ˈvər-chə-wəlˈdā-vəs Serial storyteller, poetry pusher, digital doodler, flâneur.

A Better Letter Manifesto v1.0

Write a better letter. Today we text and tweet and update and email and vmail and blog and vlog, but we don’t write enough letters. Or even notes. With paper and ink and stamps.

James Willis Westlake on how to write a better letter

James Willis Westlake on how to write a better letter

Digital communications are proliferating. Children can type before they can handwrite, thumb-text before they can thumb-hike. (Remember hitch hiking? It’s sort of similar to bell bottoms and vinyl albums. All three will be cool again, mark my words.)

I have a special soft spot for the lost art of letter-writing — an art robbed of romance and even basic courtesy in the age of rapid-fire, efficiency-obsessed, typed-with-one-thumb-on-a-tiny-keyboard communication. ~ Maria Popova (Brain Pickings)

How to Write Letters, by James Willis Westlake

How to Write Letters, by James
Willis Westlake (

While I’m no Luddite and I’m not proposing a ban on day-in, day-out digital communications, I am challenging you to write a better letter. A better love letter, cover letter, resignation letter, condolence letter, congratulations letter,…

I’m not talking about the glut of letter writing tips available online or even this refreshing tutorial: “to write a better letter, go fly a kite“. Sure there’s still room for James Willis Westlake’s How to Write Letters: A Manual of Correspondence, Showing the Correct Structure which I discovered via the perennially plugged-in and chronically contemplative Maria Popova’s post. (Check out her post, “How To Write Letters: A Guide to the Lost Art of Epistolary Etiquette circa 1896“.) There is still room, ample room, in fact. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about how to compose better personal, handwritten notes and letters. You dig? (That’s a bell bottom, vinyl album, hitch hiking way of asking if you understand me so far.) Here’s how to write a better letter.

Write with a Pen

Handwriting, even when it’s smudgy or loopy or crossed out or misspelled is real. And we crave real, now more than ever. Use a pen to write a better letter. It will look and feel and smell and maybe even taste like you. Well, probably it won’t taste like you, but who’s checking? Your ink-written letter will become slightly unintelligible when the recipient is so moved that s/he sheds a tear. Splash. A blurred word or two. Forever. This is good. It permits the recipient to imagine whatever words they want to imagine in your letter. This is subversive. But it is good. Very, very good!

Write with a Pencil

Scared $#!%less of the pen’s permanence. I know, it takes bravery. Or abandon. But don’t worry. You can still write a better letter even if you’re daunted by indelible pen and ink. Use a pencil to write a better letter. Yes, you can erase and rewrite and waffle, but it’s still pretty darned real. Intimate even.

Cross Out & Correct

A Better Letter?

A Better Letter?

Leave evidence that you are fallible, that you changed your mind, that your emotions and memories are forever evolving. Don’t hide your edits. Include them. They are part of the story. Part of you. Especially if they embarrass you. Digital communications are like airbrushed posters. Slightly fake. Only, its hard to be certain which part is fake and which part is real. That’s not cool. Real is cool. Marginalia is cool. Open up and share!


Don’t take yourself so seriously. Especially if it is a serious letter. Levity is the best therapy. And it’s enjoyable. Doodle even if you are totally self conscious about your artistic abilities (or lack thereof). Actually, doodle especially if you are self conscious about your artistic disabilities. It’s humble. It’s trusting. It’s generous. And it gets easier each time you try. You might even find that you are a natural doodler. I think we all are!

Write Often

Practice makes perfect. Familiar? What about this? Practice gets monotonous. We extol the virtues of practice, practice, practice, and in the process I’m afraid we sometimes stifle enthusiasm and teach risk aversion. Writing (and actually mailing) a letter is still practice. But it’s also exciting. And a wee bit risky. Did we make a mistake? Did we go too far? Did we not go far enough? And it will inspire you to fire off another letter. Write often. Practice will absolutely make you a better letter writer, but remember to send out the letters you write. Write often. Send often. Become a better letter writer!

If you’re not quite ready to practice on your near and dear (I’m thinking of the pencil letter writers) you might want to check out Mike O’Mary‘s note project which would be the perfect way to practice by sending letters to perfect strangers!

The Note Project is an ongoing campaign to make the world a million times better by inspiring people to share notes of appreciation. (The Note Project)

Go. Write. Now!

Book as Enduring Symbol

As we watch the book transition into its fraught future, will the eventual scarcity of traditional volumes mean we can no longer recognize an image of that rectangular thing as a symbol of “learning, poise, wisdom and moral fortitude?” Or will the book as a symbol spring eternal? ~ Porter Anderson (Writer Unboxed)

Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) takes on “Book as Symbol” and concludes that it is as perennial as spring. Though debating Porter is an enjoyable sport, I rarely find the opportunity, such reasoning undergirding even his lighthearted and sarcastic observations. Instead I pass along the unfathomably clever comments I appended to his post…

le bibliophile

Le Bibliophile (Credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a bibliophile by default, and a digital reader by convenience. No. Scratch that. I am a reader by default and a print book, digital book and audio book omnivore by habit. And increasingly by appetite. In fact, I often purchase and “read” a title in all three formats. Bundling anyone? After all, print books still make awfully quaint wrappers.

“If anything, I find we badly overuse the traditional book as a symbol.” ~ Porter Anderson (Writer Unboxed)

Indeed! A nostalgic eleventh hour attempt to ensure the symbol’s immortality? I’m reminded by Vaughn Roycroft’s anecdote (read Porter’s post and then scan down to Roycroft’s comment to enjoy his quirky story) of a library and garden designer I once knew who sold fancy folks learned libraries by the foot. Paneling, bookshelves, paint, leather club chairs, carpet, musty odor and collector’s edition books. Silly gobs of money for guilt tomes that might as well have been hacked spines glued into 4″ shelves.

English: Mabie Todd Swan 14k gold flexible nib

Mabie Todd Swan fountain pen (Credit: Wikipedia)

That said, the book will endure, not just as a symbol, but as a luxury. An indulgence. A preference. Many of us after all still age wines to perfection and draw ink into fountain pens despite the preponderance of cheaper, easier, more abundant and better marketed alternatives. I haven’t ever ridden in a chariot or published poems on stone tablets, but I instantly recognize both in humanity’s timeless iconography.

And what a joy it will be one day many decades anon to creak open the dusty spine of a vintage Quixote to read aloud to my grand nieces and nephews… Even with Porter’s Campari stains obscuring some of the text.

What do you think? Will the book endure as a symbol? Or perhaps it follow the slide rule and the Ford Pinto off to EFFI (the Elysian Fields of Forgotten Innovations, which incidentally, might be near Pine Point…)

Wonder, Gratitude and Change

As we forward-march to 2013’s drum, let’s not forget our capacity for wonder, gratitude, and collective impact. Because the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world… are the ones who do. (Carson Kahn, Medium)

Video Credits: “Symbiosis” (Pilobolus), “God Music” (George Crumb), “Fratres” (Arvo Part) “Morango… Almost a Tango” (Thomas Oboe Lee)

On Wonder

Instead of imposing your story/ies, you need to open up, to become receptive and unjudging. To listen, I mean really listen, you have to be curious. To listen deeply, you have to suspend your own assumptions and convictions. (The Wonder of Storytelling)

On Gratitude

Many days, I try to humble myself and hold a 2-minute gratitude session… I don’t do it every day, but let me tell you, on the days I do it, it makes me very happy… Why should the simple act of thinking about who and what I’m grateful for make such a big difference in my life?

Just a few reasons:

  • Because it reminds you of the positive things in your life…
  • Because it turns bad things into good things…
  • Because it reminds you of what’s important…
  • Because it reminds you to thank others…

(Leo Babauta, zenhabits)

On Change

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. (Mahatma Gandhi,

The rest is up to you… Good luck!

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