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Sending snail mail from your smartphone

February 15, 2014 in Journal

TouchnoteWhen I first started doing Month of Letters I had a hard time figuring out what to write some of the people on my list. Did they want to hear a lot of random stuff about my life? Would they rather have a poem? All I wanted to do was ask about their lives! I finally hit on sending postcards at first. The condensed space meant I didn’t have to think about filling a whole page. Plus, postcards usually have interesting art on them, so they’re useful beyond being mail.

I’m doing the same this year, though with an extra twist. I’m sending some postcards via my smartphone using my own pictures. Even though the message on the back is short, I hope these postcards will feel as personal as a longer letter. I just sent my first one today! I took a picture of my altar and sent it to a dear friend who recently showed me hers.

This time I used the Touchnote app for Android based on the advice from this post rounding up the various options. The author also recommends Postify, which I’ll probably try in a few days. I’m also going to give Postable a go, but I really like being able to add my own images to the card.

The trouble with trying to decide on a service like this is that you can’t always rely on the reviews on app stores nor are they easy to sift through. I much prefer roundups like the one I found where the author compares services against each other. It took far too much Google-fu to find that (no idea why), so I hope it will be as useful for you as it was for me.

I plan to make this a regular thing, so I’m eager to hear back from the recipients on the quality of the card and how long it took to arrive. Once I get that data I’ll settle on one or the other app.

I’m curious if any of you have ever tried these services or something similar? Which ones do you like? Any you would never use again?

Is there such a thing as the Best Pen Ever?

February 14, 2014 in Journal

As Kathy mentioned a few days ago, finding a great pen for letter writing can be a transformative experience. I told you all last year about how I got addicted to fountain pens (Mary is to blame…. she is always to blame), though I do still have my gel pens as well. With all the pen choices out there I’m sure there are still a few of you looking for the One. If so, you may want to check out this post over at The Wirecutter wherein they’ve determined that the best pen ever is the uni-ball Jetstream.

To call that post a simple pen review is to severely downplay how extensive it is. Clocking in at over 6,000 words, the post is actually super informative for people who want to understand what makes a pen awesome or crap (hint: price is not the only factor). The site called on multiple pen experts to come up with the ultimate determination, all of whom make it their business to know all there is to know about pens. Incidentally, the blogs of the experts are great to follow if you’re a pen nerd.

The Wirecutter focused on pens that are inexpensive, semi-disposable, and easy to find at major retailers in the US, so that leaves out high-end fountain pens, imports, and specialized instruments. Still, it’s always good to know which pen out of the sea of them at Staples is better than all the others.

What are your favorite pens? Not just the ones you use to compose beautiful letters, but the ones you reach for when you need to jot a note, sign something, or write in a journal. Are they the same pens?

Preppy Pen

My current favorite fountain pen is an inexpensive one from Japan called the Preppy pen. If you’re lucky enough to live in a town with a Japanese bookstore or other store that imports from overseas you can probably get one for around $4. JetPens sells them, as does Amazon. You can get it with a fine or medium nib and the ink cartridge is replaceable. I like Preppy pens not just because they don’t cost much, but because the caps has a great seal on it that doesn’t allow the nib to get dried out. Even if I leave it in my pen bag for weeks it still writes just fine without assistance.

iWalk Amphibian

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a digital person, so it will not surprise you that I carry around a tablet stylus in my pen case. My stylus happens to be a pen as well: the iWalk Amphibian. The cartridge that comes with it is a typical ballpoint, but it also takes Parker gel pen refills and that’s what I use with it.

Show and Tell in the comments, let’s see your favorites!

Squirreling Away Stationery

February 9, 2014 in Journal

(I’d like to wish Mary Robinette Kowal a happy happy birthday, and hope that she’s had a fantastic time celebrating at Capricon this weekend. Since she’s off dealing with traveling through more snow and convention shenanigans, she’s asked me to contribute another Journal piece.)

Confession: I’m a total nerd (or geek, depending on which term I feel like using). And one of the characteristics I’ve found to be common among geeks and nerds is being, to reference The Simpsons, “The Collector.” This is a personality trait that can be a source of both fun and frustration. Fun, because there’s a lot of pleasure to be found in cultivating a collection of things you appreciate and enjoy: book series, comic book titles, action figures, games. Frustration, because you only have so much space and if you’re an organizing type like me, not having a definitive place for everything and everything in its place can get a bit like that itchy spot on your back that you can’t quite reach (and damned if it doesn’t move every time you get close to it).

Collections are a way of displaying parts of our identity. The second you step into our apartment, it’s pretty clear that my husband and I love books (the sociology/history ones are his, the graphic novels are mine, and don’t ask me which scifi/fantasy books belong to whom, because after 11 years, I don’t think I could tell you for sure).  I have a particular fascination for Hanayama puzzles, which share space on our shelves with our ridiculous number of books.

And as I mentioned before, I also love stationery.

I currently have four separate stationery sets, none of which have been completely used up (as well as a set of Superfriends cards that have been collecting dust sitting in display behind some Star Wars action figures). One of them is in a lovely wooden box with a locking clasp that my husband got me for our very first Christmas in Chicago, six years ago. Even though I don’t write letters with nearly the frequency that I used to before my 20s, it never felt right not having any stationery on hand, just in case, and every time I would walk into a Papyrus (it’s a dangerously pricey prospect living within walking distance of one), I would find pretty sets that I wanted and hey, shouldn’t I buy one before it’s discontinued?

I love stationery paper that has texture, rather than a smooth surface – I find I have less ink smearing problems. But not pulpy paper – I like to use those Pilot Precise rollerball pens, and the ink has a tendency to spread and those fibers can be a little annoying to contend with. A nice “basket weave” texture is what I’ve found I prefer. I like border patterns/design elements  – nothing too Laura Ashley floral, but I do like cherry blossoms, wisteria and plumeria, and if there are butterflies, dragon flies or hummingbirds, even better. I’m not a fan of a stark white color – that particular tea-stained/aged yellow is my preferred favorite, although a pale blue or lavender are also nice.

Matching envelopes are a must, and I really like ones that have a contrasting but complimentary inner envelope liner. Stickers for “sealing” are a nice touch, but not completely necessary in a set because it’s easy to pick up your own (using stickers with letters is an old habit from all the way back in childhood, but thankfully I’ve expanded beyond those early Lisa Frank ones*). Likewise, matching notecards aren’t an essential part of a stationery set for me to consider buying it – sometimes I think they’re unnecessary because I could never keep a letter short enough to be contained in a single card – but sometimes they’re just so pretty I can’t say no.

But I think what I really love about stationery is what I love about books: there’s a unique smell and texture to paper that just instantly feels “right.” Getting to handle a letter, both the writing and receiving, provides a physical connection to those words that’s palatably missing from email (and ebooks). I appreciate how email and ebooks have probably saved me an unimaginable amount of physical storage space (I can’t conceive of the number of shoeboxes I’d need to store my email correspondence if they were in letter form), but they still lack that special something that comes with tearing open an envelope and pulling out those handwritten sheets. They also lack that risk of slicing your finger open on said envelope, but that’s my fault for always forgetting to go for the letter opener.

*Additional confession: I’m still something of a sticker collector – I still have a box of stickers I’d been collecting since I was about five and yes, there are a considerable number of Lisa Frank stickers in there, mostly unicorns. Also, puffy stickers, which are something I don’t think I’ve seen much of over the years but I kind of miss.

Do you save a copy of your letters?

February 6, 2014 in Journal

One of the charms of writing letters and sending them off via snail mail is that it takes some time for the recipient to get your letter and for you to get one back. The difficult part of this for me is that I sometimes forget what I wrote to people all those weeks ago, and so I might not grok what they’re referring to right away. The solution is to make a copy of the letter and file it away, right? But then there’s all this paper everywhere and I am digital, baby. (Except when I’m writing letters…)

Lucky for me, there is a digital solution. How many of you use Evernote? I’m slowly getting into it, but millions of others can’t live without. One feature I do use regularly is Page Capture. With it you can snap a picture of a piece of paper with writing on it and save it as a note. Not so revolutionary, right? Any camera can do that. What makes Page Capture extra special is that it will look at the text on the page, translate it to digital text, then index it to make your captures searchable.

evernote page capture

This works with handwriting, and your handwriting doesn’t even have to be super neat. The neater it is the more words Evernote can recognize, of course. However, you might be surprised at how many words it picks up.

I don’t necessarily need Evernote to index the whole letter. I just like having a readable digital copy of my letters, all sorted neatly into folders by correspondent, so I can reference them later. This year I will probably save the letters I get as well just in case something happens to them or I decide to truly go all digital and eschew all paper forever.

This process works best if you have a well-lit area and can hold your smartphone steady for the shot. Since I do this a lot (I also save my journal pages) I use a $20 scanner box for the purpose. Check out an in-depth comparison between the scanbox I have and a more expensive one if you’re interested in purchasing. There are several examples, including one of handwriting.

Do you save a copy of the letters you send? How do you save them?

Picking Up Old Habits

February 5, 2014 in Journal

The last time I wrote a handwritten letter was to an old friend for Christmas. Two stationary sheets, front and back, and the only reason it wasn’t any longer was because I felt as if I’d been rambling on and “hogging” the conversation. Which is funny, considering how letter writing has always felt to me like more of an exchange of monologues, rather than a dialog. My hand had cramped painfully – I was out of practice holding a pen, and I’ve always had a problem with writing fast enough to keep up with my thoughts while still keeping my penmanship legible (unfortunately I seem to take after my father the doctor, with his near illegible scrawling style, more than my mother’s controlled whorls and looping script).

There is, however, an undeniable pleasure that comes from putting your thoughts to physical paper by hand. When typing, I can go through a dozen attempts at the same sentence. My emails go through multiple rounds of editing before being sent. Much of the time, many of the thoughts and words I type never actually make it to their intended recipient, blinking out of existence with a “highlight” and “delete” about as quickly as they appeared. Physically writing a letter however, I have no choice but to pause and consider before committing my thoughts to the page. I have to force my thoughts to slow from a sprint to a slow walk, and if I’m honest, it often irritates the hell out of me to do so. I have other things to write, chores to do, places to go, and just maybe I can squeeze in that 30 minutes at the gym – I don’t have time to slow down! Typing is so much faster and more efficient (and anyway, a script font is just as good as real handwriting, right?). But that slowing down also forces me to stop and think: Is this really what I want to say? Are these details really necessary? Just what kind of “tone” am I going for here (and am I actually succeeding)? Physical penmanship forces me to actually say what I mean, and do it with brevity – a 2000 word email won’t cost me a dime, but long letters can mean more postage and stamps aren’t as cheap as they used to be.

I used to be really good at this. When I moved from my home in Chicago after my parents died to live with some relatives, I wrote nearly half a dozen letters to friends back home every couple of weeks. A sizable chunk of my allowance was set aside to buy stationary, pens and stamps, all of which I went through at a considerable clip. Some friends and I would write back and forth to each other several times a month. But between the ease (and cheap cost) of email and how temporary mailing addresses became during the college years, I just fell out of the habit. But I still have all of them, every single letter I’ve ever received since high school, kept in a stack of shoeboxes in the bedroom closet. And because I never really stopped being something of a stationary hoarder, I still have several boxes of quality paper, cards and matching envelopes (and stickers!) that most of my friends would immediately recognize as from me.

I suppose it’d be a shame to let all that go to waste.

Introducing Michi Trota, our new community liaison

February 3, 2014 in Journal, News

This is our third year and we appear to have about 7000 people signed up for Month of Letters. Unlike the first two years, I’m having to travel this year so I decided to bring in some help. Allow me to introduce Michi Trota, the Month of Letters new community liaison. What does that mean? Michi is going to help me keep an eye on the forums and troubleshoot participant problems.

Michi blogs about all things geek (and occasionally bacon) at GeekMelange. She’s a member of the Board of Organizers and Facebook moderator for the Chicago Nerd Social Club, and in her spare time writes personal essay/memoir, spins fire (sometimes in cosplay) and manages communications & event organizing for the Chicago Full Moon Jams.

In short, she’s exactly the sort of person you want in your corner.

To contact her with questions, use the contact form , which will go straight to her mailbox. She’ll either answer the question or route it to the right person.

And where am I? Well… This week, I’ve got my puppeteer hat on and I’m at a Sesame Street workshop.

Turn your Month of Letters into a Role Playing Game

February 2, 2014 in Journal

HabitRPGby LaShawn Wanak

Are you participating in the Month of Letters this year? Looking for a way to keep yourself on task? Do you like RPGs? What am I saying, of COURSE you like RPGs!

Last year, I made the wonderful discovery of a web-based time management tool called HabitRPG. It takes your daily task list and your to-dos and gives it a gaming spin. Now you can check off your tasks and gain experience points and gold. But if you don’t finish tasks, you lose hit points. With rewards such as armor, weapons, pets and steeds, managing your daily to-do list has never been more fun! You can find a more indepth look at HabitRPG here,

HabitRPG works great when more people are involved in keeping each other accountable. One way they do that is through challenges, where people can sign up to do a set of tasks for a limited amount of time. Since I’m participating in the 2014 Month of Letters Challenge, I’ve created a challenge in HabitRPG called “A Month of Letters Challenge”. As of this writing, 47 people had signed up for it!

Want to join? Then go to HabitRPG, create an account, then head over to the Tavern (found under Settings > Social) and join the Month of Letters Challenge. Then, have fun getting your tasks done!

Postable is partnering with us this year!

February 2, 2014 in Journal, News

Postable BannerLast year, I suggested using Postable.com as an easy way to exchange mailing addresses with other members. It’s a super-easy and free service that’s designed to make collecting addresses simple. It’s designed for people getting married, and I actually wound up recommending it to my brand-new sister-in-law when she and my brother got married last year.

This year, they contacted me and said they wanted to be involved, because they also love mail. Which is fantastic and really kind. And… they’ve also added a new thing since last year. They can print and mail cards for you.

But doesn’t that defeat the point of Month of Letters?

Actually, no. The point is to think about one person at a time and to put something in that person’s mailbox that will make them smile. Now, personally, I enjoy writing with a fountain pen, but there are folks who have carpal tunnel, arthritis, or other things that make handwriting hard. There shouldn’t be an entry barrier to participating. So having someone else print and send the card for you is totally fine.

It also, to be totally honest, will help the site because they are contributing a portion of sales that come in through this link. http://www.postable.com/partner/lettermo

But just to be completely clear — you don’t have to send cards through them to use postable.com. It remains the easiest way I’ve found to collect addresses. Check them out!

Welcome to February! The Month of Letters begins!

February 1, 2014 in Journal, News

Let’s start easy, shall we? It’s Saturday and all you have to do is put one thing in the mail today.

You can write a long breathless letter to an old friend that you haven’t talked to in far too long, or just jot a quick note on a postcard. The key isn’t to dazzle with your wit — though feel free to do that if the mood strikes you — but to make a thought tangible. Whatever you put in the mail today represents the moment when you were thinking about a specific someone. Think of this a a month of sending 23 tiny gifts, and the gifts are you. 

And to encourage you, we have badges. You don’t have to play for these, but if you enjoy side challenges, then you can log what you sent on our “What have you sent?” form. 

One caution — only fill out the form once per day.

Now, go mail something.

Guest post: Fountain Pen Love

January 31, 2014 in Journal

by Kathy Kenziefountain pen and typewriter - unsure about the origin of this photo. please advise if you know the photag

A dead man, a big old dog, the Month of Letters, and an innocent-looking temptress share the responsibility for my newest love.

I didn’t participate in last year’s Month of Letters for a variety of reasons that seemed right at the time. And then Roger died. Roger’s a distant cousin from across the pond, and last year, the absolute highlight of my February was hearing from him when he got my letter, which obviously meant the world to him. So I started to feel a little bit sorry I hadn’t signed up this time around, but since he was one of the people to whom I would have written, I was a little relieved, too.

Soon after that, I went away to a writing retreat far from home. There, along with wonderful people, I found a big yellow dog who reminded me of home. All around me, people were participating in Month of Letters, and I remembered how much that letter had meant to Roger, and I got the urge to write to my girl and her dad to let them know I was thinking about them while I was away.

I didn’t come prepared for letters. The only paper I had on hand was my Moleskin notebook, the only writing utensils a handful of pencils. That’s where the temptress came in. Not only did she hand over stationery and stamps, but she let me borrow her fountain pens to write with. The moment I picked up the first of them, I was in love. I wrote two letters and developed an immediate and insatiable need to have my own pen. They were so easy to write with, my handwriting looked MUCH better than it does with any other pen, they’re pretty, and they have a sense of history and permanence to them. What’s not to love?

The very day after I arrived home found me standing in the pen shop closest to my house. It’s an alluring place filled with the scent of pipe tobacco and chock full of beautiful fountain pens and ink and notebooks and other lovely things. I bought an inexpensive but pretty pen to start with, one that’s turned out to be a great choice. I love it.

In chatting with the proprietor of the shop, I discovered that this new love of mine is no longer an obscure fascination. He sells ten times more fountain pens now than he did ten years ago. Isn’t that something, in this technology-heavy world we live in? Ten times more. He thinks environmental awareness is part of it, with people liking the idea of buying one beautiful pen and a recyclable glass bottle of ink that lasts years instead of using disposable stuff. He could be right. Or perhaps there is an army of temptresses out there, generously sharing their pens and forgetting to mention until after they do that they’re addictive.

I think that could be it. Two weeks later, I was in the shop again while the friend I’d let try my fountain pen bought two of her own. And I’m sure she’ll tell two friends, and she’ll tell two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on…