In November, I wrote a bunch of letters to strangers as a volunteer letter artist for Snail Mail My Email, an annual week-long event during which you can submit an email to be handwritten, doodled on, maybe even sealed with a kiss, and snail mailed to anyone in the world.
I come from a letter-writing family (my dad is a postal worker), have had pen-pal friendships all my life, and loved The Jolly Postman and Griffin and Sabine books as a kid, so when I first heard about this project, I got it instantly. So did a lot of other people; I was one of over 200 volunteers who collectively drew 2,000+ emails (the first Snail Mail My Email, created by Ivan Cash in 2011, is now a book). However, I was surprised by the number of people to whom I had to explain several times what I was doing.
“Wait, you’re sending whose emails where? Why?”
The why for me was at first simply that letter-writing is cool, and how novel to put an anonymous collaborator in the mix and be surprised by the result. Ostensibly, the project promotes letter-writing as a more intimate form of communication than email, though I don’t agree that email is inherently less intimate. Communication is about words, the sentiments behind words, and the relationship between the people using them. The device matters but not that much. Email and handwriting just allow for different sensory expression. I love how email enables me to communicate with audiovisuals, but only through snail mail can I include tactile ephemera and maybe even scents. Half the time, my left hand is on a keyboard while my right is scribbling in a notebook or on a post-it, so I don’t need to be sold on the value of handwriting my thoughts. I think letters are equal to email, just different.
It only took my first assignment for me to realize the project’s value is greater than novelty. The first request to arrive in my inbox was a love letter. Over the course of the week, I was floored again and again by the earnestness of the messages I got to relay (and by the eerie tendency of my randomly assigned letters to bear names and locations of personal significance to me). Every request was a sincere gesture of love or goodwill. Rereading and writing each one was like offering metta, the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness extended to all and recited like prayer. When I received a request to answer a little girl’s letter to Santa, I melted. It felt so good.
Being included in two people’s private correspondence felt like a gift and a grace. It made me think about the goodwill we keep inside, the love we don’t say out loud, and how this project encourages everyone to share a private intimacy with more people. I was at a talk tonight about loving-kindness, and the speaker quoted a Mary Oliver poem: “I watched while, secretly / and with the tenderness of any caring woman, / a cow gave birth / to a red calf, tongued him dry and nursed him / in a warm corner / of the clear night / in the fragrant grass…and…I knelt down and asked them to make room for me.” Writing those letters felt like that–making room, being made room for.
There is another yearning this project gets at, which is the human need to make art. As an extreme perfectionist, I worried my letters might not be good enough. It reminded me of when I helped an artist friend paint a mural two years ago. When I started helping, my friend had already painted the outlines, so my job was to mix colors and slather paint on the wall like it was a giant coloring book. At first, I filled in her lines painstakingly, coloring with a uniform thickness so my brush strokes were nearly invisible. As I worked, however, I noticed that where my friend had filled in the mural, there were drips, overlaps, and obvious brushstrokes traveling in haphazard directions. I loosened up a bit, started allowing my brushstrokes to look like brushstrokes, and really enjoyed helping her with her project without fear of messing it up. We talked about perfectionism, and my friend said that sometimes she wishes she was more of a perfectionist because her work would be better. I said, “No! If you were, it would be more likely that your work would not be at all.”
Perfectionism is an armor that shields us from vulnerability and therefore also connection and joy. I am trying to to let go of it, and being a letter artist was a good exercise in that. As I saw other letter artists’ work, I delighted in the little imperfections, like misspellings and smudges. I realize now that maybe the delete button deletes a little bit of our humanity, and I would rather make every mistake with love.
You can see the full photo set of my letters on Flickr. These three were my favorites to draw: