[Guest Post] Building a Brilliant Vocabulary: Nuanced Nouns, Vivacious Verbs, Ambitious Adjectives, and What to Do With Them

Letter Writing Setup

Today’s guest bloggers are LetterMo Community Members Jaynie Royal and Ruth Feiertag. Ruth and Jaynie are quintessential, complementary twin peas in the pod. While I, Jaynie, perpetually seek to refine my developmental nose—and I speak of character and plot, not day-old fish or malodorous swamp—when it comes to punctuation, I am much in need of Rutherian advice. And I, Ruth, look to Jaynie for insight on content, flow, and characterization. I keep trying to get her to impart to me her tact and diplomacy, but until then, I rely on her to remove my foot from my mouth before anyone notices it’s there. Their full bios are below.

4th February, 2017

Dear Readers,

Ruth: Some years ago, the laurel I inherited from my father turned into a tree with leaves to spare; since then, I have stopped using dried bay leaves and now rely on the supply of fresh ones that I have always to hand. The fresh leaves impart a more vibrant, brighter flavour to my culinary concoctions, one that I notice particularly in my marinara sauce. But I miss the more robust quality of the dried leaves and may buy some to use with the just-plucked foliage from my father’s tree.

Obsessed as Jaynie and I are with language, I cannot help but see how like cooking the writing process is, particularly when it comes to word choice and diction. We start with some basic content and then enhance the flavour, the significance by making judicious choices about the herbs and spices we add or the vocabulary we employ. I suppose we could even say that acquiring an extensive vocabulary is as necessary to a writer as is a wide range of pigments to a painter.

Is it my imagination, or does adding laurel leaves bring out a more triumphant note in soup than adding bay? Or does a laurel, like a rose, smell as sweet by any other word? And does it matter whether Shakespeare wrote “by any other word” or “by any other name”? Whether what Hamlet wishes would resolve itself into a dew is “ too, too sullied flesh” or “too, too solid flesh”? I would say yes, it matters, but that the different inflections have equal value and the discussion about the connotations sharpens our verbal palette.

Really, it’s all about having sufficient choices to bring out the flavours of food, the contrast between shade and light, the nuances of a text, about experimenting with diverse spices and tints and turns of phrase.

6th February, 2017

Jaynie: I do rather adore Ruth’s culinary metaphor there. Well done. A perfect analogy for the carefully crafted literary piece.

Perhaps my advice here, in regards to refining the vocabulary, is to give over your manuscript to a well-read third party with the pointed directive to examine whether said vocabulary engages; whether the reader is immersed in the narrative, spellbound by the ongoing action, enamored with vividly drawn characters. For if the vocabulary is spot on, it will not be noticed. It might occur to your reader, on some level, whilst immersed in your story, that this character or that event was indeed marvelously described, but she or he will be enthralled.

A poverty-stricken vocabulary, one that is limited in scope, can quickly become tedious and repetitive for your reader. It is not that one must learn multisyllabic words and utilize them ad nauseam; one can write beautifully with a simple, direct, precise prose—indeed, often this style is to be preferred. Acquiring a rich vocabulary, however, as Ruth has so aptly put it, stocks your herb shelf to bursting. And if you want a simple four-ingredient soup: pumpkin, chicken stock with a little ginger and salt, carefully combined, it will be delicious. There is, however, in these simple recipes, a secret of which all accomplished cooks are well aware: the ingredients themselves should be even more thoughtfully selected since each will have to carry more of the gustatory burden; I would recommend farmers-market fresh, preferably organic. In this respect, while the narrative prose might be clear and straightforward, the words themselves should be most carefully chosen and thoughtfully combined.

If you have, however, a more extensive repertoire to hand you can, should you so decide, experiment with all kinds of fusion cuisine. Perhaps you might want to delve into the layered intricacies of a freshly made Thai curry or the herbaceous brightness of Vietnamese spring rolls? Or the decadent layers of a rich chocolate-mousse cake? Okay, I’m starving. Whose idea was it to feature culinary cuisine in a vocabulary-feature anyway?

But, in all seriousness, I would have to say that the absolute best source of vocabulary enrichment comes from great works of literature. From W.E.B Du Bois to Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, to the poems of Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson, from the Great Bard to Fydor Dostoyevsky. I mention, of course, very few of the many works available to the reader of contemporary writing.

These works are rightly deemed classics because their magic is pervasive and perpetual. Subsequent generations continue to be enthralled by these literary masterpieces because the vocabulary contained therein is not only a rich repertoire of the mother tongue but because these writers wield it with such wondrous facility. Read and learn. That’s what I do.

7th February, 2017

Ruth: Jaynie, I want to pick up on your idea of “fusion cuisine” because that’s so very much what English is. While the most notable “fusion” was thrust upon the Anglo-Saxons by the Norman-French almost a thousand years ago, English has sponged up words from Hindi (shampoo), Italian (sprezzatura), Yiddish (mishegas), Arabic (candy), Spanish (renegade)… I am pleased to see that your list includes authors beyond those in the DWM (Dead White Males) Club. We can also grow our word-hoards by reading authors magazines—magazines offer us a phenomenal smorgasbord of modern eloquence.

The two-lane Miracle-Gro route to vocabulary proliferation runs through dictionaries and thesauri. Word-of-the-Day calendars offer verbal boosts in palatable doses. And language courses—try Latin or Greek—can provide the building blocks for understanding new words we encounter, even when there is not a dictionary in sight.

There are some wonderful books about words as well. Two of my favourites are both about that unparalleled compendium, The Oxford English Dictionary. The first is Ammon “I’m reading the OED so you don’t have to” Shea’s hilarious Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages; the second, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester, an intricate and compassionate portrait of the relationship between the Civil War doctor who contributed literary examples to accompany definitions and the professor who was the driving force behind the greatest lexicographical feat in history.

But I would suggest that merely reading won’t make one true friends with new verbal acquaintances. As with all deep, meaningful relationships, the way to cement the bond is to use your friends. Casually drop them into dinner conversation: “Darling, don’t prognosticate doom for your siblings just because your connection to them is tenuous.” Keep a vocabulary journal and write flash fiction based on three words culled from your collection. And write letters, lots and lots of letters.

9th February, 2017

Jaynie: I think that you make a critical point, Ruth, insofar as usage is concerned. In order to render your newly acquired vocabulary (or those marvelous words you have been hoarding for fear of sounding pretentious in conversation) fluid, smoothly integrated with the more mundane verbiage that often constitutes daily back and forth, you have to actually use it. Use it in speech and use it in prose. These words need to flow trippingly from your tongue and your pen, otherwise they are jarring to the ear or the eye; they lack the natural rhythm that attends to well-lubricated language. They do not sound authentic. And in order for your letters to successfully engage your reader, the words you use must come across as vividly authentic.

Just as a complex recipe benefits from multiple makings (I will not tell you how many times I have been disappointed by my attempts at southern-style biscuits), deliberately expanding one’s vocabulary and using these new words often affords you, the writer, a greater linguistic facility that will invest your letters with added depth and power. And rather fun to be able to bring them out at dinner parties (in conjunction with that elaborately wrought chocolate-mousse cake): “Darlings, a decadent chocolate confectionary for your post-dinner delectation!”

BUT—a word of warning here—these words must come naturally to you. You must formulate your own particular literary style. While an expanded vocabulary is indubitably a marvelous tool in the writer’s repertoire, these words, indeed all words, should be judiciously and appropriately used. How do you know if you are using them in a fluent and engaging manner? In a way that enhances your letters rather than weighing them down? Natural speech provides a good clue in this regard: if you can (and do) utilize these particular words in daily conversation, with the fluency that accompanies unpremeditated dialogue, then chances are that these words, now a natural part of your own lexicon, can be used with ease in your writing as well.

Oxford English Dictionary

Ruth: Jaynie darling, you’re absolutely right. Familiarity and use will make new words second nature. Besides adding scintillating, sparkling new terms to one’s collection, compiling a range of options for more commonplace vocabulary can add dimension and variety to one’s discourse. So here are lists of some our favourite verbal gems and reliable workhorses:

  • Nouns: abluvion, apricity, credenda, kindness, urchin
  • Verbs: coruscate, defenestrate, evoke, honour, imbricate, scringe
  • Adjectives: copacetic, gimlet, idiopathic, moribund, plangent, poignant

Word groups:

  • Said: replied, responded, told, cried, whispered, whimpered, remarked, observed, noted, snapped, injected, interrupted
  • Asked: queried, inquired, begged, pleaded/pled, requested
  • Tired: sleepy, somnolent, exhausted, zombie-like, weary, fatigued
  • Write: pen, pencil, author, scribe, scribble, scripted, scrawled, scratched
  • Affect (n), affect (v), effect (v), effect (n)
  • Project, inject, eject, reject
  • Arrogate, abrogate, interrogate
  • Evoke, provoke, invoke, revoke
  • Inversion, perversion, reversion, conversion

Linking words:

  • Again, another, besides, furthermore, likewise, moreover, not only this but that as well

Turning words:

  • But, however, despite, maugre, although, conversely, nevertheless, on the other hand, still, yet

Colours:

  • Red: scarlet, blood, ruby, garnet, pomegranate, incarnadine, rose, ruddy, wine, burgundy
  • Orange: flame, amber, sunset, copper, mango
  • Yellow: sun, topaz, golden, citrine, school-bus, wheaten, brassy
  • Green: emerald, kelly, Lincoln-green, grass, forest, moss, fern, verdigris
  • Blue: cobalt, navy, sapphire, peacock, sky, ocean, lake, azure, turquoise, indigo
  • Violet: purple, amethyst, eggplant, aubergine, morning-glory, grape
  • Black: ebony, inky, pitch
  • White: snow, ivory, linen, bone
  • Grey: smoke, ash, storm
  • Multi-coloured: pied, mottled, brindled, motley, spotted

Jaynie and Ruth wrote each other’s biographies.

Regal House Publishing

Jaynie Royal is the author Killing the Bee King and the General Editor and Publisher of Regal House Publishing and its imprints, Fitzroy Books (for Young and New Adult literature) and Pact Press (an imprint dedicated to encouraging conversations that will help bridge the divisions that pervade our society). Jaynie is a talented cook, a proud parent, an educator, and a devoted epistolarian. She is also brilliant, lovely, possessed of wit and hope, and TOTALLY cool.

Ruth is the owner of PenKnife Writing and Editorial Services, the Senior Editor for Regal House Publishing, and an independent scholar who writes about Medieval and Early Modern English Literature. Ruth has a heart of gold and is a staunch and loyal advocate for the downtrodden wherever she may find them. She has a sharp wit, an incisive eye, and a marvelously dry sense of humor; in short, she is utterly AWESOME.

[Guest Post] Pint-Size PenPals

Postcards in the classroom - Koala Bears

Today’s guest blogger is LetterMo Community Member Bridget Larsen, who is originally from the island of Fiji in the South Pacific and now calls Brisbane, Queensland in Australia home. One of her favourite and ongoing passions is crafting in all forms: Mixed Media, Card Making, Scrapbooking and Photography. She designs and teaches at craft stores, retreats and craft shows around Australia and at a retreat in the US. Be sure to check out her blog and Pinterest page.

I started letter writing when I was 12 years old and loved every aspect of it. I moved to emails and texts but missed seeing a handwritten letter in my mailbox so I started penpalling again 3 years ago and have met lots of lovely people around the world. I also met face to face with a few people here in Australia through postcrossing.

So I will be Guestblogging for Lettermo today with a wonderful story that started from a chance encounter with a dedicated school teacher in Illinois USA who is a member of Postcrossing. I happened to come across her request for postcrossers to send postcards to her 5 year old pupils who loved her postcards that she received and wanted their own. Each year has as different set of children to write to. This will be my second year of sending to her students. I wanted to be a part of her class curriculum because the trend of letter writing is fast becoming obsolete with technology ruling the world.

I sent the children Tim Tam biscuits, they are best eaten by biting off a little of both ends and sucking your coffee or tea through the biscuit. The factory is just down the road from where we live. The children loved it. I also sent baby koala soft toys for each of them, and Australian Girl Guide biscuits. Connie told me they were a hit. I sent them some vegemite too which is a favourite spread of every child in Australia and the Pacific-somehow that was not a favourite and is an acquired taste.

Package sent to students with many stamps
I wanted to put as many different stamps possible on the box. Australia has some beautiful philatelic stamps.

My postcards that I sent them are about the animals in Australia. Connie does lessons about the animals and most things I send them. She has set up walls with all our postcards from around the world.

The above photos are courtesy of Connie Szorc and have been printed with her permission.

I received from them this month a wonderful parcel which was overwhelming. Connie knew that I love cooking and recipes so she got together with the parents to make a cookbook of their favourite recipes to send to me. I’m going to be trying every recipe in that book.

Cookbook from the kids and families

These are the recipe postcards they also bought and write on. I chose to write to all 22 of the students, I couldn’t just pick a few.

Connie said this programme she has going for the children have been truly life changing for their young lives. It has definitely been life changing for me as I have never had penpals so young. The innocence in their writing is so refreshing.

I asked Connie if she would like to contribute to this guest blog and the following is what she wrote:

My name is Connie, and I am a preschool teacher at Batavia Covenant Preschool, Batavia, IL USA. For a very long time I had been wanting to find pen pals for students and for some reason it never seemed to work out. As chance would have it I came across Postcrossing and it truly changed my classroom. My original intention was for my students to see a world beyond their backyard. I hoped we might learn a little about geography, different kinds of foods, fun activities children around the world might enjoy, and of course learn about different native animals. What I never expected was how Postcrossing and letter writing could have turned into so much more. One very special day I was lucky enough to meet Bridget from Australia. She wanted to share Australia with all of my students. She told us about koala bears and kangaroos. We took time to read books about Australia, and then find it on the map. We read all we could about koalas and kangaroos. Then one day a package came filled with postcards and information and best of all Tim Tams. We all learned how much we loved those cookies. Bridget also told us about a food called Vegemite, we had never heard of it, but after a trip to a local store that deals in different cultural foods, we found it. We discovered we liked Tim Tams much more than Vegemite.

Postcards and writing started out as a way for my class to learn about the world we live in, instead we have made many friends. My students now understand the value of a written note, and they have learned they can do a random act of kindness just by picking up a pencil (or crayon) and tell someone about their day. The best part, because they are young their parents have become just as involved. Bridget not only touched my classroom with her letters and words, but she has touched their families as well.

What we have come to learn from Postcrossing and letter writing is that people all around the world are pretty amazing. We now think of Bridget as one of our best friends. All I have to do is say we received postcards from Bridget and my students know exactly who I mean.

My student’s parents often tell me how much they love this project, and I say “I do too!”

Guest Post: Creating Stamp Jewelry by Sara Glassman

Letter Writers Alliance stap necklace

Today’s guest blogger is LetterMo Community Member Sara Glassman, a bookseller, school librarian, jewelry maker, and passionate letter writer. She has a stationary and postcard addiction that she is not trying very hard to recover from. This is her fourth year participating in LetterMo. Be sure to check out her blog, Twitter, and Instagram.

One of my favorite parts about getting letters is looking at the stamps my correspondents have used. With mail art and general envelope design being so popular it is rare to get an envelope with a simple flag stamp these days. Most of my letters have two or three coordinating stamps of varying denomination. They are tiny paintings on every envelope.

I’m always loved stamps. When I was eight, my mom got me a First Day Cover subscription from the Post Office. Once a month, they would mail me a fancy envelope with a special stamp. They all went into a special presentation book. (Although, there were apparently two Glassmans in my city who were part of the program and we kept getting each other’s packages.)

First Day Cover Bugs Bunny

My mother had a wealth of vintage stamps from her own stamp collecting days. I marveled at the stamps in soft reds or greens, but I never really knew what to do with them except paste them into a scrapbook. As I got older I realized the potential for collage, but it still didn’t quite fill the itch I had to do something really special with the stamps I was receiving. And then much, much later I started making jewelry. And I realized that I had finally found the exact thing that I wanted.

The first stamp I used was an amazing dragon stamp from Botswana. My friend was there with the Peace Corps and she wrote to me frequently. Botswana had some beautiful stamps! I’ve also been active in PostCrossing for several years, which has brought me some beautiful stamps from various parts of the world.

necks made with dragon stamp from Botswana

The actual process of making the necklaces is fairly simple.

  1. Find a stamp you like. If it’s been stuck to an envelope or postcard already, soak it in a bowl of warm water until the glue loosens. Then lay the stamp out to dry. (I usually dry them face down just in case there is some glue left.)
  2. Decide what size pendant you want to make. I usually give the stamp a small 1 or 2cm border. Cut a piece of thin cardboard to fit. (The backing board the post office uses when they ship stamps is ideal!)
  3. Find a background paper that compliments your stamp. Scrapbooking paper or origami paper are my usual go-to papers for this. You can find so many beautiful patterns and colors. Tissue paper will also work, but you usually need several layers.
  4. Coat the cardboard with ModPodge and wrap the paper around the cardboard. You can either leave the seams showing or cut a backing piece to fit. That is entirely up to you.
  5. Use the ModPoge again to stick the stamp to the pendant. You can center it or offset it if you’d like. Coat the entire front with ModPoge and then when that dries, flip it over and coat the back.
  6. eyeletsOnce everything has dried completely, use a scrapbooking eyelet tool to punch holes and then set the eyelets. I often put another eyelet at the bottom so I can hang a few beads. This can dress up the pendant and also give it a bit more weight once you’re wearing it.
  7. The final step is to add cord and there you are! If you want to get fancy, you can use chain, silk ribbon, or anything else you like.

I will warn you, once you’ve seen how simple it is, it can be very difficult not to eye every bit of paper or scrap of decoration on an envelope as something to make wearable. I hope you find some beautiful stamps to wear.

[Guest Post] The Letter Game – Caroline Stevermer

Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

Today’s guest blogger is Caroline Stevermer, who has written nine and a half novels, if you count Sorcery And Cecelia, The Grand Tour, and The Mislaid Magician as half a novel each (since they were written with Patricia C. Wrede). She lives and writes in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her most recent letter game (written with Ellen Kushner) is the short story “The Vital Importance of the Superficial,” which appeared in Queen Victoria’s Book Of Spells.

Ellen Kushner taught me to play the Letter Game when we were in college.

What is the Letter Game? I checked just now and there is a Wikipedia entry for it. Here’s part of the entry:

A letter game involves the exchange of written letters, or e-mails, between two or more participants. The first player writes a letter in the voice of a newly created character; in this first letter, the writer should establish their own identity and that of their correspondent, should set the scene, and should explain why they and their correspondent must communicate in written fashion. In subsequent letters, plot and character can be developed, but the writers should not talk about plot outside of the letters and the characters should never meet.

I play a slightly looser version of the game, in that the first letter writer isn’t necessarily correct–the second letter writer could be someone who intercepted a letter intended for someone else, for example.

Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline StevermerWhen Patricia C. Wrede and I were writing Sorcery and Cecelia, we allowed ourselves to gossip about the characters but we agreed never to discuss the plot. I’d played the Letter Game before (and have since), but the sheer delight of playing the game with Pat comes through in those letters. We didn’t know we were writing a novel. We were just playing the game.

According to my recollections (Pat may see things quite differently) once we finished up the last letters, we felt confident we had a book on our hands. Pat, the consummate professional, had been keying her letters into a file on her computer all along. (I didn’t yet have a computer.) She made certain the manuscript was complete and presentable. Before we sent it to our literary agent (we had the same agent in those days), Pat and I made a few changes, mainly to remove some loose ends that didn’t contribute to the plot. Terri Windling purchased the novel for Berkeley Books. Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, it went out of print almost instantly. Harcourt Brace bought it and its two sequels, The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician, years later and reissued it in hardcover. Digital editions are available from Open Road Media.

Since we didn’t realize we were were writing a novel until we were nearly finished, it is tricky to talk about the writing process. I said before, we were just playing the game. But this Letter Game was set in a place and time we both knew well, the intersection between Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, and all the fantasy we’d both read all our lives. The regency romance provided a clear template to follow.

In both sequels, we had gone beyond the regency romance template. We had characters who were in established relationships. More difficult still, in The Grand Tour we had characters who were in the same place at the same time. We got around that difficulty by alternating between extracts from Kate’s journal and portions of Cecy’s legal deposition recounting the events they’d been embroiled in.

TL;DR: The Letter Game is great. Give it a try. (Bend the rules.)

Best,
Caroline

P.S. Pat adds: Speaking of bending the rules… Since Sorcery and Cecelia came out, I have had mail from all sorts of people who’ve played the game in different ways, including a pair of eighth graders who used it as a history class project (each playing a cousin from opposite sides in the American Civil War), a group of about ten people playing a cross-universe version in which none of the characters were able to meet physically, and another couple who each played multiple characters who were all corresponding with each other (and most of them were lying to some characters and conspiring with others). The game is very adaptable.

[Guest Post] A PenPal For Over 30 Years

Today’s guest blogger is LetterMo Community Member Heather Cunnah, a busy mum to 7 children, of which 5 still live at home. She blogs about cross stitching and her family on a regular basis and says that “I could never dream of the day that I was without these things. Letter writing and stitching is part of who I am!” You can find her on Twitter @xstitchchick.

I am now 44 years of age and from around the age of 10 years old I have always had penpals, I cannot remember a time when I didn’t. I started off by writing to friends in the area that we moved from in 1979 (see I am showing my age!) then I saw penpal adverts in weekly comics/magazines and it all started from there.

I used my pocket money to buy my stationery and stamps. In those days a first class postage stamp was around 15 pence. On my morning walk to school I passed the post box, which was very handy indeed as I could post my letters of a morning on the way to school! Returning home from school to find mail most days was fantastic.

A very dear friend of mine saw an advertisement in a magazine about an organisation that could match you up with a penpal abroad. Well imagine my excitement!! She gave me the page from the magazine (checking there were no hunky pop starts on the reverse side haha!). So I sent off for the information package and form to fill in. The organisation, which was called the International Youth Service (IYS) If I remember rightly, charged 40p for every pen-pal they matched you with.

IYS

I could choose the age and nationality of my penpal. Wow, amazing! My penpalling went on from there and every year or so I would use this service to find a new pen pal and I haven’t looked back since.

It was so exciting sending letters abroad and way back then (the “olden days”). I used aerogrammes to write to my penpals abroad. They were great for short and quick replies but since nothing was allowed to be enclosed in them they did restrict my letter writing. Have any of you heard of them or even used them?

aerogrammeThey were basically a sheet of airmail paper that once written on folded up a certain way then stuck together to make an envelope. When you bought the aerogramme the postage was included in the price which was why nothing was allowed to be enclosed. I used them for a short while then started using ‘proper’ paper and envelopes so I could add little extras in with my letters or over the envelope in stickers. I still do that today.

I still write to many of my penpals that I have had for years. It has been great growing up with them and watching each other’s family grow. I have even met a number of my penpals, one is now a very good friend via social media. Another penpal, from Australia, came and stayed in our house for a week as he was doing a tour around Europe. I still write and email him very often. He has “watched” my children grow up. He came to stay a few months after I had my first child so it is fantastic that he has met most of my family.

Some of my children are showing a great interest in penpals, particularly now as I start to get ready for LetterMo, and my youngest girls have a penpal or two each and are looking to expand their letter writing and picture drawing. I think it’s important they learn the art of letter writing and written communication.

This day and age it’s all about the computer and e-mail–both of which I do not let them use too often without supervision–plus letter writing is a great activity to do together. The children really enjoy coming home from school to find a letter or postcard waiting for them… I understand that feeling very well! It is like watching myself in a mirror.

I really take great pleasure in taking over the dining room table when I write my letters. I keep the letters I need to reply to in a folder which is in my “penpal basket”. That is where I keep all my stationery; these days itt’s getting harder and harder to find good quality paper at great prices. I know when I buy paper I always have to buy extra as my girls always pinch some off me!

Heather Letter Station

During my many years of penpalling I have met some brilliant people and I hope over the next 30 years I meet many more. I hope that we have all received many letters and cards during February and that we form lasting friendships.

[Guest Post] Dear Spock, From: Genghis Kahn – Amber Benson

Today’s guest blogger is Amber Benson, an actor, writer, director and maker of things. Until recently she did not own a television. Follow her on Twitter.

When I was a teenager, I was an obsessed letter writer. We’d moved from Orlando, Florida to Los Angeles and writing (coupled with the occasional expensive long distance phone call) was the only way I could stay in touch with my friends.

Obviously, this was before the advent of the internet and email–yes, I’m old–and though it required more effort to buy paper and envelopes and stamps, there was a real joy in putting my thoughts down in such a tactile way. You had to really think about what you were going to say and it made me feel closer to my friends than writing an email ever has.

Amber Benson Mail
This is a letter for me, ‘aka Genghis Kahn,’ from my friend, Tanja, ‘aka Spock’

The real art to writing a letter–for me, at least–was in the addressing of the envelope. As evidenced in these pictures, we spent a lot of time and energy entertaining ourselves with our ‘art’––and annoying the crap out of the post office.

[Guest Post] Writing the Elderly

Hands with card

Today’s guest blogger is LetterMo Community Member Sarah, who enjoys writing letters to keep in touch with and encourage family and friends. She helps care for her grandmother who lives with her family and runs three blogs: Sarah’s Scribblings about the mail she sends, Simply Shoeboxes about packing Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes, and Simply CVS about deal shopping at CVS Pharmacy, and is on her church’s media team.

I’ve enjoyed taking part in LetterMo the last three years, so am so excited to have this opportunity to guest post, and especially something as near and dear to my heart as mail for the elderly.

In spite of the fact I grew up hundreds of miles from my great aunts, and my paternal grandparents, it seems I’ve often been around the elderly. When I was in preschool and early elementary school my grandmother who lived near us worked at an adult daycare, so my mother, sister, and I volunteered there often doing projects with the elderly participants. That’s also where I had my first pen pal, one of the participants… although I don’t think I was reading yet and my mom had to help me!

Then in middle school I “babysat” my great-grandmother one afternoon a week. High school and college brought attending the traditional service at our church where most the other worshipers were elderly. Through those experiences I learned how much the elderly long for and enjoy interaction with the younger generation, and I learned how much a hug could mean.

But, as I said earlier, my great aunts and one set of my grandparents have never lived close to me, how could I be a part of their lives to encourage them? Then my grandmother moved in with us, and I saw how she would light up when she got a card from her nieces and nephews. She would show it to us when we went in, often repeatedly. One time a nephew wrote a letter and she was THRILLED, kept reading it, and saying how she didn’t know if she ever got a letter like that.

And with that, a light bulb went off in my head.

I had already started sending more mail in general, so why not try to send them something more often? As I’ve taken part in A Month of Letters Challenge I started sending Valentine’s cards to my great aunts. Then it grew to trying to send something from my family every month or so, just simple things like dollar store cards for New Years, Valentines, St Patrick’s Day, Easter, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, while trying to include a note about something that’s going on around here or the weather. This year I was sure to get all their birthdays, so we are doing that, too.

Holiday Cards

The response blew me away! No, my mailbox didn’t fill up, although I did get a couple responses; most of them are either getting too old or have too many grandkids to whom they need to send cards to write often. But when they do write, or when I get a chance to see them occasionally, they are sure to mention getting them.

A few years ago I got a chance to visit my great, great aunt, that’d I’d only met once, in a nursing home in another state. She had notes and photos displayed that I’d sent! As my aunts were trying to tell her daughters–who I had never met–who I was, they said they knew who I was, I guess in part from the photos and notes I’d sent. Another great aunt told me it made her feel “like we love and care about her” and her daughter kept telling me that it really meant a lot to her mom. Another great aunt told me she really appreciated getting them, and her daughters said she always reported to them when she’d heard from me. That great aunt even told my aunt at a family shower how she really liked getting cards from me. Another one was eager to show me how she displayed and kept them all! I think every one of them, and a number of their children, have mentioned to me how much it means. I could not have imagined how big a deal it was for them!!!

In a way I’ve become the family “newsman” giving updates on my immediate family, and sometimes sharing photos of larger family get-togethers or of a mutual family member in the armed forces I saw online. Of my seven great (& great, great) aunts, only two are online or texting at all, and that’s pretty limited. So, if no one contacts them the old fashioned way, whether by phone or mail, they really lose touch and miss their extended family they so care for. This is true for so many of the elderly today, and some as they start to have problems with their hearing, it becomes hard to keep up over the phone. Their only contact may be through the mail.

But it’s not only the elderly we’re close to that appreciate us writing. Of those I write, only a couple had I seen even yearly as a child. I saw the same thing with my grandmother last summer when she had a to stay in the hospital and nursing home for a month. My mom signed her up with the Facebook page “From the Heart” and a number of people from across the country sent her cards. To her it didn’t matter that she didn’t know them, she was just thrilled to get cards and kept showing them to us and everyone else. Her roommate even said the room would be dull once she left and took her cards, so I sent her one!

Cards in nursing home

And as a caretaker for my elderly grandmother, I know how encouraging it is for the caregivers, too. Being a caregiver can be a hard, thankless, and lonely job. Often one is so busy with providing care it’s hard to find time and energy to do much cheering. In our case, we’re the only children and grandchildren involved in her life and care, and her sister-in-law and nieces and nephews are out of state. So, when someone (especially one of our friends) takes the time to send her a card or note it helps us feel less alone. Also, when she was in the nursing home, we had the cards from From the Heart sent to a friend’s business (without a PO Box, we don’t like giving our address out online) and picked them up from time to time, and then every time we visited her, we gave her one when we left so she had something to look forward to/do after we left. It really was a great help and stress relief to us.

Would you consider adding the elderly to your letter writing list to put some mail in the hands of someone to whom it may mean the world? If you have older friends or family members, that is a great place to start. Or ask your friends or pen pals if they have one they’d like you to write, especially if they are caring for them.

If not, you can check with your local nursing homes, adult day cares, or senior center to find people in your community in need of some mail cheer. If you’re a member of a church or other religious or social group you could check with them. I know our church keeps a list of homebounds and highlights one in the bulletin each week as well as collects cards at Christmas to be hand delivered to them and I have seen a similar thing at another church.

There are also places online to find people to mail to, as I mentioned earlier “From the Heart” is one we’ve used personally. I hope you can do this and find it as rewarding as I do, maybe not in getting mail, but in knowing you’ve helped and brighten someone else’s day!

Hands with card