Meet Laura Brown, author of the newly published book, How to Write Anything, which is a guide to exactly that. From composing everything from a research paper to a recipe, it’s a necessary addition to any proper writing desk. Here, the well-seasoned writing instructor of more than 25 years talks to us about pen pal-ing with Shakespeare, fountain pens and a truly memorable A-.
When did your interest in writing begin?
It started when I was small. I wrote little stories when I was a child, and then when I started having to write at school, I found I really enjoyed it. I was lucky to have some truly inspirational teachers who encouraged me, partly by giving wonderful assignments where we could stretch our wings as writers. I’ve always felt a kind of flow with writing, being in the zone, and that’s very pleasant.
How did the idea of How To Write Anything come about? What was the most challenging chapter to write?
For years I had been seeing books of model letters for sale that were painfully outdated and basically useless. I wanted to create a guide that reflects all the different writing we actually do day-to-day and that empowers people to write in their own natural voices, while still incorporating the basics of good, clear writing.
The most challenging sections for me to write were the ones on science writing for school. I had to do a lot of research to be sure I was getting those right. Another difficult one was the section on e-mails for work. I had opinions of my own, but I also surveyed a lot of associates on their preferences and best practices to make the entry as useful as possible.
What is your favorite step in the process of written correspondence?
Assembling and preparing the materials. I love picking out the right paper or cards, making sure my fountain pen is clean and ready, and choosing the ink I want to use. I feel as though the care I put into the process reflects my regard for the people I’m writing to. It’s a way of saying “you matter to me.”
If you could be pen pals with anyone in history, to whom would you write and what would you say?
Shakespeare, and I would mainly listen. I would hope to learn about his writing process. I suppose that sounds silly, but I’m fascinated by the creative process. I read Shakespeare a lot, and I always wonder “how?”
To whom do you most often write?
To my friend Gail, who lives in the UK and works at Oxford University. We’ve been friends since we were seven years old. She moved away when we were 13, and we began a correspondence then. We’ve lived close together and far apart a few different times during our lives, and we’ve always written letters when we’ve been separated. I still have some of her notes on groovy notepaper from the early 70s.
Describe the most memorable letter or postcard you have ever received.
It was just a little postcard notifying me of my final grade in a class, at the end of my senior year at UCLA. I had taken a Shakespeare seminar from a professor who was a notoriously hard grader, and I worked super hard. He gave me an A-, and underneath the grade he wrote “well done.” It was a small thing, but it meant a lot to me. I was headed for graduate school, and that little note felt like an affirmation that I was on the right track. I can actually still remember where I was, who I was with, and how the sun was shining through the window when I received the card.
What makes a particular letter stand out from a stack of cards?
An unusual size envelope always catches my eye. I’m especially drawn to smaller-than-standard sizes—little square-ish envelopes. A pop of color is also very attractive. And I think fine-quality paper always stands out from the crowd, regardless of size or color.
Do you have a favorite stamp or stamp series?
I love the Chinese New Year stamps the Post Office creates every year. It’s fun to see what design they’ll come up with, and the art is always very beautiful. I have some saved from past years—some with oranges and some with beautiful narcissus on a red background. I always buy sheets and sheets of them and use them all year long.
What makes your correspondence distinct?
I write in fountain pen, which requires some care and high quality paper. I don’t naturally have beautiful handwriting, and writing with a fountain pen makes me respect the process more and slow down a little. I think the result is prettier writing and more carefully formed thoughts.
What do you think classic correspondence will look like in a decade or two?
Probably very similar to the way it looks now. There will always be people who appreciate fine paper and want to participate in the tradition. In fact, I think we’re seeing a bit of a rebound to the traditional forms as some people burn out on e-writing and on doing everything insanely fast. As time goes on and technologies improve, I expect more recycled materials might be incorporated into fine paper in new and creative ways.
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