The soul in letter writing

What cannot letters inspire? They have souls; they can speak; they have in them all that force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions.  Heloise

One of my favorite novels is Clarissa, Samuel Richardson’s million-word tome that inspired the bodice-rippers of the 1970’s, with their swarthy scoundrels who ravished young virgins before falling in love, marrying, and living happily ever after.

Richardson, however, treats his scoundrel as scoundrels deserve:  After ravishing Clarissa Harlowe, the villain Robert Lovelace dies in a dual, condemned, despised, and alone.

But that’s not the best thing about Clarissa.  What I love about the book is that it’s an epistolary novel, a story told through letters, and the person who controls the correspondence drives the story.  In the beginning, it is Clarissa through whom we get our information, in the letters she writes and receives. As she falls under Lovelace’s control, she loses her voice, and other characters take over the narrative.

What does Lovelace want from Clarissa?  Not only her body and her virtue, but also her letters. He searches desperately for Clarissa’s correspondence, uncertain of her possession until he has seized every word she has written.

Clarissa is a dark, 18th-century story, but it still has something relevant to say about letters:  They carry enormous power.  For the writer, they provide a means of independent expression, and for the recipient, they create a deep sense of connection.

I’m a letter writer, someone who loves stationers and can spend hours looking for the perfect notecard.  Email is cheap; it’s fast and convenient.  What it’s not, though, is sensual.  You can read it, but you can’t feel it or smell it – you can’t fully experience it. It lacks the depth and texture of carefully chosen paper. And its message doesn’t imprint upon your soul.

Look around your colleagues’ workspaces.  No one prints out email and tapes it to the wall.  But a card or a letter?  You’ll find one on almost every desk.  Even the most cynical digiphile smiles when he or she finds a handwritten letter in the mailbox.  Because an email says, I thought of you, but a letter says, I imagined your face when you found this letter and learned that someone was thinking of you, so I searched for the perfect card, one that would make you laugh, and sat at my kitchen table to compose this note just for you, unlike any other note I have ever written, and I found a stamp and ran to the mailbox, so that you would have this letter in your hands before the week is out.

I once sent a card to an editor, someone I didn’t know but whom I admired, congratulating him on a new job he had gotten at a bigger magazine.  Years later, when I contacted him to pitch a story, he told me, “I remember you.”  He took my pitch and ran my story.

Yes, letter writing is troublesome and time consuming, but human relationships, the real kind, require effort.  Sometimes the easiest gesture isn’t the best.  “Can you do lunch earlier?”  That’s an email.  “Thank you for a wonderful dinner, inviting me into your home, and giving me the chance to meet your family.”  That’s a letter.

Questions about letter writing etiquette? Visit Crane & Co.

You can find a free ebook version of Clarissa in 9 volumes (plus a preface) on Amazon.


Music of the month

My fantasy gift, the one I never get but really want, is a subscription to Sock Club. Every month you receive a new pair of socks in the mail. And these aren’t just any ol’ socks. They’re top-quality, colorful, and American-made. I imagine that after your first pair arrives in January, you spend the next 30 days looking forward to your February socks. Opening the package, awing over the pattern, slipping them on your feet, and walking around town in a pair of unusually jaunty socks.

Fruit-of-the-month, though not as exuberant, also delivers monthly anticipation. And this is important, having something to look forward to. Even something as seemingly simple as a grapefruit or a pair of socks.

Musician Ben Wendel is serving up his dish of monthly delight with his jazz suite-in-the-making, The Seasons. Every month, Wendel releases a new jazz composition via video featuring himself and an artist who has influenced him.

The inspiration for this project is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who composed a suite of 12 piano pieces, also entitled The Seasons. In 1875, Nikolay Matveyevich Bernard, the editor of a music magazine, hired Tchaikovsky to write the pieces, one for each month, and they were released through the magazine.

Tchaikovsky wrote some amazing piano music. His Piano Concerto No. 1 is a knockout. But The Seasons doesn’t always give you his best. The “June” Barcarolle is probably the most popular, and Rachmaninoff often used “November” for his encore, but I recommend giving “July” and “August” a listen. These two are pretty spectacular. You can find a recording of Lang Lang performing the whole Suite on Youtube, audience coughs and throat-clearing included.

Wendel, a saxophonist from Canada who grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Brooklyn, takes from Tchaikovsky the title and the song-a-month idea. The rest is all Wendel and pure magic. If you’re new to jazz and want a Pu Pu platter of bite-sized delicacies to get you started, Wendel’s The Seasons is just right. Nine months of music are posted on his website, and each piece provides a different jazz experience. But each one, when it ends, will have you thinking, “Let’s hear that again.”

You can listen to The Seasons on Wendel’s Youtube channel, but if you skip watching the videos, you’re missing something amazing. One brilliant aspect of Wendel’s project is that it’s not just about great music. It’s also about friendship, collaboration, the uniqueness of each artist, and the influence of the performance space. Wendel’s videos remind us that jazz doesn’t emerge from a void. It’s living, changing, a product of people and place, and how you experience it depends on the moment in time.

Go to his website, watch the videos and read about the collaboration that produced each piece.

Here’s what Wendel had to say about working with pianist Shai Maestro on “May“:

One of the great by-products of this project has been the growth and learning I’ve experienced while hearing each musician interpret the music.  By the time we recorded the duet, Shai had been working on this 9/8 rhythm from many different angles, and ended up teaching me new ways to interpret it even though I had written the piece.  To me, this is musical collaboration at its best– one where the exchange of ideas and inspiration is circular.

Yep, 9/8 time. You can’t not move to this one.

A few other highlights:  “March” with Wendel on the bassoon and Matt Brewer on bass. For me, the opening melody evokes Fauré, but the movement in the bass keeps the piece surprising. Another standout is “April” with drummer Eric Harland. Classic jazz that transports you to a smoky New York basement club. Pour a gin martini for this one.

Finally, my favorite. “July” with Julian Lage on the guitar and Wendel back on the bassoon, playing together in Lage’s apartment. Soulful. Lovely. This is the soundtrack to a perfect day.

Check Wendel’s website at the end of October to find “October.” And “November” and “December” are also yet to come. That’s 3 more months of great music to look forward to.

Listen to NPR’s story on Ben Wendel’s The Seasons.