It seems to me writing letters is a lot like running: great while you’re doing it, great having done it, and the rewards are many, but making it part of your routine is the stumbling block. I always have the best of intentions, and own things like stationery and note cards and pretty stamps and fountain pens. I imagine I probably write more letters than the average person, but that bar is awfully low these days so I don’t think I’d better be patting myself on the back anytime soon.
Making something into a habit, though, is another matter, especially if it’s some process outside of your usual program. That requires a Big Push, and for that, you need a little influx of inspiration. And while it’s tempting to go for the grand kind of inspiration, that can discourage as much as it motivates. It’s great to get all fired up looking at Edward Gorey’s illustrated envelopes, which are pretty much the apex of all letter writing, ever. Or you could aspire to be Ray Johnson, John Fellows, or Ed Higgins.
But you know what… you’re not going to be any of them, or else you’d have rolled your eyes and skipped this post entirely. What you, and I, and anyone else who’s even slightly inclined toward putting real pen to real paper, needs are examples of how beautiful regular old letters can be. And for that, I give you the Smithsonian Archives of American Art’s online exhibit of The Art of Handwriting—a lovely sampling of how good words on a page, written to someone else, can look.
Granted, these are artists’ letters, and they might look a bit nicer than the average scrawled note. But there’s no sense trying to get fired up by something drab. And while a few of them—like Louis Lozowick’s elegantly bat-embellished letter to his wife—get fancy, most exemplify the show’s basic thesis: “Handwriting animates paper.” If Abraham Ratner’s handwriting doesn’t make you itch to pick up something to write with, or Lee Krasner’s cheerful little airmail letter to Jackson Pollock, then maybe you really are better off with email. But if you are so inclined, these might just put you in the mood.
Aren’t they beautiful? Good. Now, go write a letter.
(Letter is from Eero Saarinen to his wife Aline, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art.)