The lost art of the friendly letter
When I was in grade school, we were taught the art of the “friendly letter.” Although I can’t remember every detail now, there was a structure to these handwritten notes — a place to put your return address, the date, a proper way to address your friend or family member or teacher. Did you learn how to write a friendly letter too?
I wrote a lot of friendly letters. And had some random pen pals in Switzerland.
Many years later, I found myself post-college–a newly annointed artist bursting with creativity–discovering mail art. This was a subculture of people who, like myself, loved the medium of making art specifically for the mail. We’d collage postcards, tiny books, cut and paste remnants of everyday life. Think ticket stubs, feathers, shells, drops of red wine, repurposed matchbooks and cocktail umbrellas. We’d manipulate photographs, draw pictures and paste inspiring quotes from old books… Most striking to me now is that we made these things, not for the market or for a readership, but for one person only – the one who would receive this treasure in their mailbox.
It was a gift. Pure and simple. A creative way to communicate between old friends who lived across the miles. A way to explore our creativity with total freedom and joy. There was one particular house I lived in during my time in Santa Barbara where all of us roommates spent nearly every night on the floor of our bungalow with scissors and glue, photo booth pictures and glitter, drinking wine and listening to music and making things. The mailman knew we always got the best mail!
A designer in training
From the outside, all of this cutting and pasting wasn’t amounting to much. I was working as a barista (they called them coffee slingers in those days) and smoking a lot of cigarettes at cafes. I was having lots of fun but feeling aimless. What I didn’t know is that I was also training myself for a step on my future path.
Years later, when I decided I wanted to find my favorite author SARK in San Francisco and convince her to hire me, I decided I would connect with her energetically by making her something. That something turned into a beautiful accordion book full of photographs and quotes, boa feathers and paint, and a letter introducing myself. Because I only had her publisher’s address, I didn’t think it would ever reach her, but I felt moved to connect this way just the same. Several weeks later, I got a call from SARK’s office. Not only did the little book reach her, but they called to tell me that they couldn’t wait to meet me. To meet ME! Apparently that little book functioned as an accidental portfolio piece and I had intrigued them.
The day we all met, I remember reading the Camp SARK mission statement and I cried. It was the beginning of a brand new life, one that aligned with my spirit. In a world where I had no idea what was next for me, where my only professional experience was selling coffee or clothes, I was floored to have suddenly have found a dream job.
And my first assignment there? It was to create a line of licensed gift products based on SARK art. I literally sat on the rug and cut and pasted SARK quotes and artwork into greeting cards and stationery. Turns out all those hours of mail art were the perfect training for a future of design and art-making in the real world. And it was a dream come true.
I love this story because it affirms something I believe wholeheartedly — That whatever you are curious about, whatever delights you and brings you joy is precisely what will take you on the path towards your deepest dreams. You don’t need to connect the dots or even understand it. In fact, it might be better if you don’t. Just do it for the joy of it.
And know that nothing, absolutely nothing you’ve ever done is wasted.