On Sunday, December 30th, at Nordic Northwest in SW Portland, I will have a table of Carrot Condo creations at Portland’s first “Jolabokaflod,” which means: Yule Book Flood.
Margaret Pinard organized the event and explains that Jolabokaflod is an “Icelandic national holiday where people exchange books as gifts on Christmas Eve then spend all night hiding away and reading them over mugs of hot chocolate (spiked or not!).”
This is my kind of holiday! Books, reading all night, and hot chocolate? I’m in! For us in Portland, it will be near New Year’s Eve rather than Christmas. In addition to an impressive line up of authors selling their books, there will be Nordic music and fairy tales performed.
One of my favorite projects at Carrot Condo right now is my Customized Letters: two handwritten pages, both illustrated, and tucked into an envelope (also illustrated) and mailed once a month for five months.
So far, most of the letters have been purchased as a gift to someone. The customer tells me a little about the recipient: they like coffee, their non-profit work keeps them busy, they love books and the beach. Then, I write.
The recipient receives cheerful, fun mail each month and an excuse to put their feet up and read for a few minutes. No need to write back. All the fun of a pen pal without any of the obligation.
What is not so simple to describe is how deeply satisfying these letters are for me to create. I have a real audience to write to (not a vaguely imagined editor), a real purpose (letter due February 5th), a prompt (he loves dogs), and a length limit. And, once the letter is created, I send it off. It’s not tucked away on a shelf or on my hard drive waiting around for a place and purpose.
Sometimes the illustration inspires what I write; sometimes the other way around, but the process always begins with looking at the recipient’s name, reviewing what I know about them, and just thinking about them for a few minutes before I start.
And except for one subscriber, I’ve never met any of the people I’m writing to.
A 70-year-old man named Tim Johnson recently wrote and mailed 108 handwritten letters in 108 days. He’s the first to come close to describing my experience (and I read four books about letter-writing before putting Customized Letters in my Etsy shop).
He says a lot of great things, but this was spot-on: “these letters demand more time, thought and effort than the typical email, but my reward is a sense of creative satisfaction as I come up with a soliloquy custom-made for a particular person.”
Creative satisfaction, yes. And because each letter is unique and shared only with that recipient (the most anyone else sees are the pictures here), I don’t draw the same thing or tell the same story more than once, which gives me a rewarding creative challenge.
Fascinating how such a simple thing, a handwritten letter, can be so fulfilling. If you want to give it a try, egg press organizes a letter-writing challenge called write_on every April. Keep an eye on egg press’s blog for details. Taking part last year is what inspired my Customized Letters, and I plan to take part again this year.
Perhaps this Customized Letter project is only beginning …
Happy writing! (And, as always, thank you for reading and for your interest in Carrot Condo; I’m so glad you’re out there!)
Writing 30 letters in 30 days for the write_on challenge proved to be a turning point in my creative life:
Handwriting letters brought me back to my roots. It felt meditative and deeply satisfying. And because I had a specific audience to write to, my writing topics and voice flowed out happily and abundantly. For at least two years now, I’ve been stuck in my writing with none of the joy or satisfaction writing has given me my whole life. This natural flow of ideas and voice was an incredible relief.
There’s so much more, too–new Carrot Condo products brewing as I type, new friendships, and incredibly timely realizations and insights that just keep broadening my creative vista. But the most serendipitous story is this one about some round-shaped stationery.
When I was maybe six years old, a girl named Jessica and her parents came to visit us. At the time, I don’t think I understood who she was, just that I would have someone to play with. I remember we slept on the floor of what my parents called “the den,” and I was really impressed with her sleeping bag. That’s pretty much the extent of my memory.
However, a picture of the adult Jessica with her husband and first child hangs on my parents’ wall, and a few years ago, Jessica found me on Facebook and mailed me some things from the man who would have been my grandfather, except I never knew him. What I didn’t comprehend as a child is that Jessica’s father and my father were stepbrothers. They lived in the same house for at least a summer, maybe longer, and were friends.
Jessica had seen my post about write_on and requested a letter. I had just mailed her letter when I visited my parents and asked my mom if I could look through a box of stationery she let me use when I was a kid. I remembered loving the designs, and I thought they might inspire some of my own.
When I came across this circular design, my mom said, “Oh! I remember writing to Mike on that stationery when he was in the Air Force. I wrote in multiple colors in a spiral. He said it drove him crazy to read it.”
I said: “Mike? Jessica’s dad?”
“Yes,” she said.
Unfortunately, Jessica’s dad died many years ago, far too young. And yet, here I was, holding a piece of stationery my mom had used to write to him long before Jessica or I existed.
“Can I have a piece of this?” I asked. That night, I went home and, a little too excited to write as neatly and painstakingly as I’m sure my mom did, I wrote a second letter to Jessica. In a spiral.
When my mom talked about the letter she’d sent Jessica’s dad, it was told like a story about something that happened recently. He’s obviously still loved and well-remembered. It felt good to see proof that we live on in ways we maybe can’t imagine. It felt good to send along a note to Jessica from her dad.
Also, I just realized, the reason my mom has this box of stationery is because the man I knew as my grandfather (but was really my step-grandfather), worked at Mead Paper Company and routinely brought us gifts from the employee store. It was because of him my mom had the round stationery to write on.
And, it’s because of him and my mom’s good taste not to ever use it that we still have this:
I think I tore out the first and only sheet to be used, but hey, 45 sheets for 59-cents!
My experience writing letters felt magical, especially this second letter to Jessica. Handwritten letters feel radically different than email or texts or even typing a letter, which are all good. But none of those would have un-earthed the round stationery.
I am finding that handwriting and illustrating letters feels meditative, calming, and deeply satisfying. Writing one word at a time in a limited space makes me thoughtful and focused, which is a relief from this frenetic world and my frenzied mind.
Once I know who I’m writing to that day, an image leaps out of my pen onto the stationery. I don’t have time to question it or to revise it, and this is loosening up my creative muscles.
These monkeys, for example–I love them!
If I had set out to make this a design for my shop, I’d have drawn and re-drawn the image at least six times. Nothing wrong with that, exactly, but this spontaneity felt refreshing and surprising, which is how I hope the illustration felt for the recipient.
My handwriting is as difficult as it’s always been, however, I learned today that if I choose the right pen (a fussy one that forces me to slow down) and have an idea of what I want to say, I can actually write quite nicely. My letter was too private to take a picture of; otherwise, I’d show off my pretty script and provide proof for those of you who have known my handwriting!
It dawned on me one day to decorate the envelopes, too. I felt quite proud of myself, and still do, but look what I found on Instagram this morning by Naomi Bulger! So clever!!
I’m not even half-way through the write_on challenge, but this experience has already given me new ideas for my Carrot Condo shop. And today, I stopped by a craft store in PDX and scored some vibrant-colored materials for one of my projects. Can’t wait to tell you all about it, but as you know, I work at a snail’s pace. So, once April’s write_on challenge is over, I’ll use May to make stuff!! So happy to feel inspired and grateful to everyone joining me in this challenge.
Search #write_on or @eggpress on Instagram or visit me: @carrot.condo to see more letter writing loveliness.
Did you once love writing and receiving letters by mail? For years now, my mail has mostly consisted of junk and a few bills. I miss the surprise of seeing a friend’s handwriting, colorful stickers and doodles, and the thickness of an envelope containing pages of story and musings.
And I remember spending long, satisfying hours hunched over a desk writing letters to friends, anticipating their reply.
So, I’m taking part in a challenge for the month of April. Would you like to join me?
It’s called “Write_On,” and the mission is to “promote joy, creativity, expression, and connection through hand-written correspondence.” The task: write 30 letters in 30 days during April, which happens to be National Letter Writing Month.
Although I imagine quiet, thoughtful hours at the desk neatly “penning” letters to dear friends — my life just does not work that way right now. So, I’m sure the month will be a bit frenzied, my handwriting less than stellar, and many one-page letters dashed off and sent. Nevertheless, I’m doing it!
Egg Press, the company that pressed my political postcard, created the event. Egg Press staff all take part in write_on. Here, Katelyn is standing next to their idea boards from previous years. Notice the bagel on the bulletin board? Yes, someone figured out how to mail a bagel.
My goals, so far, are to make my letters mostly thank you letters. Some political, many friend-neighbor-family focused. And, as much as time allows, I want to illustrate my own cards and stationery.
But really, I want to let the letter writing take me where it will. I want to get back to those days of much slower (and sloppier in my case) communication that involved so much reflection and love and consideration. Also, serendipity. I’m not sure who all I’ll write to, what they’ll say in response (if anything), or where it will all lead. I just know it will involve pens, color, stationery, cards, stamps, stickers, and walks to the “blue box” up the street to mail my letters.
You can do it however you wish, as long as you write 30 letters in 30 days, starting April 1st. I’ll be sharing updates on Instagram and here, and I’d love to hear how you’re doing as well.