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The final day of the Month of Letters Challenge!

February 28, 2015 in Journal

Here we are on February 28th. How did you do? Did you manage to meet the Challenge and send out mail on every day it ran? For folks in the US that was 23 days this year.

I’ll be frank. I did not manage to do that this year. Shocking, right? As the founder, I should totally have been able to send that much mail. I didn’t and I don’t feel badly about it because I still sent more mail than I would have without the Challenge. So I might not have won the challenge, but it was still successful for me.

I’m still working my way through the mail that I received this year, and will reply to all of you who wrote to me. Thank you so much. Your letters are simply wonderful.

Now go forth and continue writing!

And for those of you who did win the challenge, we have a winner’s badge for you.

LetterMo 2015 Winner

Winner!

Did you manage to send mail on all the days that mail ran in February this year? Congratulations!

Best Postcard Apps For Smartphones

February 28, 2015 in Journal

Though the Month of Letters is over I know for a fact that many of you taking this challenge will continue to send out letters and cards and postcards throughout the year. Maybe not so many as this month, but more now that you have the letter writing bug. For those of you who particularly enjoyed sending out postcards, I have one final post for you.

Last year I talked about how much I love being able to send custom postcards right from my smartphone. I still do, and I still use Touchnote to do so most of the time. When this year’s challenge rolled around I decided to try and determine if Touchnote is really the best app for this purpose. The cards cost $1.99 and come from Europe, so they take some time to arrive. Were there any worthy services doing it faster or cheaper?

Throughout this month I tested postcard apps to find the answer to that question. The answer? Not really.

mypostcard app

Touchnote is still one of the best smartphone postcard apps out there. The only one I like better is MyPostcard, which is not cheaper or faster.

How did I go about making this determination? I started with some basic culling. There are a little over a dozen apps and services that offer the ability to create and send a postcard from your phone using your own image. Before I started testing, I whittled the list down by eliminating apps that are iOS only (no app can be the best if it ignores Android) and those that have really low ratings and terrible reviews.

That left me with four contenders: MyPostcard, Popcarte, Postino, and Touchnote.

Next, I used the apps to create a postcard to see how easy or difficult the process was.

Postino had the most unintuitive interface of the four. No Back button, no guidance on whether you’d saved the text or image or address, and no help text at all. It also withheld key information from me until the very last step in the process: how to pay. Trying to send a postcard brings up an error message, yet gives no clear instructions on how to solve the problem (i.e. how you buy the postcard and postage). This process is too convoluted. Once you stumble through that the card finally gets sent.

When it arrived the postcard looked the same as the preview but the card stock was not as high quality as i’d hoped. Plus it took longer than stated. Postcards cost $1.99 to send one, but if you buy in bulk you get a slight discount. It’s not worth it.

The Popcarte interface is slightly better than Postino, but not by much. As you move through each step of setting up a card there is no easy way to go back and change an element. You have to keep hitting the Back button until you’re where you need to be. This was very frustrating because the preview of the card did not match how I positioned my image. Thinking it might just be a bug, I sent the postcard, anyway.

It arrived looking like the preview image–i.e. kind of jacked up. Not worth $1.99.

Touchnote has an intuitive interface that is well-designed and easy to navigate. I like that I can choose a picture from my gallery and Share it to Touchnote instead of starting from inside this app. Also like that there’s a generous character allotment for the message on your postcard. The only thing I don’t like is that I can’t choose a font face or size.

The card I sent arrived in the stated time frame and looked as I expected.

MyPostcard stands above the rest for several reasons. The first is that you can put multiple images on one postcard. Choose either one photo to fill the frame, three photos, or a six photo grid. When you type out your message you have 450 characters to work with, but when you’re done with text the app will warn you if the current font size means the whole message won’t fit. The app is easy to navigate. Postcards cost €1.99 and you can pay via PayPal.

The card arrived looking better than I thought it would and within the stated timeframe.

So there you have it. If you’d like to send postcards from your phone using your own images, Touchnote and MyPostcard are your best bets. I hope you enjoy doing so!

A Pen That Lasts Forever?

February 24, 2015 in Journal

4.Ever Pininfarina Cambiano pen

Pen aficionados, this one is for you. Last year design firm Pininfarina unveiled a pen they claimed would last forever. First called the 4.Ever and now sold as either the Forever Pininfarina Cambiano or the Pininfarina Cambiano Everlasting Inkless Pen, this marvel of modern etching doesn’t require ink and is not made from graphite or any of the other usual materials.

Pininfarina, which is known for high-end car designs but does create other stuff as well, makes the tip of the pen from Ethergraph, a metal alloy. The marks it makes look more like pencil/graphite yet are as permanent as a pen. From the shape of the tip it looks like you have choice in line thickness. But no sharpening or changing the shape, apparently.

The pen itself is quite beautiful with walnut inlays and a grey or black aluminum body. At 39 grams it also appears to be a nice weight, though I haven’t touched it myself to judge the balance. Overall, it looks like the kind of upscale pen people regularly pay $100+ for, making the price of $119 (or 89 Euro) not at all out of line. From the pre-launch description I assumed it would cost a lot more (my guess was $3,000), if not because of the materials than because of the uniqueness factor.

If the claims are true, this pen will never run down or run out. I doubt any of us will be around long enough to judge if that’s true. Perhaps Pininfarina knows that it would take so long to wear down that you’ll be dead before it happens or they figure you’ll lose the pen.

Imagine what an heirloom this would make. Pass it down to your grandchildren along with your fountain pens and watch them marvel over old timey writing instruments.

I’m not quite as tempted by this as I am by some fountain pens because I’m a fan of glide and I’m not convinced this would glide the way I like. Still, considering the not-crazy-expensive price, I have a feeling that one of you may have one ready for next Month of Letters. Am I right? If you buy one, be sure to tell us all about it in the forums.

Have You Ever Written A Fan Letter?

February 19, 2015 in Journal

Up until last year I hadn’t written an actual paper fan letter since I was a kid. And, if you must know, I sent it to Leonard Nimoy. Anyway, during the last Month of Letters I decided to write another fan letter to a cellist whose music I adore. I got a really lovely note in response that made my day.

This year I’ve sent and planned to send several more fan letters. Some to musicians, some to writers, and a couple of actors. I don’t expect a response from all of them, but I have high hopes that my letters will actually reach them. I’m not writing to anyone that famous.

TLC FanMail

Thanks to social media and the Internet, it’s actually rather easy to find direct or mostly direct digital contact info for artists. Snail mail addresses are a bit harder to come by from a search. In most cases you have to ask.

What I usually do is look for a contact form on a website or, as a last result, pinging on Twitter. I let he person in question know I’d like to send snail mail, I tell them about Month of Letters so they know why, and ask where they prefer to receive mail (such as through an agent, manager, publisher, etc.). Most of the people I’ve contacted got back to me with an address, usually for their agent or a PO Box.

Have you sent any fan letters in recent memory? Did you get a response back? I always wonder how often people get responses back from the actual person they wrote to and not just some assistant with a signature stamp.

Send It, Frame It

February 17, 2015 in Journal

Just after Christmas, my aunt was putting away all of our decorations and gathering up the many cards we’d had out on display. One card in particular she set aside and said she intended to frame since the art on it was so beautiful. I agreed, and it got me thinking about the cards and postcards I send.

art cards

These are going in the mail soon

I send a lot of postcards from my smartphone since it’s easy to use services like Touchnote to create one with one of my photos on the back. (Later this month I’ll put up a post comparing all my favorite apps.) They’re often pictures of me or some cool thing I think the recipient will appreciate. They’re meant to be saveable on the fridge or in a photo album, for people who have such things (and for people who wish to look at pictures of me now and then).

I really like the idea of sending art worthy of a frame or at least displaying beyond that courtesy period most cards get. Such postcards and cards may be found in the usual places if you search thoroughly or stumble on a great gallery or poster store. If you don’t have anything like that near where you live, or the selection isn’t all that interesting, here are some suggestions for places to look online.

Ink Dragon by freeminds

DeviantArt has more beautiful art than one person could ever comb through in a lifetime. Even better, DeviantArt has a Print Shop. Artists opt in to allow people to buy their art in multiple formats, including as postcards and greeting cards. You can browse by subject or start at an artist’s page–just click the Prints tab at the top to see if they’re offering any of their pieces.

Other art print shops that do postcards and/or greeting cards: Society6, Redbubble, and Pomegranate (check out their 100 mystery postcard box!)

Printsagram will create blank inside greeting cards from your Instagram photos (or any of your photos through Print Studio). The card stock they use is lovely and you can write a short or long note depending on which size you choose.

Zazzle also has a custom postcard and greeting card (both traditional and big sizes) creation tool. You can upload any image from your computer for these, and the image will fill the whole front instead of just a square, as with the Printstagram ones.

I know some of you must have received some beautiful cards, postcards, and letters over the years. Have you ever kept them out for display long after the holiday or special occasion? Framed them? Share pictures in the comments or using the hashtag #LetterMo on your social network of choice. I’d love to see!


P.S. In case you’re wondering, the cards from the top image are: Santoro Eclectic Selection (hummingbird and tortoise) found at B&N, a National Geographic photo card, A is for Alice promo card for the Wonderland Alphabet (art by Janet K Lee), a postcard from the Susan Seddon Boulet Bestiary, and Fairy Tale Woman by Alethea Kontis.

Sharing the #LetterMo Love (And Your Favorite Stamps)

February 12, 2015 in Journal

At the beginning of February I started keeping track of the #LetterMo and #InCoWriMo tags on Instagram because I love seeing the pictures of mail being sent out. I’m particularly impressed by those of you who make a crafts project out of mail and create and/or decorate your own envelopes and such. So amazing.

If you don’t know about the communities on Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and the Forums here, you really should check them out. You’ll see some great pictures and stumble upon some interesting discussions. Plus more folks who might want to be your pen pal.

Below are some of my favorite images from the #lettermo hashtag to give you a taste of what you’re missing. Before we get to that, I have a request for those of you who are already participating.

Today through the weekend I’d like you to share pictures of your favorite stamps. Whether they are going on one of your letters or postcards or they’re a stamp you collected or a stamp used long ago and can find a picture of, I want to see them! Share using #lettermo on any social network you like.

adinamonsterktempestbradforddovbeedovbee
lostart_revivedspost2knowmrshungriaomnivoracious
brightparlormedusasjewelryadamihasegawadinoriot

And please keep sharing pictures of your letters, envelopes, packages, and feline helpers!

Reading Other People’s Letters

February 10, 2015 in Journal

Good old letter to Luke Skywalker by Stéfan on Flickr

Good old letter to Luke Skywalker by Stéfan on Flickr

This past weekend NPR’s Code Switch ran a piece I wrote about letters and Black history that you all may find very interesting. In it I suggest several collected letters books, mainly by African Americans, and talk about different ways of understanding and exploring history. I find letters to be one of the most valuable.

Reading other people’s letters inspires me to make my own more eloquent and engaging. Plus, I was never a regular letter writer when I was young, so I find myself in need of great examples of how good letters flow.

The other side of the coin is that reading letters from fabulous people can be seriously intimidating. Could I ever write a letter as beautiful as some of Emily Dickinson’s? As passionate as Anais Nin’s? Yipes.

I have to look at it the way I look at my fiction. Becoming a great writer is just as much about writing and writing and writing some more as it is about reading, reading, and oh look more reading. Samuel Delany says that a writer can only write a book as good as the last book they read. Continually feeding my brain good books makes me better able to write one. Same with letters.

Beyond improving your letter game, there is something wonderfully delicious in reading the private words of a public person. Getting a glimpse into their inner selves. It’s a bit voyeuristic, and I feel no shame in indulging!

In my NPR piece I restricted myself to letters relevant to Black history, but when I first started I was thinking about collections of letters in general. I got several great suggestions for collections across the spectrum and wanted to highlight several that I like or were suggested to me. Since I couldn’t get them all in that piece, I’m sharing them here.

Add your own favorite letters and collections in the comments!

Today! Live letter writing social with Letter Writers Alliance

February 8, 2015 in Journal

FeLWA-logoeling lonely on a grey Sunday without a mail delivery? Come join me as I visit with Kathy and Donovan of the Letter Writers Alliance as we do a live letter writing social. Online! Just hop over to their site to tune in.

The End Of Week 1: How Would You Change The Postal Service?

February 8, 2015 in Journal

The first week of Month of Letters is now over and we have a day of rest! Unless you, like me, plan to at least write a letter today even if you can’t send it until tomorrow. I’m busy getting through all of my postcards, which meant a trip to the post office yesterday for more odd denominations of stamps.

U.S. Post Office - Wicomico, VA by Carmen Shields

Not the post office I went to! This photo is by Carmen Shields. U.S. Post Office – Wicomico, VA from Flickr

This recent postal experience was quite pleasant. But not too long ago on a Saturday I went to my local post office to buy some stamps and mail some letters. I took one step in, saw the long line, and walked right the heck back out.

This is a pretty typical interaction between me and that post office. It’s constantly understaffed, the lines are often long, and now it has very inconvenient hours (which is why everyone crowds in there on a Saturday). I know there many reasons for this, and most of them are not the fault of the people working at my local branch. Still, it’s frustrating.

In some ways the US Postal Service is remarkable and awesome. Even efficient. It’s the other stuff I find maddening. And in all the talk about how to fix the USPS or trim it down or make it profitable or whatever the latest drama is, I rarely see any practical, useful ideas offered up to eliminate postal pain points.

For instance, I’m a big fan of being able to purchase postage online. I do it often when sending a package, and it’s a simple process via the USPS website and even gets me a small discount. Why, then, can’t I buy a stamp just as easily? I can buy sheets of stamps, of course, and get them delivered. But buying a single stamp for a letter requires going to Stamps.com, which is not owned by the USPS, and signing up for a monthly service. That solution is great for businesses, but not for someone who sends letters occasionally.

As I said, it’s seemingly small pain points like this that get to me. Why, in an age where this kind of thing should be convenient and simple, are things complex?

Last year I caught an episode of the Freakonomics podcast where the hosts talked about some other ways the USPS might improve based on ideas from listeners. One thing Stephen Levitt points out is that big, lumbering organizations like the post office are harder to change than nimble startups. Seems to me the USPS could benefit from at least some start-up mental juice. The last time any of that kind of mindset got near them the Postmaster General shut it down with extreme prejudice and for no good reason. More recently I’ve seen reports that the USPS is considering the addition of banking services in order to make some money. It could work, if done right.

If something dramatic happened and you were suddenly asked to offer some out-of-the-box ideas for how to make the USPS better, what would they be? What the the pain points you’d like to see alleviated? Are there things postal services in other countries do that we should be doing?

Posting A Compliment

February 5, 2015 in Journal

compliment

As I mentioned last year, I start out each Month of Letters by sending people postcards because they’re low pressure and I like sending beautiful art and photos along with my correspondence. This year I’m doing the same, but with another specific goal. The idea sparked when I read this NY Times column by Mandy Len Catron. It’s about how to fall in love with anyone, though this is the part I found very compelling:

The moments I found most uncomfortable were not when I had to make confessions about myself, but had to venture opinions about my partner. For example: … “Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time saying things you might not say to someone you’ve just met” (Question 28).

Much of Dr. Aron’s research focuses on creating interpersonal closeness. In particular, several studies investigate the ways we incorporate others into our sense of self. It’s easy to see how the questions encourage what they call “self-expansion.” Saying things like, “I like your voice, your taste in beer, the way all your friends seem to admire you,” makes certain positive qualities belonging to one person explicitly valuable to the other.

It’s astounding, really, to hear what someone admires in you. I don’t know why we don’t go around thoughtfully complimenting one another all the time.

Yeah, why don’t we?

I’ve decided to make an effort to compliment my friends and loved ones more over the next year and hope to turn that into a habit. And what better way to do so than via a postcard?

I fill the small space on the back of each with what I like about the recipient: the ways in which they’re awesome, why I admire them, how much better the world is because they’re in it. A small rectangle of love and happiness.

My goal is to send out at least three of these a week on top of my regular letter writing activities. Too bad there’s no badge for that 😉

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