Writing Letters to Get Your Words Flowing

Writing is a personal act, sometimes overwhelmingly so. How one moves through their mental landscape to turn ideas into words onscreen or on paper is, so I've read, different for everyone, and not often done with ease. Some writers take a hundred pages to clear their throats, and churn out thousands of words a day with great regularity, while others agonize over every sentence and create only a few works in a lifetime. Many of us, I suspect, have a more difficult time than we'd like sitting down and covering pages with our stories, our essays, or our poetry.

The Portable Writing Desk

I write all the time; for my occupation, for pleasure, for daily communication. When the purpose is functional, or as part of a workday's activities, it's straightforward to begin putting words in order, moving toward a collection of thoughts that achieves a certain goal. It's only when I want to write something less well-defined, with a more personal purpose such as exploring a world that exists only inside my imagination, that there seems to be difficulty in getting the words out. So I approach the whole thing sideways - I write letters. The act of picking up a pen and creating a narrative, with the intention of sharing a moment or a string of thoughts with someone I know, has made it easier to write other things as well.

Here's what I recommend to get going. Pick a friend, a good friend, as someone to write to on a regular basis. They should be someone with whom you feel relaxed enough to depart from the normal narrative flow if you wish, who can keep up if you switch your tack part-way through. Then, with a good pen on nice paper, write to them. Often. Your first few letters, if you're like me, may be of the 'well, here's what's happening this week' variety, which is a fine start. Then, updates out of the way, really write them a letter, one that connects your mind to theirs, that flows, that speaks clearly across the miles in your voice. You'll know it works when you stop thinking about writing, and just let words appear on the paper as they will.

After that, write more. There are as many reasons to write as there are people to write to. Reconnection with friends who may now live far from your common origin. A note of shared sorrow or concern. Congratulations to someone who has hit a milestone, or achieved some notable thing. Comments or thoughts to your elected representative, or your local dictator (whichever applies to where you live). A quick note to a company which makes something you use and like, or use and wish to improve. Hand-written letters are increasingly uncommon in this age of e-mail and instant messages, and are a very human artifact in the seemingly-endless stream of catalogs, credit card offers, and bills that seem to fill most mailboxes now.

Having a good space to write is helpful, but one can never tell when time and desire might intersect, so it helps to have stationery and a pen or two with you as often as you can. I've gotten a run-of-the-mill zipper portfolio, the kind that holds a legal pad, with pockets on the opposite side. I carry a few sheets of stationery, a few nice cards, envelopes, stamps, and a spare pen or two inside. The legal pad that came with it was amazingly cheap, and was promptly replaced with an Ampad Evidence Recycled, which, as long as the pages haven't been fanned out, makes a great surface to write on. So there you have it - a portable writing desk, about an inch thick and not too big, with a zipper to keep it closed so nothing falls out. If you prefer smaller notes, Levenger makes some great pads and pad-holders that can contain a diminutive version of my portable desk, even handier for slipping into a small bag or whatnot. I've even tucked the necessary bits into a larger Moleskine or Blueline notebook, for an even slimmer or more portable approach.

Inside the Portable Desk

The boundaries of a sheet of stationery are pretty clear when you plop one in front of you. It's smaller than normal paper, so there isn't an acre of white space on your desk to fill. Just a small, nicely-defined space, not terribly intimidating. It you use notecards or correspondence cards instead of sheets, then there's even less area to fill. What I found was that having the idea that I was going to talk to my friend removed some of the hesitation I felt in trying to fill a blank space with words, and I quickly moved from notecards to larger sheets. Part of the charm of a letter is the limitation of format, and the concise approach that this limitation seems to foster.

Another thing to try is to apply the letter-writing approach to journals, in a sense. If you are reluctant to send deeply personal letters to anyone, write them to yourself! Pick up a nice journal or notebook, and write as if you were talking to someone you hadn't seen in a while. I have a large Moleskine for each of my children in which I write letters to them, whenever the moment or the event seems to warrant, with the hope that one day they'll read them and understand something about those moments that time and memory may have blurred. One friend and I have taken to writing in lined and plain Moleskine Cahiers, and we toss stories and drawings back and forth to each other through the mail on a very regular basis.

I can't say that your inner muse will be inspired every time, and your inner critic forever stilled, by taking up this very old activity, but it can make a difference in how you approach starting something new. Plus, it is a nice chance to connect with people who may not be near you all the time. They get a little visit from you, in a form they can enjoy long after the day they received it in the mail, as well as something human and original that stands out from the daily noise.

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on the subject of trading moleskines..

i think this is a great idea.. actually, one of the hard parts about writing letters is remembering what you said and when you said it.. especially if you talk to millions of people via phone, email, blogs, etc..

i would be willing to strike up a moleskine trade with someone back and forth.. someone i don't know .. just for fun..

if anyone is interested .. drop me an email at:

sergio (at) coffee-black (dot) com

sounds like fun!

Trading Moleskines

I love the idea of trading Moleskines. I first saw it when I chanced across 1000journals dot com and 1001journals dot com. I've since started one that travels between myself and 3 friends I used to work with. We're now all dotted around the country so it's a fun way to keep in touch, much more personal than e-mails and text messages :D Having said that so far I've done my entry and posted it on so we'll just have to see how succesful it really is.

I also love the idea someone posted here about a journal with letters to your children. I'm definitely going to start that one, I think it is a fabulous idea. I write my journals because I love to write, but also because I'd like to think that my family would like to read them after I'm gone. Letters specifically addressed to my children would be perfect, I'd love to have received something like that from my parents.

Right, off to browse ebay for some large sized Moleskines


Sounds like Brahms

I recall being told an anecdote of the 19th century German composer Johannes Brahms who would write a fugue every morning before continuing work on his next masterpiece. He reckoned it got his creative juices going.

If I want to get in the writing mood then I stay up late. Whether creative or professional there's something about 2AM that means I can start straight in. Although when I've had to write during the day correcting the "proofs" of what I'd written the day before also gets me in the mood.

I enjoyed your post. What

I enjoyed your post. What pens do you use?


Thank you - I usually write with a Libelle Carbon Fiber fountain pen, which seems to be discontinued now, or a Parker Sonnet rollerball.

I wrote a little about the pens I use here: http://diyplanner.com/node/1829


Moleskines and the kids

I enjoyed your post.

I also use the large moleskine to write to my son and I have been writing to him since he was two weeks old. One day I will give it to him and he can see how I was feeling during the time when he was young.

I plan on doing the same when we have another child or children.


re: Moleskines and the kids

That's the other part. It's difficult enough to get to know one's parents most of the time, so it seemed to me that a narrative of important days, moments, achievements, or anything else might shed some light on who I was at those points in their lives.

I love the idea of writing

I love the idea of writing letters...it just never works for me!

Occasionally I write to my partner, but I talk to the guy on the phone every night and see him every weekend, so I never have anything to write...anything going on in my life, he hears on the phone each day and it seems silly to keep it back just so I can write it in a letter. The situation is the same with most people I'd actually want to write to...by the time I get the letter written, I think "why not just email it to them?"

I tried a trading journal with my partner's mom, but after a few entries back and forth where we'd trade off every weekend (either with him as messenger when he came to visit me or with the exchange happening when I went to visit him) she stopped writing. That often seems to be the case, that people just stop writing. And it's almost never me, so I never see the point in even initiating correspondence with someone when it's likely they won't be interested enough to continue it.

I admit I'm also very bad at procrastination when it comes to letters...and the sad part is that it's often not the writing but the mailing! I'll have letters written and just never get around to getting them into the postbox!

same prob

I have literally a box of unmailed letters... >.<

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If you go through some of my

If you go through some of my notebooks from college, you'll find some unmailed letters, yep...

Letter writing

I have been that way in the past, and may well become so again. When I was younger, I would get pen-pals in far away places, and inevitably make them angry with me because it would take me months to reply to their letters!

I'm not entirely certain what started this letter-writing thing off, other than a desire to write and a willing recipient. My most frequent letter-pal and I actually talk via e-mail, IM, phone calls, and swapped journals, as well as through letters - at one point, I believe we had 7 distinct conversations happening at different levels! It's just a slower pace of communication, a time-honored way of sharing a moment, a day, or a thread of ideas with someone.

For me, it's a much more intentional and thought-invested act than an e-mail. Very different cadence, as well - thoughts have more space to stretch out a bit, develop, resolve themselves to some sort of conclusion or not. E-mail, to me, is always a to-the-point activity, where asides and tangents really derail the reader's attention.

If you're at a loss, and really want to write, make it fictional. Enlist a friend or relative who won't think you're nuts, and write a serial story to them, a chapter or a scene per letter. Sometimes it's a welcome relief from the normal flow of a workday to send a letter from the coast of Patagonia, where your captain just stranded you and ran off with your steamer trunk.

You can always write to yourself! I know several folks who do that instead of keeping a journal.

Like Calvin?

You can always write to yourself! I know several folks who do that instead of keeping a journal.

There was a short series of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, where Calvin was writing letters to his future self. Rather weird, in a cute sort of way. That was always one of my favorites.


Dear Me,

I used to watch "Northern Exposure" every chance I got... This was back when the show was running and reruns were uncommon. I loved the moose. Anyways, one of the characters found a letter she wrote to herself 10 years before. I went on this huge letter writing kick after that. Problem is - I have no idea where I stuck all those letters :) Some day I will have quite a surprise...

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