Exploring the epistolary art

Participants in a Sitka Center workshop may discover how letter-writing can survive the digital age, keep people connected, and restore deep focus

Tucked in the back of my closet is a small, blue suitcase I’ve hauled around with me since I was 18. Inside are bundles of letters, handwritten to me in the first years after I moved from Pennsylvania to Alaska.

Letters from my mom address my plans to move to France (“I don’t think France cares for us right now,” she wrote in 1979 on lined legal-pad paper) and eventually to study for my real-estate license. Letters from the musician I’d agreed to marry seem aimed at inspiring guilt, as in “I thought you were coming back.” Letters from my older sister detail, in her near-perfect penmanship, the mundanity of our small town – whom she ran into, where she applied for a job, how her daughter was (or was not) behaving.

Back then, unless you could afford the long-distance bills (my phone was frequently disconnected, thanks to my inability to keep-it-short), letters were how you kept in touch.

Laura Moulton will teach a workshop Aug. 17 and 18 on "The Art of the Letter" that will include making collage envelopes to deliver students' missives into the world.
Laura Moulton will teach a workshop Aug. 17 and 18 on “The Art of the Letter” that will include making collage envelopes to deliver students’ missives into the world. Photo courtesy: Laura Moulton

In recent years, I realized how much I missed writing – and receiving – personal letters, and I decided I was going to start writing them again. I even bought “fine parchment paper” and matching envelopes found on a clearance rack.

But after years of hurriedly filling reporters’ notebooks day after day after day after month after year, my  handwriting is illegible. It takes huge concentration for me to form an “ing” — the three letters have morphed into a hump with a loop. Likewise, the word “every” looks like an e with a wave and a loop. So while I was drawn to the idea of handwriting letters, I never quite got there. Sure, I could probably sit myself down and write a bit more nicely, but frankly, I’m not sure I have the patience.

Then, I saw the description for the upcoming class on The Art of the Letter: Writing, Collage & Mail Art at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology:

Who says the art of letter-writing is dead? In this workshop, we’ll write letters and illustrate the envelopes that will deliver them into the world. We will look at the history of mail art and take inspiration from powerful examples of the epistolary form, from the incendiary \”letters\” written by James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates to missives by Lydia Davis and Emily Dickinson. The natural beauty of Sitka offers the perfect setting in which to pen letters. Through writing, reading and discussion, we’ll explore the ways letter-writing can survive the digital age, strengthening our writing practices, sharpening our skills of observation and enriching our lives.

Curious about this person equating letter-writing to an art, I reached out to instructor Laura Moulton. Her passion for writing letters began in high school and college.

“I had a crew of friends who sent really beautiful and weird things through the mail,” Moulton said. “I have this treasure of things sent to me while I lived in Taiwan, wherever I lived around the world …. rural Idaho, where I grew up.”

Besides being the founder of Street Books, a bicycle-powered mobile library that bring books to people living outside, Moulton is an adjunct professor at Lewis & Clark College. She pitched the idea of offering a letter-writing class at the college’s Northwest Writing Institute and got the go-ahead.

That was a few years ago and the class has been evolving since.  This year, students committed to writing a letter every day during April, which is National Letter Writing Month. The class generally sticks to handwritten notes and agreed that 70 percent of the letters must be mailed.

Students in the workshop at Sitka Center for Art & Ecology are encouraged to bring favorite magazines from which to glean art for their work.
Students in the workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Otis are encouraged to bring favorite magazines from which to glean art for their work. Photo courtesy: Laura Moulton

“So it was fine to write a letter to a parent or dead friend, or an open letter or an op-ed piece,” Moulton said. “Those were acceptable, but we made sure there was a handwritten and postal element to the class.”

The classes attract a variety of students and often inspire writing that is personal and “cuts to the bone,” Moulton said, adding that “there is an opportunity to share things that are pretty intense.”

She also gives examples of letters she calls incendiary: “James Baldwin to his nephew, The Fire Next Time, which is basically about living as a black man in America, addressing how perilous it can be. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, to his son. It’s kind of like, here is what you face as a young, black American man. The letter form is particularly potent for that kind of subject.”

A student in one of Moulton's workshops delivered her letter in the form of this mouse.
A student in one of Moulton’s workshops delivered her letter in the form of a mouse. Photo courtesy: Laura Moulton

Letter-writing forces writers to slow down, to take the time to organize their thoughts and transfer them with pen to paper, which can be a rare experience in our world of tweets, texts, and messaging, Moulton said.  

“I would recommend the practice to anyone who is noticing a decline in their deep focus and maybe the ability to do deep work. I don’t think length matters. If you write three words and mail it to a friend, sometimes that is exactly what you needed to say that day. Don’t be attached to filling pages, but be open to different expressions. I’ve gotten beautiful letters with just, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ that are painted and decorated outside on the envelope.”

Inspired to write your own letter? Moulton welcomes all comers. Write to her at: Laura Moulton, c/o Street Books, P.O. Box 13642, Portland, OR 97213

As for me, I hear a box of fine parchment paper calling – I just hope there’s some patience in there, too.  

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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