An Invitation to Danger and Daring: The Act and Art of Letter Writing and the Month of Letters

            It is a Dangerous and Daring Act to write a letter. I know this because I have been reading The Dangerous Book for Boys and its afterthought, The Daring Book for Girls,* and both treat means of properly engaging in this risky pastime. The boys’ book cuts right to the chase regarding the perils of committing one’s thoughts to a writing surface, warning that “The problem with hiding a message in the lining of a coat or tattooed on a scalp is that anyone can read it. It makes a lot of sense to practice ‘cryptography’” (p. 64). The dangers of letter-writing are also emphasized in the section on “Secret Inks” (page 149 tells us that “Secret inks allow you to send confidential information by mail,” after we are informed that “Milk, lemon juice, egg white and, yes, urine will work as a secret ink”). There are also instructions for “Grinding an Italic Nib” and improving one’s “Grammar” (three sections!).

            For inexplicable reasons, it is left to girls to brave the perils of conventional letter-writing, of daring to expose themselves by writing what can be read by anyone,** and to them the secrets of letter-writing are directly imparted. The Daring Book spells out how to compose a thank-you letter and lays out the essential facets of personal letters. In other sections it provides a “History of Writing” and a sampling of “Abigail Adams’ Letters with John Adams,” and while it sadly lacks a discussion of ink of any kind, it does explain how to “Make Your Own Quill Pen” — an endeavour so fraught with peril that parental supervision is required.

            Now that you have been duly advised, I invite you to join me in participating in this year’s Month of Letters. The basic challenge is simple: send one piece of mail every day the post runs. What with Sundays and holidays, that comes to a mere twenty-three pieces of mail. Now is the time to send out all the thank-you notes you owe, the letter that will make your mother so happy, the protest to the newspaper, the postcards to your siblings from places you’ve never been. And if you have all those bases covered already, there are plenty of people in the MoL community who are looking for pen-pals. The challenge is on; screw your courage to the sticking point, buy some stamps, pick up a pen, be dangerous and daring — write a letter.




* Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden, The Dangerous Book for Boys (New York: Collins, 2006); Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz, The Daring Book for Girls, (New York: Collins, 2007). The gender divisions are ridiculous. There is nothing in either book that shouldn’t interest all children.


** Ruth Calderon, in her book A Bride for One Night (The Jewish Publication Society; Philadelphia: 2014, p. 156, n. 10), notes that “Yochanan Muffs teaches that all conversations require the courage to reveal oneself to another. … ‘One who attempts to communicate with another endangers his own life, for to do this, he must reveal what is in his own heart. …There is always the possibility that the ear of the listener will be impervious. Any real communication, then, is a dangerous leap’ (The Personhood of God [Woodstock VT: Jewish Lights, 2005], 16).”

small stones and the Month of Letters

   WOWH badge-14-300x300 In January, I participated in the Writing Our Way Home Mindful Writing Challenge. The challenge is to write one small stone every day. A small stone is a brief observation intended to connect the writer and then readers to the world in fresh and meaningful ways, or, as their originator defines them, “A small stone is a short piece of writing that precisely captures a fully-engaged moment.”  They are the brain-child of Satya Robin, an author, therapist, and Buddhist monk, and you can find out much more about small stones and Ms. Robin here:  Some of the participants write exceptionally moving observations. I offer some of mine below as examples of the poorer sort:

The gradations of evening slip behind the tree and sink through the clouds.

The wind stage-whispers to the house; its voice calls to and pulls the snow clinging to its wake.

Frost crystals on the barbeque – something like pearls before swine.

 The evening bruises darker against the slip of the moon.

Age creeps up on the dogs, seeps into their bones like the cold of deep winter, saps the colour from their fur, pulls their legs put from under them when they stand, and the poor mutts look in vain for their betrayer.

Layers of light – the sheen of the moon, the quiet reflections of the clouds, the insistent welcome of the homes below.

 The lights of the Nepalese restaurant are vibrant and gaudy and as enticingly welcoming as the sounds of a carousel.

 Awkward and ungainly with fish-wife voices, the Canada geese usurp a momentary majesty against the purpling sky.

The yellow spider, shocked by the mist hitting the rosemary, scrambles for the highest point of the plant and throws its front legs up in supplication to whatever gods watch over spiders, hoping for a life-line.

 The lone tree on the hill that shelters the cow has a new companion, one that also appreciates the rush of the wind through bone and feather, branch and leaf.

How to picture the wind? It is a vampire: I feel the swirl of its cape, the coldness of its blood, the bite on my exposed throat and cheek, but it eludes every snatch of my grasping shutter.

The snow falls with the ticking of thousands of infinitesimal clocks, with the patting of elves’ hands on the heads of sleeping birds.


Writing through this month of small stones provides me with an reminder to look at the world the way I look at language. It is not a perspective that comes naturally to me (as I think is apparent), but the stretch seems to air out neglected rooms in my head. (It also makes me get out of the house. I don’t find that I am inspired by my computer screen or want to look too closely at the dishes in the sink. I did get off a good phrase about my piles of paper being “tarnished with dust” but I decided one of those was enough).

LetterMo2014squareThis last month I was engaged in epistolary endeavours inspired by Mary Robinette Kowal’s Month of Letters Challenge. This is fun. The goal is to mail at least one item (not including bills and mass-mailings and the like) every day (one may skip Sundays and holidays) and to log what one has mailed. In addition to acquiring points for every letter mailed, there are a number of Achievement stamps that one can earn along with additional points. There are stamps for sending one’s First Letter first-letter, for mailing a Parcel parcel, for going forth boldly as an Explorer explorer and mailing in a box one has not used before adventurer. There are also stamps for worthy causes such as mailing to a Soldier soldier or other service person and for sending notes to be distributed to cancer patients through Girls Love Mail SUPPORTER. It is a game all players can “win”; participants need garner only forty points to earn a “winner” stamp at the end of the month.

One of my favourite Achievements is the Austen-style letter AUSTEN-STYLE1. Such a missive should be written with a dip pen IMG_0417 (ideally a quill IMG_0071), folded, and sealed with wax: IMG_0075. If one is friendly with one’s local postal-clerks, it is possible to persuade them to send the letter through the mail sans envelope. (I suppose if we were really to be authentic, we’d find folks with horses to deliver them for us. Perhaps next year.) spot-of-mail1

Although the challenges of January and February are in many ways markedly different, what they have in common is the impulse toward connection. Often that’s what writing is all about. We use it to connect with ourselves, with the world around us, with close friends, with the teacher giving us a grade, with authors who have lived in centuries long gone, with generations yet to come, with other seekers of knowledge we will never meet but who share our curiosity about Shakespeare or germs or hats or the germs that probably lived in the hats worn by Shakespeare. Writing is wonderful, alchemical, and transforms our lives and the lives of others. I never tire of what can be done with words.

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