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The 2015 Month of Letters Planning Calendar

January 28, 2015 in Fun Things, Journal

LetterMo2015I need to thank Morgan Kane and Pamela Berry who both volunteered to create Month of Letters planning calendars.

Pamela’s is a google doc, so you can change things around if you need to.

Or you can download Morgan’s as a pdf to start your planning process. Here’s the pdf of the LetterMo 2015 calendar

So why was the site down the last two days?

January 27, 2015 in Journal

The condensed version… My host sent me an email on January 25 saying that my site was due to expire in the next 30 days. Apparently, “in the next 30 days” meant January 26th, but the email didn’t actually list an expiration date. I was on the road and the site went down.

The last forty-eight hours have been me trying to get the website turned back on. Tech support at host couldn’t get it turned on either, which was a little maddening. Until about five minutes ago!

Hurrah!

So, welcome back, and please accept my apologies for the outage.

Make Your Own Stamps (Or Grab Some LetterMo Stamps!)

January 24, 2015 in Journal

zazzle custom stampThe Month of Letters is nearly upon us! Time to make sure you have all your supplies–pens, stationery, stamps. I’m more pleased than I should be that the post office has Batman stamps available right now. But hey: Batman!

Of course, if I wanted a stamp with Batman on it I don’t have to rely on the USPS. It’s possible to make stamps with whatever image you desire via Zazzle.com. And while grabbing an image from a comic panel is probably frowned upon (copyright and all), it’s just fine to add an image of your own.

The Zazzle stamps come in multiple sizes, in first class and postcard denominations, and are fully sanctioned by the Postal Service. You don’t need a Zazzle shop to create custom stamps for your own use. You can either just upload your own image or start with a template and customize from there.

Zazzle also has a pretty extensive stamp shop with several designs and beautiful artwork that you can purchase as is, if you like how they look.

Month of Letters Stamp

And, if you’re so inclined, you can also purchase Month of Letters stamps from the LetterMo Zazzle Shop. Mary created them, and you can get a bunch of different sizes and values from postcard all the way up to Priority Mail.

If you order stamps right now you’ll have them in time to use for Month of Letters. Imagine how cool it will be for your letter recipients to get something in the mail that’s not only a treat on the inside, but personal and unique on the outside?

Zazzle isn’t the only place that lets you create custom stamps. Do you have experience with and like using another? Please share in the comments.

Plans for this year’s Month of Letters, in which I admit that I have a problem.

January 9, 2015 in Journal, News

We’re less than a month away from the beginning of Month of Letters!

I’ll bet you’re wondering why there haven’t been posts leading up to the month the way I’ve done in previous years. I’m going to be honest about this, and this will be my first time mentioning this on the internets. I’ve been dealing with depression for much of the past year, and only started treatment last summer.

The reason I’m telling you this is that I’m trying really, really hard to treat this as no more shameful than a broken arm or a cold. The social stigma on mental illness is much less than it was when I was a kid, but I’m still hampered by those early beliefs. I don’t want to reinforce that by hiding my own struggle and, frankly, that struggle is about to affect you.

Here’s the deal. WordPress upgraded the software that I run the site with, which is great. Unfortunately, the new version breaks the badges. My webmaster let me know in plenty of time to have it fixed. Plenty of time. At the same time, she also let me know that she was going to need to step down. Both of which would have been fine, but they coincided with the period right before I finally admitted that I was ill. So, we’re a less than a month from the beginning of Month of Letters and this major thing is still broken.

I’m better than I was last summer, but using the broken arm analogy, I still can’t lift this thing. I’ve decided that rather than frantically trying to pick up the thing that I’ve dropped and cobble something together, I am going to focus on the point of the Month of Letters, which is the letters and the connections that come from that.

The challenges will still be there this year BUT the badges are going to be on the honor system. When you win a challenge, you’ll be able to add that badge (I think) to your profile.

I’m streamlining other parts of the site for this year, because that’s manageable. And breaking it into smaller tasks means that I, with my broken arm, can still carry it. Next year… next year, I’m hoping that everything, everything, will be in a better place.

And if I can just also add… If you’re struggling, too, it’s not shameful. Just do what you can do, and know that it’s okay to ask for help with the rest.

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.