Thursday, May 30, 2013

10 Things I Learned From Composing Handwritten Notes - Entry #37

A byproduct of The Writing Project was developing what I’ll call “Ten Things I Learned From Composing Handwritten Notes.”  There are no great epiphanies or surprising revelations within the list.  They do, however, present my attempt to sum up my year-long experiences and thoughts.  So, in no particular order, my Top Ten.
1.    People really, really appreciate a handwritten card or letter.  I have received dozens of thank yous over the past twelve months for the notes I have mailed to individuals.  The key word is "mailed," as opposed to hand-delivered or sent via a campus mail system.  There is something extra special about finding a personalized card mixed in within all the junk mail and circulars that arrive at home.  The responses have been truly heartfelt and sincere.  I quickly realized that my thesis was indeed true—very few of us compose handwritten missives anymore and receiving one is highly prized.
2.    There does not have to be a specific reason to write to someone.  Sometimes I laughed when a friend would ask why I sent them a letter.  Did they do something wrong?  Did they forget an important date or event?  No, I would respond.  I just wanted to send you a note.  I think the biggest reaction from people came when they were least expecting to have a handwritten card from me arrive in their mailbox. 
3.    Don’t expect a response.  Yes, it was nice to have the tables turned and I would become the recipient of a piece of correspondence, but that was not why I began this journey.  However, while I was not flooded with cards, many people genuinely acknowledged my notes when we would meet face-to-face.
4.    Cards are kept as keepsakes.  I have been stunned at the number of individuals that have told me the note I sent them is sitting on their desk.  It instantly became a beloved possession to be cherished and treasured.  I have been humbled every time a person related this story to me.
5.    Handwriting a note does not take much time.  The hardest part of  composing some form of correspondence is forcing yourself to sit down to write.  Once I actually seated myself at a table, pen in hand the words flowed effortlessly.  It was just dragging myself to that darn desk.
6.    Think of pre-writing your cards.  Sometimes my words just cascaded off the tip of my fountain pen.  Other times I felt the need to write a draft or two before committing my words to paper.  This allowed for more reflection, when necessary, on my part.
7.    You don’t have to write a tome.  Very few of my cards were of great length.  As I ‘ve told students taking essay exams—it’s not the quantity, but the quality of the writing that counts.
8.    Be open and honest in your thoughts.  It is effortless to mechanically write a note with no heart or feeling.  That is the easy way out when composing a piece of correspondence.  However, while surely appreciated, the overall impact will fall flat.  Take the time and energy to impart your true sentiments.  In an earlier post I wrote, “a thoughtful notecard truly demonstrates the worth and value we place on someone.”  How true.
9.    A handwritten card is a chance to rekindle relationships.  My Writing Project has given me the excuse to reconnect with friends, relatives, and professional colleagues I have lost touch with over the years.  While we are not all-of-a-sudden on-going pen pals the renewed association has allowed us to forge a bond that had become tenuous.
10.                  A handwritten note has recuperative powers.  I was astonished by the number of people that were so deeply affected and gratified upon receiving one of my cards.  I heard such comments as “You don’t know how much your card meant to me.” or “Your card came at a very difficult time for me.  Thank you.”  Bottom line—you never, never know the magnitude a handwritten note will have on someone.

As I type these final words I have become somewhat melancholy and wistful.  This is it.  No more daily writing.  No further sharing of thoughts and feelings via this blog.  I will be continuing to write notes and letters, just not at the pace I pursued this past year.  That will be the legacy of The Writing Project—to keep the lost art of handwritten correspondence alive and well, at least in my own little corner.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Journey Has Ended - Entry #36

My one-year odyssey is over.  Fini.  Complete.  During the past twelve months I have handwritten 366 notes and letters (the extra card was for good luck).   I began on May 25, 2012 with a note to John Kralik, author of 365 Thank Yous:  The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life, and the inspiration for my year-long Writing Project.  My final letter, bookending this undertaking, was also to Judge Kralik, giving him a snapshot summation of the journey just concluded.  My spreadsheet of recipients ran the gamut from close friends and family to the man-on-the-street.  There wasn’t necessarily any rhyme or reason to all my choices.  Sometimes they were obvious—people I work with on a day-to-day basis—and sometimes they were not—a composer of a recently closed Broadway musical or a helpful hotel manager.  I occasionally panicked—“Egads!  Who will I write to today?!”  Sometimes I was lazy, but in the end I stubbornly carried on to the Writing Project’s denouement. 

Looking back over “The 365” there were some notable stats.  Twenty percent (71 people) were professional staff within the University of Connecticut, both at my regional campus (Waterbury) and the main campus at Storrs.  Another 20% (74 people) were colleagues within the New England region and elsewhere around the country.  Friends and neighbors accounted for 15% (52 people) of recipients.  Interestingly, I wrote to less then 20 family members (5%), which also included first cousins.

I realized much about myself over the course of this adventure—perseverance, being more open and honest, and understanding the consequence of setting bar-raising goals.  More importantly, through the Writing Project I have discovered the simple, yet substantial impact a handwritten piece of correspondence can have on an individual.  Here are some excerpts from cards I received that highlight this assertion:

I’m inspired by your commitment to personal notes—really a lost art.
WOW, I just got a wonderful letter from you!!  Thank you for the thank you!!  It is letters like yours that make it all worthwhile.

It was so nice to receive a card from you today!  You are right, we all don’t take the time to sit and hand write notes to each other.  I was so happy to get yours, I had to write back.

There is something very unique and special about noticing and appreciating those in our lives…It was a thrill to receive your hand-written, lengthy note.

My next blog post will be my last.  I have collapsed all I have experienced over the twelve months into a list entitled “Ten Things I Learned From Composing Handwritten Notes.”  I hope it will provide some guidance and advice for individuals looking to begin their own Writing Project, no matter its breadth or scope.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

For My Wife - Entry #35

I finally wrote to my wife.  Well, I will write to her next week.  She will represent the next to last person on my Writing Project list (As someone who appreciates symmetry the last person will be the first, but more about that next week).  She has been my main supporter, editor, and confidante.  Almost every blog post has passed by her probing eyes for approval before being posted online. 

She has waited patiently for her card.  At the start of my undertaking she would occasionally ask, sometimes nonchalantly, sometimes more overt, when her turn would come.  Days, weeks, and months have glided by since Day 1 and no handwritten correspondence has arrived in our mailbox addressed to her.  When questioned I deftly deflected the inquiry or smoothly changed the subject.  I didn’t want to reveal that I was saving the best for last.  I viewed this pre-planned denouement to The Writing Project as being a touch romantic with a sense of rhythm and beauty combining to a lyrical climax (I doth wax the poetic!). 

What about the card’s contents?  I had less then one week to sort through the myriad choices I could make.  The list of possibilities I contemplated to include ran the gamut of the ups and downs, the highs and lows of a 25+ year marriage--memories, feelings, stories, reminiscences, appreciations, passions, sentiments, etc., etc.  What would I lovingly embrace?  Cherish?  Conversely, what would I forsake or jettison?  To further complicate my decisions, all of my writings had to fit within the confines of a single notecard, albeit in this case an oversized one.  I pondered.  I reflected. 

And then, as I was dozing in and out of consciousness in front of a Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode, the answer to my conundrum came to me fast and furious.  Such a straightforward solution, I thought.  I could encapsulate everything I wanted to say simply and succinctly.  Now, part of me would love to share my thoughts with you but, on the other hand, there should be missives that are sacrosanct between a husband and a wife.  Besides, she still needs to proofread this post so I don’t want to give anything away ahead of time.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Recognizing Students - Entry #34

This month I have come full circle in my Writing Project.  The genesis for this yearlong effort began with students at my campus.  Last May 2012, as the spring semester was ending, I wanted to personally thank the undergraduates working in our student services suite so I handwrote thank you notes to each of them.  That got me thinking about the process of writing and sending out handcrafted correspondence.  One thing led to another and, voila, The Writing Project was born.  Fast forward one year later and a number of the recipients for the cards I have (and will) send out this month are also current students at UConn Waterbury.  Instead of student employees I am targeting recently elected student government officers, campus leaders, and individuals that have increased their grades enough to remove themselves from academic probation.  Start with students.  End with students.

Besides the symmetry this represents, and maybe a subtle encouragement for the undergraduates to think about writing their own handwritten notes, I had specific reasons for writing to each group.  For example, I wanted the student leaders to know that their efforts, especially at a commuter campus, are vital to help build some semblance of community.  Commuter students have so many commitments tugging at them in all different directions—work, family life, and school.  Those individuals that carve out a portion of their time to lead a club or organization deserve our attention.  This is what I wanted to relay to the student leaders.  For example, our Psychology Club organized a simple end-of-semester food drive.  In the past, similar activities have taken place with less than stellar results.  This time around the campus-wide collection was well-publicized, donations were dropped off on a regular basis and, most importantly, the non-perishable items were picked up and delivered to the food pantry.  Great job!  The administration does notice.

For the newly elected student government officers my message was the same as that to the other club leaders.  However, I wanted to convey a bit more.  These undergraduates provide year round programming to the study body—from the frivolous to the more educational.  Their commitment to bettering the campus, within their individual time constraints, is more substantial.  Sometimes we (the student services staff and campus hierarchy) might take their dedication and diligence for granted, not really acknowledging their efforts and how it improves the quality of life on campus.  I wanted my cards to let the incoming officers, all who had been involved in student government previously, know we do take notice, we greatly appreciate all your efforts, and we thank you.

The last group of students I will write to before the Writing Project concludes are those undergraduates that, having been on academic probation, have pulled themselves up academically to now be in good standing.  In other words, their grades improved enough where dismissal from the University is no longer a dark cloud hanging over their heads.   During each semester I get together regularly with individuals on academic probation.  From the start, I tell them if they work hard and consistently meet with me every few weeks the odds of them doing well increases dramatically.  Throughout each term a large percentage of the students that heed my advice see the fruits of their labor.  It all culminates when final grades are recorded to reveal a satisfactory (or higher) semester grade point average.  My note to these students will express my congratulations for their improved grades, for their dedication to their studies, and to a brighter future.  In essence, I am hoping my card is the final confidence booster so when the following semester begins these students can now fly on their own. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A March to the Finish Line - Entry #33

I can’t believe there are less then 30 more notes and letters to write.  It seems like yesterday I set out on this road of discovery to craft a card a day for one year.  One year!  Three Hundred sixty-five days!  When I step back, browse my spreadsheet (yes, I have a record of everyone I’ve written to) it is hard to comprehend the end is so near.  When I began on May 25, 2012 I had two huge concerns.  First, would I have the discipline and perseverance to see the project through to its conclusion?  Was my pronouncement via cyberspace more bravado then reality?  Second, could I actually come up with the set goal of individuals and/or couples to send a piece of correspondence to during this timeframe?   I knew there would be a robust pool of people to draw on for my cards--real world friends, colleagues, family members, students, Facebook connections, and almost 2,000 Twitter followers.  Factor in casual acquaintances and individuals I may not even know and the $64,000 question was would all of this add up to the magic number of 365?

The answer to the first question has been yes, with an asterisk.  As I stated in an earlier post (blog entry #23) the daily writing requirement has been more of a plus/minus three.  Translation—I may be between three days ahead of schedule or three days behind.  So while the majority of my notes or letters are written daily, I have built in some wiggle room.  This has served me well during absences from home and office, vacations, or the occasional malaise I feel as I veg out in front of the television after a long, hard day on the job.

The next question, in a way, answers itself since I am over 93% complete with my undertaking.  Still, as I race to the finish line I worry.  The remaining names in my little black book have almost all been crossed off.  As of this moment in time I will admit I do not have all the remaining names figured out, mainly to give me some leeway with the final selections.  However, I will not write to just anyone just for the sake of getting to my critical number--“oh, meter maid thank you for giving me that parking ticket.  I was a bad boy and deserved it.  You are a credit to your profession;” or “grocery bagger I admire the way you group produce in one bag and frozen food in another.  You are artistry in motion.”   A secondary question is more important--will I complete my project and realize, after-the-fact, that I inadvertently left someone off that I wanted to include?  I’ve had a few fitful nights’ rest as this thought ricochets through my mind.  While many of the individuals that are on the receiving end of one of my missives know of The Project, the vast majority are unaware of this venture.  This should preclude a clamoring horde sobbing at my door if someone doesn’t receive one of my personalized notes.  If that does occur I guess I could just prolong my task.  Or not.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Note to Dad - Entry #32

I wrote to my father last week.  He has been a constant cheerleader for my year-long Writing Project.  He has provided me with many artsy notecards, most with pictures of his collage art on the front, to use for my endeavor.  The other day he informed me he had picked up the book, 365 Thank You’s, by John Kralik, which was part of the inspiration for this undertaking, so he could become more attuned to what I was actually doing.  I wanted him to know that I truly appreciated his continual support, especially as this whole enterprise comes to a close. 

I also wrote how his encouragement and advocacy for the Writing Project came as no surprise.  Through all the formative stages of my life—the events and milestones; the good, the bad, and the ugly—he and my mother (who passed away many years ago) have been there for me. It wasn’t so much that Stu could do no wrong.  Their philosophy was more give Stu enough slack to explore, make mistakes, or reach out in different directions.  I have been very fortunate to have parents that provided such support and optimism over the years.  An election during my college years demonstrated this viewpoint.  I was one of two nominees for the Station Manager of the university radio station.  I had been involved in many facets of the station—news department, dj, community programming—for three years.  By all accounts I was the most qualified for the position.  However, the governing board of the station, which selected the new head of the radio station, was overly comprised of the other candidate’s buddies.  He was chosen.  I was devastated and, literally, did not leave my residence hall room for days (years later at a school reunion get-together that other person confided in me that I more qualified then him and should have won).  I remember my father calling me on the hallway pay phone trying to cheer me up.  He stated something about character building and how the experience was just one of life’s lessons.  I would even learn from this defeat. Yeah.  I don’t think I really listened.  I wasn’t much in the mood.   

Looking back, he was taking the negative and trying to put a positive spin on the crushing defeat (does it seem like I am still bitter all these decades later?).  He was supporting me, urging me to carry on with my pursuits and interests just as he has done these past 11 months with the Writing Project.  My number one booster.  Thanks, Dad.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

"and Jane" - Entry #31

It is the end of March and I have surpassed the ten-month mark of the Writing Project.  I have written to professional colleagues, family members, neighbors on the street, both full-time and part-time campus faculty, undergraduates enrolled at the University, complete strangers, and close friends.  For every piece of correspondence, I have signed my name alone.  Makes sense, doesn’t it?  This self-crafted assignment relies on my motivation to fashion the notes and letters I send and my decision-making authority on who receives them.  I don’t consult anyone for ideas and thoughts.  I have some type of mental list of would-be recipients, but part of the fun of the Writing Project is the spur of the moment choice or someone I have just met, even for a fleeting moment.  I sit at my office desk in the early morning or at the kitchen table at night and decide, write, address, seal, and stamp the day’s output.

While the aforementioned description is accurate I have recently made one slight variation, courtesy of my wife.  When I have written to friends or couples we both know, socialize with, or have some sort of relationship with I have signed my name and my name alone.  Again, this is my pet project.  I may tell her who I am sending a note to or I may not.  It’s not because I’m trying to be secretive or mysterious.  I’m not hiding anything.  My sole thought is I am the one writing so I am the one signing.  Simple logic.  Well, that hasn’t always gone over too favorably.  It seems that, for example, when I sent a note to a close friend in the hospital he told his wife about the correspondence.  Naturally.  The next time his wife spoke to my better half she brought up “The Note.”   This would be the note my wife knew nothing about.  The result—there was a talking.  She talked.  I listened.  A few weeks later I mailed a condolence card to a long-time friend simply signing “Stu.”  Oops.  Another chat between the two wives, which begat another one of those “talks.”  

I silently vowed to myself not to make the same mistake for a third time.  The growl of a baseball umpire reverberated in my head, “Strike three! You are outta here!”  Earlier this month my extended family gathered in Arlington, Virginia for a niece’s Bat Mitzvah.  There were relatives I had not seen for a long time and other people my wife and I met during the weekend’s festivities.  Upon returning home I had a week’s worth of folks to send correspondence.  Even though I ferreted out previously unknown addresses and wrote all the notes I made sure each one ended with “and Jane.” 

The Writing Project is still under my guidance and leadership.  The only difference is I have evolved a bit, undergone a slight metamorphosis, and experienced a modicum of maturation to incorporate a minor variation for a fraction of the notes and letters I mail out.  To paraphrase the humorist, Franklin P. Jones, the experience I gleaned from my mistake has ensured me I wouldn’t make it again.