Its true beauty, however, was that it worked. It was tough, reliable and almost cuddly.

To all of you who made it all that it was, I send a quarter century's worth of thanks and congratulations.


Neil A. Armstrong

The perfect thank you -- humble, heartfelt and even a little humorous (the "almost cuddly" EMU?) Who doesn't have someone to thank for working for us, for giving us a lift when we needed it, for a boost in our critical hour?

Write on.